For those who are anxious for book six, here's the first chapter. Keep in mind this is an advanced copy, meaning it might be a little rough. And don't read it if you haven't read book five yet!
In Sandoval Orbit
Delta Leonis IV
Erik Cain’s mind drifted hazily as he stared through the observation portal into the deep blackness of the Delta Leonis system. He found the endless void hypnotic, soothing…the quiet peacefulness beckoning, drawing him in.
Peace, he thought…is there really such a thing? Cain could hardly remember feeling at peace. Perhaps when he was a young boy, before his family was cast out of the relative comfort and safety of the Midtown Protected Zone into the violent ghettoes of lower class New York. But that was a distant memory now, almost a dream. And he had a lifetime of reality that argued peace was a fool’s fantasy.
He scowled derisively, chiding himself for his self-indulgence. You’re not even a fit creature for peace, he thought grimly…all you are good for is war. And Cain was certainly good for war, even he had to acknowledge that. He’d survived countless desperate battles and led his Marines to victory after victory. He’d longed for peace once, but no longer. Peace was for dreamers, and Erik Cain was nothing if not a realist.
He’d fought the greatest battle of his career on the planet below, and he’d decisively defeated the invasion forces of the First Imperium. In the aftermath of his triumph, he’d been hailed as a hero, and so far he’d managed to remain gracious as unwanted congratulations and rewards were heaped on his shoulders. There was no joy for Cain, however, no elation at the victory. A battle was over, that was true. But he knew the war was far from finished…and he was well aware the frightful price his people had paid already was just a down payment on what it would cost to win. If winning was even possible.
He sighed as he looked out into the depths, wondering what awaited his brethren and him lightyears away, beyond the furthest reaches of man’s explorations. Humanity had come to consider the universe its own private dominion, and the events of the past few years had come as a rude awakening. There were others out among those stars, that was now an established fact…and they’d gotten there first, long before man ventured off his native world. Even if the Alliance and its new allies managed to survive this fight, the universe would never be the same again. It had become a darker place…dangerous, foreboding. The hope for the future that had driven the early settlers had transformed, morphed into concern. Into fear.
He’d begged Holm to spare him another round of pointless decorations, but it turned out to be easier to defeat the enemy than to escape the glittering prizes that followed the victory. It had been years since Cain had considered a medal anything but a burden, a constant reminder that his glory had been bought with the blood of his men and women. But he knew Holm was just as powerless to stop the accolades, and he smiled and acted grateful for the awards, even as he forced the bile back down his throat.
Buckets of that blood – the blood of his Marines - had been spilled on Sandoval. First Army had lost over 30,000 dead, a toll that still seemed somehow unreal to Cain. He’d come up during a time of massive change in how war in space was waged. His first drop had been part of an operation with a few hundred combatants, with a captain in charge of the whole thing. On Sandoval he’d had over a hundred thousand troops, supported by tanks, artillery, and aircraft…not to mention a roomful of generals to command it all. As always, he thought, man’s most noteworthy achievements were in the waging of war. We’re very good at killing each other, he thought…at least for once that skill has proven truly useful. This time men weren’t fighting each other, they were united against a common enemy. Cain had expected that to make a difference, and it had…to a point. But his Marines – and their allies – were just as dead.
Still, this war was different from the others he’d fought. It felt more righteous, more honorable. His Marines and their allies were standing between humanity and a ruthless alien enemy bent on genocide. Mankind, always so prepared to resort to violence to solve any problem, hadn’t started this conflict. For once, humanity was an innocent victim, standing before a hostile universe struggling to survive. The fatigue, the exhaustion, the grief at the losses…it was the same as his other wars. But that wasn’t the whole story this time. If man was going face extinction, Cain was going to be on the front lines, standing before the enemy and unleashing hell. As grimly as he’d come to think of humanity’s future, he’d be damned if some ancient alien race was going to come in and wipe it out.
The war was different in another way. There were more than friends in the line with Cain and his Marines; there were old adversaries too. Fighting alongside former enemies had been difficult at first, but the Janissaries and other contingents of the Grand Pact had proven themselves to be quite similar to his own Marines. Perhaps not as skilled, save for the Janissaries, but driven by many of the same motivations nevertheless. They’d died in the line, fighting alongside his Marines…that much he knew for certain. He wasn’t sure he needed to know anything more.
“I knew I’d find you here.”
Cain turned, abruptly at first, as combat reflexes responded faster than recognition. He stood at attention and started to snap off a salute, but his visitor waved him off almost immediately.
“Forget the ceremony, Erik. I just wanted to have a quick word with you.” Elias Holm was the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Cain’s direct commander. His only senior, at least in the ground forces of the Alliance. Admiral Garret was unofficially considered the commander-in-chief of the Alliance’s military and, with the formation of the Grand Pact, he had been officially named supreme military commander of the overall multinational force.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Cain motioned toward a bank of chairs, but Holm shook his head and walked up next to Cain.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” Holm stood looking out into the velvety blackness, pinpricked with stars. “I can see why you find it relaxing to come here.”
“It’s an illusion, sir.” There was exhaustion in Cain’s voice, deep down somewhere. It would have been hidden to most people, but not to Holm.
“We’ll see, Erik.” Holm put his hand on his younger companion’s shoulder. “If we can win this war, things will be different. It won’t be so easy for the governments to go back to their old ways.”
Cain was silent for a few seconds. Finally, he croaked out a soft, “Maybe.” Holm was more of an optimist than Cain; he was far likelier to look into the future and see hope. Cain considered himself a realist, though he was pessimistic about most things. But in spite of himself, he believed in more than he sometimes realized. His Marines, certainly, and the spirit of the colonies, which to him represented man’s future. The fire of that hope had waned a bit, and Cain wondered if the colonies would manage to avoid the deadening hand of the Earth governments…and even if they did, as they grew, would they escape the home world’s fate?
“I’ll take a maybe out of you, since it’s the best I’m likely to get.” Holm knew Cain better than anyone, but he still had a frustratingly incomplete picture of his protégé’s thoughts and motivations. Erik Cain was an odd duck, no doubt. A loner at heart, he could step into a command and lead thousands into battle. He loved his Marines, sparing no effort to see to their needs and mourning them bitterly when they were lost…yet he ruthlessly expended them in battle, doing whatever was necessary to win.
“It is. Sir.” Cain let a tiny smile creep onto his lips. He’d been a fairly cheerful sort as an enlisted man, but he’d taken the burdens of command to heart and, over the years, the responsibility had worn on him greatly. He wondered sometimes if his younger self would recognize the grim creature he’d become.
“Well, that’ll do.” Holm’s lips bore a passing smile as well. “Because that’s not why I’m here.” His voice became darker, more serious.
“I figured it wasn’t all fun and games.” Cain’s tone had returned to its usual cold emotionlessness. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Admiral Garret and I are going to Earth.”
“My sympathies, sir.” Cain had no particular love for the world of his birth.
Holm stifled a laugh. “I’m not looking forward to it any more than you would, Erik, but there’s no alternative.” The concern was heavy in Holm’s voice; all traces of his earlier cheerfulness were gone. “The governments want to refortify the Line, and stand on the defensive. They think it’s too risky to invade enemy space.”
Cain sighed softly. “I can’t say I’m surprised, sir.” There was more than a little disgust in his voice. “They use up all their courage grinding helpless Cogs into the ground. Why should we expect them to have any left to face the real enemy?”
Holm turned to face Cain. “That may be true, Erik, but whatever their motivations, we need to change their minds. We can’t exactly launch an operation like this without Earth support.” His eyes bored into Cain’s. “You know that.”
Cain remained silent for a moment, turning to stare back out into space. “Yes,” he finally said. “I know that.” He sounded like he’d bitten into something sour.
“And you know we have to take the war to the enemy?” It was half statement, half question.
“Yes.” Cain’s response was immediate this time, his voice firm with resolution. “We have to invade the First Imperium.” He turned back toward Holm. “You and I both know we can’t win a war of attrition against a race with the capabilities of the enemy.” He took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “We have to attack them, hurt them somehow or find some weakness we haven’t seen yet.” He paused again, just for a few seconds. “Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before they wear us down. Then it will just be a question of mopping up occupied space.” He stared at Holm, not a trace of emotion in his voice. “And that will be the end.”
“I wasn’t going to put it quite that way.” Holm almost smiled. He’d known Cain would manage to put a darker cast on things than he had, and his protégé hadn’t disappointed. Still, he knew the younger officer was correct. The First Imperium was clearly determined to wipe out mankind and, so far, every attempt at communication had been rebuffed. Standing on the defensive was a fool’s game, a ludicrous bet that the enemy couldn’t mount an even stronger attack.
“But you’re right. The entire high command agrees…Garret, Compton, Gilson, Ali Khaled. Even old An Ying.” The CAC commander-in-chief was notoriously conservative, having come to power in the aftermath of the disastrous Third Frontier War. Cain was a little surprised the old man had enough clarity of thought to come to that conclusion. Not to mention the courage to state it openly. Gambles and aggressive action were not generally conducive to success – or survival – in the CAC’s rigidly statist regime.
“What do you want me to do, sir?” Cain managed a brief smile. “You don’t expect me to convince any politicians of anything, do you?”
Holm let out a small laugh. “No, Erik. I’m not that senile yet. But I do need you now.” The amused tone fell quickly from his voice – he was all business now. “I need you to organize the ground forces, get them ready for the invasion. If we get the go ahead, we want to be ready as soon as possible. If we give the enemy time, they’ll be back, and we’ll be on the defensive again.”
“You want me to get 1st Army ready?” Cain’s voice was confident. “I’ve already got that underway, sir. I can assure you that we’ll be ready to go whenev…”
“Not 1st Army, Erik.” Holm looked right into Cain’s eyes. “The ground forces of the Grand Pact. All of them.”
Cain stared back, the shock evident on his face. “Sir…” For once, Erik Cain didn’t know what to say. “I’m, ah…honored. But I don’t have that kind of authority, general.”
“You do now, Erik.” Holm spoke slowly, firmly. “Ali Khaled and An Ying have already agreed. In my absence, you are the acting ground forces commander of the Grand Pact.”
Cain looked at Holm, stunned. For a moment it was totally quiet on the observation deck, save for the background hum endemic to space ships. Finally, Holm broke the silence. “Erik, you have my complete confidence. You know that.”
“Yes, general.” Cain spoke slowly, haltingly. “But…”
“No buts, Erik.” Holm tightened his grip on Cain’s shoulder. “That heavy rep you’ve been building all these years has finally paid off. It wasn’t even hard to convince everyone.” He took a quick breath. “And I need you, Erik. There’s no one else I trust to handle things. If we get the authorization for the invasion, Garret and I want everything ready to go as soon as we get back.”
Cain’s expression betrayed serious doubts, but he’d never refused General Holm before, and he wasn’t about to start now. “Yes, sir.” He sighed softly. “I’ll do it. You can count on me.”
“I knew that before I walked in here, Erik.” Holm smiled warmly. “I’ve known it for years.”
Cain returned the smile. And you’ve been using it for years, too, he thought amusedly…just as I do with those I command. “I’ll need carte blanche on logistics. We’re still struggling to re-equip from the Line battles, and if we’re going to launch an invasion, we’re going to need even more supply.”
“You have it.” Holm cleared his throat. “The Earth governments are scared to death…they’ll supply anything at all if it’s humanly possible to do it.” A brief pause. “What do you want most? Besides basic ordnance and supplies, I mean. More Obliterators?”
Cain thought for a few seconds before answering. “Aside from plenty of nukes, yes. More Obliterators.” He paused a few seconds and added, “I’d take some tanks too, especially now that Isaac Merrick’s figured out how to put them to really good use.” He hesitated again, more briefly this time. “Though I doubt we’ll be able to pack many MBTs on an invasion fleet.”
Holm nodded. “Yes, you certainly made heavy use of your nuclear ordnance. I haven’t checked, but I suspect you used more nuclear weapons than any commander in history…including during the Unification Wars.”
“Escalation is in our favor, especially on the ground.” There was a touch of defensiveness in Cain’s voice. “Their conventional ordnance is superior to ours, but nukes are nukes. It’s an equalizing factor.”
“Relax, Erik.” Holm was trying hard to suppress a laugh. “You crushed the enemy down there. No one’s questioning your tactics.” Holm was still trying to hide his amusement, not terribly successfully. “Let an old general have his fun once in a while.”
Cain smiled weakly. “Sorry, sir.” He’d been sensitive about the number of nuclear weapons his forces had used. The combatants on Sandoval had taken a virtual paradise and reduced it to a radioactive hell. Cain couldn’t even imagine the long-term effects on the weather or how many decades – centuries? – it would be before the planet was a fit place to live again. Over a million people had called Sandoval home. Now they were refugees who’d lost everything. Homes, businesses, jobs. Cain thought mostly of his Marines, the thousands dead and wounded. But he knew the civilians paid a price too.
“And you’re right…we’re not going to be shipping many MBTs beyond the Rim. The Obliterators are a different story though. They give us more firepower per ton than the tanks do…by a multiple of four or five.”
“I’ll take as many as I can get, general. General Sparks told me he thought he could have at least 3,000 ready to go before we can leave.” Cain paused then added, “And I’d like to put Erin McDaniels in command of the whole group. I know it’s a big bump for her, but no one has more experience with the Obliterators.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Erik.” He was nodding as he spoke. “That’s a brigadier’s billet as least.” He paused, thinking. “I’ll approve the promotion before I leave.” Another pause. “But you’ll be able to sign off on any commissions while I’m gone.”
“Thank you, sir.” Cain’s expression changed, a mask of worry creeping onto his face. “Do you think you’ll be able to handle the Earth governments, sir?” He sighed. “Because the only way we’re going to win this war is to attack.”
Holm inhaled deeply as Cain finished. “I really don’t know, Erik.” He knew Cain tended to be overly aggressive, but in this instance he agreed completely. God only knew how vast the First Imperium was…how much force it could deploy given time. They’d beaten back one invasion; that was true. But the next one could be ten times the size…a hundred times. “They’re scared to death back on Earth, and they aren’t used to listening to us.”
Cain turned back toward the observation portal, his expression grim. He was silent, but Holm knew what he was thinking. No one trusted the Earth governments less than Erik Cain.
“Erik…” Holm put his hand on Cain’s shoulder again. “…I need you to move full bore getting ready for this invasion.” His eyes locked on Cain’s. “Because Garret and Ali Khaled and I already agreed…” He paused, and his voice became a whisper. “…we’re going to do our best to convince the Earth governments to go along. But we’re going to invade anyway, with whatever resources we can muster on our own. If the Earth authorities don’t like it…” He smiled grimly. “…they can go fuck themselves.”