Sunday, April 6, 2014

Crimson Worlds VIII: Even Legends Die

Crimson Worlds VIII will be out at the end of the month.  I published a sneak preview of chapter one a few weeks ago.  Here is chapter two (I'll post the third chapter next week).


Chapter 2


 

Saw Tooth Gorge

Red Mountains

Northern Territories, Far Concordia

Arcadia – Wolf 359 III


“Let’s go.  I want the first column moving out in ten minutes.”  Kara’s voice was raw, determined.  She glared at her second in command, a cold determination behind her sparkling blue eyes.  “No arguments, Ed.  Ten minutes.”

Calvin opened his mouth to argue, but he closed it again without speaking.  “Whatever you say, Kara,” he muttered grudgingly.  He turned and walked away, still limping from his injuries and waving his arms as he shouted out commands along the way.

Kara watched him go.  She knew he didn’t agree with her decision, but he’d go along with it…she was sure of that much.  Even Captain Mandrake thought she was jumping the gun.  The Marine officer had agreed with Ed, advising her to wait until more information was available.  But she didn’t need to wait.  She knew they were coming.  She knew.

It had been just over an Arcadian month since Admiral Garret’s fleet had burst into the system, driving away the enemy naval contingent and landing a Marine expeditionary force on the planet.  The navy also made contact with Kara’s Arcadian army and resupplied her.  They replaced the planet’s destroyed satellite grid too, and for the first time, she and her refugees understood why the enemy had never committed the strength to wipe them out once and for all.  They’d been fighting another Marine force all along.

James Teller and his Marines had landed shortly after the native army was driven deep into the Arcadian wilderness, and the enemy had been compelled to pull forces from the pursuit to face the new threat.  With the planet’s satellite network destroyed and all ground-based communication severed, Kara and her soldiers were completely cut off from their Marine allies, entirely unaware they weren’t fighting their battle alone.

Teller’s Marines were massively outnumbered from the beginning; they’d never had a real chance to liberate the planet.  But they fought hard and held out, week after week, just as Kara’s people were doing in the mountains.  Teller was just about at the end of his resources when the fleet blasted into the system and landed General Holm and his old vets, armed to the teeth and looking for a fight.

The fleet was gone now, off pursuing the enemy naval forces, but the ground troops remained.  The Marines were still heavily outnumbered, but now they had fresh reserves and a complete resupply…and with it the ability to hold out for a while longer.  Perhaps a long while.

For a month that is just what both forces had done.  The enemy controlled Arcadia City and most of the developed areas, but the Marines and the native forces remained in the field…and as long as they did, the fight would go on.  In the occupied cities, opposition was growing.  Scattered acts of sabotage were morphing into organized resistance movements, tying down ever larger numbers of the invaders to maintain control of the areas they occupied.  Kara and her commanders had even been considering staging a breakout from their positions, taking the fight to the enemy.  Then the signal came.

It was brief, spotty.  A fleeting alarm from the warp gate scanner, lasting only a few seconds before the thing stopped transmitting entirely.  Something had transited through the gate…that much was certain.  But what?  Her people had argued ever since, and multiple theories were bouncing around.  Was it a malfunction?  Could it be friendly ships inbound…reinforcements?  The arguments went on all night, but Kara just sat silently.  She had no doubts.  She knew it was the enemy.

She let them argue all evening, but her mind was made up.  Enemy reinforcements were coming, and when they landed, their adversaries would have overpowering strength.  The waiting game was over…standing in place and playing for time was a losing strategy.  In a few days the enemy would be here.  They’d destroy the satellite network Garret had left, cutting Kara’s army off again from the Marines thousands of kilometers away.  Then they would land fresh troops and hunt down the Marines, her people, the nascent rebel movements…anyone left in arms on Arcadia.

But if they wanted her world, she resolved that they would have to take it from her.  They would have to follow her forces into hell itself.  The Army of Arcadia was moving out.  She’d considered attacking the troops masking her position, hitting them before they were reinforced.  It was a tempting idea, but the mathematics hadn’t changed.  Attacking across the gorge between the armies was suicidal, at least without overwhelming superiority that neither side yet possessed.

No, her people wouldn’t be moving south into the teeth of the enemy.  They would be marching north, cutting across the planet’s brutal arctic region and out into the largely unexplored wilderness beyond.  If they made it far enough, through the bitter cold and titanic storms of the arctic and across the virtually uncharted areas beyond, they’d force the enemy to divert massive forces to pursue them.  Eventually, they’d hunt her down, but she would buy time.

They thought she was crazy…all of them.  The army would suffer enormous hardships on so difficult a march.  Calvin had argued for caution.  Mandrake agreed.  The Marine captain’s platoon was fully-armored, and his 50 men and women would be zipped up, protected from the brutality of Arcadia’s savage arctic winter.  But the native forces had no powered armor.  Her troops would march through waist-deep snow and frigid temperatures.  They would traverse icy mountain passes and make their way across the frozen sea.  At night they would huddle in their portable shelters, absorbing whatever warmth their heaters and field generators could produce.

She would lose people; she knew that.  Dozens would die on the march…maybe hundreds.  But as long as she kept her force in the field, the Arcadian cause would endure.  And that was all that mattered.  She wouldn’t let Will’s army die, no matter what the cost…no matter how many of the dedicated men and women who formed its ranks froze in the arctic wilderness or died under the guns of their enemies.  As long as the army itself survived, the cause remained alive and, in a way, Will’s spirit did too.

 

“I’d kill for some decent ground defenses.”  Elias Holm was pacing back and forth in his makeshift HQ, his armored boots scraping along the gravely floor.  There was a small table in the center of the room, a shabby makeshift construction put together mostly from scrap metal.  It wasn’t very plush for the office of the Commandant, but the Marine expeditionary force on Arcadia had to make do with what it could get.  Elias Holm had led the largest forces the Corps ever deployed, tens of thousands of crack Marines, supported by Admiral Garret’s massive fleets.  But that was another time, one that felt very long ago.  Most of those veterans were gone now, lost over the years as the Corps faced one savage battle after another.  Now Holm led less than 2,000 Marines, half of them battered and exhausted from weeks of fighting against overwhelming odds and the rest a hastily-assembled force of retirees, called back to the flag decades after their service had ended.  It wasn’t even a tithe of the strength he’d once had at his disposal, just a tattered remnant of one of the greatest fighting forces mankind had ever put into the field.

Holm hadn’t given it a second thought.  He didn’t miss luxuries…he didn’t need a huge headquarters or a cluster of aides following him around.  He was on the front lines again, giving all he had to a desperate battle.  He felt alive, in a way he hadn’t for a long time.  This is where a general should be, he thought…not behind some desk echelons above the actual fighting.  His mind drifted back through the years, from one world to another…to the planet Columbia, where Colonel Holm and his Marines had held that crucial world against an overwhelming CAC invasion force so many years ago.  It was a situation similar to the current one, though he faced far longer odds now than he had then.

It was Columbia that earned Holm his stars, in a battle where he first met then-Sergeant Erik Cain.  It was a desperate struggle, waged at the nadir of the Alliance’s fortunes in the war…and the victory was the start of the turning point.

“We might as well just sit here and let them land.”  Holm’s voice was grim, lifeless.  “It’s not like we can do anything about it.  Throw rocks maybe.”

“It’s not as bad as all that, Elias.”  Sam Thomas was sitting on the end of the table, looking up at Holm’s agitated expression.  “We’ve got a good supply of the handhelds.  We’ll take out a decent number of landers if they come down anywhere near our positions.”  Thomas knew it wasn’t really the lack of ground-to-air defenses bothering Holm.  It didn’t matter how many enemy landers they managed to shoot down.  The Marine forces on Arcadia were hopelessly outnumbered already…any enemy reinforcements that made it to the surface were too many.

Holm glanced back at Thomas and felt a sudden pang of guilt.  He’d gone to Tranquility…he’d rallied the old veterans and led them here.  Had he done it just to drag them to Arcadia to die?  To prolong a pointless defense a month or two and change nothing?  Was that all their lives were worth…all they’d earned after lifetimes of service?  To die for a purpose was one thing, but to waste your life for nothing?

“God damn, you’ve turned into a gloomy SOB, Elias.”  Thomas slapped his armored hand down on the metal table.  He knew exactly what Holm was thinking.  He could read it in his friend’s eyes.  “Stop wallowing in guilt, my old friend.  Every man and woman who came with us did so because they chose to …and I wager not one of them would change his or her mind now.  Not if a million enemy troops land on this God forsaken planet.”  Thomas sighed before he continued.  “I’m older than you, Elias, but I never had the weight on my shoulders you’ve borne these last ten years.  I knew you had a bright future back in the day, but you’ve gone beyond anything I imagined.  You remember…when I talked you out of resigning after that debacle on Persis?  But my God…Commandant!”  Thomas’ eyes stared out of his open helmet, locking on Holm’s.  “I’m damned proud of you, kid.”  He paused a few seconds, his eyes focusing briefly on the wisps of mostly-gray hair visible inside Holm’s helmet.  “And you’re running out of people who can call you ‘kid’ so enjoy it while you still can.”

Holm smiled.  “You better be careful.  People hear you talking like that you’re gonna lose your rep as a crusty old grouch.”  Holm walked back to the desk and sat down, looking back into the older man’s eyes as he did.  “Thanks, Sam,” he added softly, following it with a gentle nod.

Thomas returned the gesture.  “So,” he added after a few seconds of silence, “I guess we should get back to how we’re going to deal with these uninvited guests.  Don’t you think?”

Holm nodded and looked down at the large ‘pad sitting on the desk.  “Well…” – he paused as he stared at the map – “…if I were them, I’d bring my main force down right here…”

 

It was time.  Time for the vengeance he had so long been denied.  At last, he would put an end to those meddlesome Marines.  They had interfered with his plans for the last time.

Gavin Stark sat quietly, looking at the hazy blue disk of Arcadia displayed on his screen.  In a few minutes his forces would begin landing, reinforcing the troops already deployed on the surface.  His Shadow Legions were the equal of the Marines, at least nearly so.  They had the same training, equipment, doctrine.  Perhaps, he allowed, they were missing something the Marines had, a spirit, a pride passed to them from those who had come before.  But they were close enough, and their numbers would tell, making up for any minor quality gap.  And they were his, conditioned to follow orders without question, utterly loyal, from the lowliest private to the highest-ranked general.  Nothing like the cantankerous Marines.  And now his soldiers would destroy those troublesome Marines on the surface…and Arcadia and its resources would become part of Stark’s new empire.

His plans had been in the works for years.  Indeed, he had intended to launch Shadow much sooner, but he’d had to postpone things when the First Imperium burst into human space and started a war.  A war of survival for mankind.  He’d even considered releasing the Shadow Legions at the nadir of that conflict and sending them against the invaders.  It would have destroyed his plans for his own dominance, but his clone armies would have done him no good if he was dead along with the rest of mankind at the hands of the robotic enemy.  But he’d kept his resolve, betting that the brilliant Augustus Garret would manage a victory somehow.  And his bet paid off.  Garret did win the war…and at a deliciously high cost.  Not only was the First Imperium out of the picture, but the Powers had all suffered crippling losses in the fight.  It would be all that much easier to sweep away the opposition.

Mankind would enter a new age…and leave behind its inefficient wars and the wasted productivity and needless destruction that came with them.  They would be unified, together, moving forward in lockstep under the absolute rule of one man.  Gavin Stark.

It had taken some fancy footwork to keep his secrets.  His schemes required enormous financial resources, and he’d met the need by turning the Alliance economy into one giant illusion…a juggling act that was impossible to maintain indefinitely.  It had taken no small part of his undeniable genius to keep shuffling things around to maintain the secret…but he’d seen it done.  That charade would shatter any day now, and it would cast the world into economic chaos, a useful side effect of Project Shadow.

Yes, the First Imperium threatened his plans but, in the end, the ancient aliens had done him a favor.  The price the Powers had paid to win their victory served him well.  Stark had been worried about fighting the Marines on a dozen key colony worlds, but the Corps had been so decimated in the war they struggled to put significant forces on just two planets.  And even on Arcadia and Armstrong their forces were pathetic, inadequate.  His legions would sweep them away…and into the dustbin of history.

“Number One, Anderson-02 reporting.”  The comlink pulled him from his thoughts.  He’d ordered his staff to identify themselves by name and number in all communications.  He’d been assured they would all develop on their own paths after leaving the creche, as each faced a different set of experiences.  But he still found them to be relentlessly alike, even the ones who’d been out the longest.  The clones made dependable and capable soldiers, but they all sounded the same to him, even ones from different lines.  The cadence of their speech was the same, droning, with an unnatural monotone.

“Yes, what is it, general?”

“All systems are ready to go, sir.  Request permission to begin the landings.”  Anderson-2 was the highest ranking of all the clones, Anderson-1 having been expended in an earlier test.  Stark had insisted from the beginning of the project on using clones to fill his entire chain of command.  He’d seen enough treachery – he’d encouraged enough - to destroy his ability to trust any other officers.  Rafael Samuels was the only non-clone in his ground forces, and he was the one man in all of human space who could never defect to the other side.  Stark couldn’t imagine what the Marines would do to the greatest traitor in their history if he fell into their hands, but he knew the ex-Commandant had as much reason as he did to want the Marines destroyed.

Samuels was a temporary tool, anyway, far too untrustworthy to be allowed to survive the war.  He would serve his purpose, and then he would be eliminated.  Gavin Stark did not leave loose ends.

“Permission granted, general.”  Stark smiled grimly.  “By all means, let us begin the final act.”

He imagined a similar scene over Armstrong.  Erik Cain had managed to defend the Marine’s home base, somehow fighting the first invasion force to a standstill.  There was a stalemate there now, neither side strong enough to launch an offensive against the other.  But that was about to change.  The reinforcements should be landing on Armstrong any time now…and General Erik Cain would at last face his final battle.

Stark tried to keep his mind clear and focused, but the thought of Cain stirred a rage deep within him.  He hated the accursed Marine…detested him with a fiery passion only another psychopath truly could understand.  No one had interfered with his plans more disastrously than Erik Cain.  No one except for Augustus Garret.  And it had been Cain who rescued Garret from Stark’s clutches when the hated admiral had been his prisoner during the rebellions. 

The reserves he’d sent to Armstrong were more than enough to overwhelm the battered Marines defending the planet, but Stark wasn’t taking any chances.  Erik Cain was a tactician without equal, and the sooner he was gone the better.  He’d hoped to be rid of Cain already, a shot to the head or knife in the dark ridding him of his hated adversary.  But Alex still hadn’t done the job he sent her – twice – to do.  Fucking bitch, he thought, thinking bitterly of his former protégé.  Alex Linden was breathtakingly beautiful, and a sexual dynamo the likes of which he’d never experienced elsewhere.  But that’s no excuse for letting her get to you, he thought.  He’d never allowed a lay to get into his head…not until Alex.  He’d known he should have killed her when he had her captive…but instead he gave her another chance and sent her back to Armstrong to assassinate Cain.  It was a stupid, weak thing to do.  Stark wasn’t one who normally gave second chances, and it would be a long time before he gave another.

He would have the last laugh though.  He wasn’t about to let her get away with betraying him twice.  He had another assassin on Armstrong, one every bit as talented as sexy little Alex.  He already had his orders.  He wouldn’t falter as she had, distracted with emotional baggage and confused feelings.  He would carry out his orders to the letter, coldly, dispassionately.  He would assassinate Erik Cain.  And then he would kill Alex too.