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120 Kilometers East of Paris
French Zone, Europa Federalis
120 Kilometers East of Paris
French Zone, Europa Federalis
Hans Werner peered out over the trench at the blackened and shattered ground in front of his position. The stretch of rolling hills had once been covered with rich vineyards, but now it was a blasted hell where nothing lived. The civilians who had survived the initial battles had long since fled, and the ruin of war was everywhere.
Werner couldn’t see the Europan positions from where he stood, but he knew they were there, a mere 3 kilometers ahead, a network of trenches as formidable as his, hidden by the low ridgeline. He’d assaulted that defensive position three times. Each of his meticulously planned attacks drove through the enemy defenses, only to bog down and falter for lack of supplies and reinforcements. The enemy had thrown themselves at his line as well, and each time his carefully positioned batteries and autocannons shredded the advancing formations, sending them back in disarray.
The casualties along the stalemated line had been almost too many to count. Werner had lost two million men in just the last six months, and he was certain the Europans had suffered even greater casualties. The CEL forces had seemed unstoppable on their initial drive toward Paris, but then the RIC allied with Europa Federalis and invaded the CEL’s eastern provinces.
The Europan diplomatic victory was as effective as any battlefield success, and Werner lost almost a million men without a battle, legions of his veterans sent to the eastern front to meet the new threat. His supplies and reinforcements trickled to almost nothing as well, and he’d been compelled to halt his advance and reorganize. The CEL’s chance at a quick victory was lost, the victim of enemy diplomacy and the need to fight a 2-front war.
Werner had gained his fourth star during the early fighting along the Reims-Troyes Line, and he now commanded the four armies of 1st Army Group. He was the greatest hero of the war, at least in Europe, and the only CEL commander who had distinguished himself in the disastrous early battles. His steadfast defense along the southern edge of the front had likely saved the League from an ignominious defeat in the early months of the fighting, when the Europan forces surged forward shouting their battle cry, “Venger le sang de Marseille.”
The still-unnamed world war had begun in Europe, between Europa Federalis and the Central European League, ignited by the nuclear destruction of Marseilles, an act of terrorism in which the CEL still denied any involvement. Repeated statements to that effect from Neu-Brandenberg had fallen on deaf ears, and the Paris government repudiated the century-long prohibition against terrestrial warfare and launched a massive invasion of their hated neighbors. That war had been raging for a year now, and both Powers, already prostrate from the worldwide economic depression, were on the verge of total collapse.
The conflict may have started along the banks of the Rhine, but once open war broke out between Superpowers, the conflagration spread, and now there was fighting in every corner of the globe. The Tokyo-based Pacific Rim Coalition joined their longtime Western Alliance allies in the conflict with the Chinese-dominated Central Asian Combine. The Caliphate honored its treaty obligations to their CAC partners, and the Alliance and PRC were soon fighting their two greatest rivals. That struggle had raged across the seas, where the Alliance and PRC had been largely victorious, and in southern Asia and Africa, where the CAC-Caliphate armies had crushed most of their enemies.
The CAC and the Caliphate had won the diplomatic war as well, winning over both the RIC and the South American Empire as well as Europa Federalis. Hong Kong and New Medina had assembled their great power bloc with a combination of threats and promises, edging out the diplomats from Washbalt with the help of Li An and her C1 operatives.
The Russian-Indian offensive against the CEL had been the price of bringing Europa Federalis into their league, and now five of Earth’s Superpowers were aligned against the other three. Werner’s attentions had been focused primarily on the theater where he commanded, but he knew the effects of the wider war would trickle down and affect his own armies. Already, his forces had been stripped of manpower and resources to support the tenuous defensive lines on the eastern front. He knew that would only get worse, as the Russians continued to mobilize and pour more troops into the combat zone. Eventually, he realized, even the battered Europans would reorganize and launch their own offensive.
He stared down at the orders he held in his hand. He’d read them three times already, but he found his eyes panning across the small ‘pad again. He understood the reality behind the directive, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what he was reading. He was to launch an immediate offensive to take the Europan capital of Paris, and he was authorized to use unlimited tactical and intermediate ranged nuclear weapons against any military targets, without consideration to civilian casualties.
Both sides had used nukes in the war, but they had been targeted and sporadic. Werner’s orders called for a massive pre-attack bombardment, one that shattered the Europan defensive positions and their logistical centers behind the front. There would be millions of civilian casualties, no matter how carefully he targeted the strikes. He could only guess at the probable response, and how it would affect his advancing armies…and the rest of the world.
He felt a flush of anger toward the high command in Neu-Brandenburg, but he realized they had no choice. The CEL couldn’t fight the Europans and the RIC at the same time, and the Alliance wasn’t in a position to offer anything beyond minimal support. Taking out Europa Federalis was the only way the CEL could survive. If they knocked out their western enemy, they could consolidate their forces on the eastern front and hold out against the growing RIC pressure. It was a desperate plan, one he wanted to oppose. But he couldn’t think of an alternative.
“Come here, Major.” He shouted to his longtime aide.
Potsdorf had been with him since his days as a battalion commander. Then a lieutenant, he had followed Werner through his meteoric rise in rank, continuing to serve as his aide at each level of command.
“Yes, General.” Potsdorf was running over, moving as quickly as he could in the deep muck of the trench. The aide was a tall man, with close-cropped blonde hair and a grim face. He stopped in front of the theater commander and stood at attention.
“Read this, Potsdorf.” He handed the ‘pad to his surprised aide.
“My God, sir.” Potsdorf was still reading, but he’d gotten the gist of the order in the first few seconds. “This is a massive escalation.”
“Indeed it is, Major.” There was a sadness in Werner’s voice. He was a soldier, and he would carry out his orders, but he couldn’t help but think he was committing suicide as well. For him and for his soldiers, and possibly for the civilians back home too. The Europans would almost certainly respond in kind, and a battlefield that was already a nightmare would become a blasted, radioactive hell.
What happened next rested with the politicians, but that was cold comfort to Werner. “But those are our orders, so we’d better do everything we can to make sure the troops are ready.” He took a deep breath. “Because we’re about to unleash hell.”
Ryan Warren’s head was pounding. He reached around and massaged the back of his neck, feeling the hard tightness of the knotted muscles under his fingers. He glanced at the chronometer. He’d been at his desk for almost 15 hours, but he wasn’t even close to done. There was a half-eaten sandwich sitting off to the side of workstation, the only food he’d touched all day. It had been there for hours, and the edges were dried out and stale. A stone cold cup of coffee, missing only a few sips, sat next to the plate, equally forgotten.
Warren had lost 10 kilos since he had taken over Gavin Stark’s job, and he wondered how that master spy had seemed to handle his myriad responsibilities with such effortless grace. He suspected now that had been at least somewhat of a façade, that Stark’s brilliant leadership had come at its own cost. Still, it had been weeks since he’d managed to sleep all night, and he wondered how any man could do this job for as long as Stark had.
For years Warren had dreamed about being Number One, a goal that had seemed unattainable from his mid-level position in the massive spy agency. Now that circumstance had made his wild ambition a reality, he longed only to flee from the crushing responsibility, to go back to his small office and his old manageable portfolio of work. He’d once ached for the power he imagined Stark wielded, but now, with war raging across the globe and revolution and disorder at home, he saw nothing but endless obligation. No matter what he managed to accomplish, another ten problems were waiting for his attention.
Things were going downhill. Fast. He’d been Number One for ten months now, but he was still trying to rebuild an Alliance Intelligence ravaged by the nuclear destruction of its headquarters. The personnel losses had been severe, and key agents were missing, even those who shouldn’t have been in Washbalt when HQ was destroyed. There was something wrong, something he couldn’t explain fully. He was sure of that. But he couldn’t figure out what it was.
The devastated and massively shrunken Alliance Intelligence had only a fraction of its earlier resources, and more problems than ever to address. There was war raging across the globe, and the Alliance had suffered some key defeats, making its position ever more precarious. Young wouldn’t characterize the war to date as a disaster, but he couldn’t say things were going well either.
The navy had gained control of the seas, largely as a result of Admiral Young’s extraordinary leadership, but the naval victories had been costly, and losses had been high. The remaining fleets were strong enough to control the oceans themselves, but too weak to project force close to land, where the enemy’s ground batteries and missiles could come into play.
The Cog pacification program had begun to achieve some sporadic successes. The initial implementation had been nothing short of a disaster, the Cog enlisted men disobeying their officers and refusing to execute their kill orders. Warren had overestimated the discipline of the armed forces, assuming the Cog soldiers would do as they were told, out of sheer self-preservation if nothing else. They’d all known the price of disobedience, but many of them had mutinied anyway, and the initial attacks against the rioting Cogs had been a stunning failure.
Warren’s people had since reestablished control over the kill units, transferring in more crew from the middle classes and the lowest ranks of the political class. His people had taken charge of the captured mutineers from the military authorities, executing them with extreme brutality in front of their fellow soldiers. He knew there was a limit to what such harsh measures could accomplish, that if he pushed too hard, he would only feed rebellion. But time wasn’t on his side, and if he couldn’t scare the soldiers into submission, all would be lost. He’d actually had contingency plans to nuke several cities where the Cog rebellions were the most severe, but President Oliver had put those on hold.
Oliver had a reputation for strength and intelligence, one Warren now realized was undeserved. The Alliance’s longtime president was a bully with some instinctive political skill, but nothing more. He had maintained power for so many years through momentum and threats, and he’d been lucky not to encounter a capable adversary in that time. The current crisis had entirely overwhelmed him, and he’d lost his nerve more than once when risky actions were called for. Warren had thought about making a move to unseat Oliver, but he hadn’t pulled the trigger. He had no doubt it was the move Gavin Stark would have made, but the last thing Alliance Intelligence’s new chief wanted was more responsibility.
He had more pressing matters than planning a coup. He’d managed to pacify most of the cities, but there were several problem spots remaining. Manhattan was the worst of all, and the Cogs had rampaged through the Protected Zone in an orgy of rape and murder. The enraged lower classes had fallen on everyone they’d encountered, members of the middle class as well as the Political families and Corporate Magnates. The entire city had been shut down, and the bodies of the unburied dead filled the streets. Even the secure areas occupied by the highest levels of the political classes had been ransacked, their pampered inhabitants brutalized and tortured to death.
He’d repeatedly sent in kill flights, but the rebellious Cogs had taken refuge underground in the vast network of old rail tunnels that crisscrossed the city. The problem had festered for months now, but he simply didn’t have enough ground troops available to clean out the entrenched Cogs, not with the demands for manpower coming in from the combat zones. Starvation would do his job for him eventually, at least once the surviving Cogs exhausted the dwindling food supplies.
Diplomacy had been a black mark on his record as well, and he could find little accomplishment there to celebrate. His decimated agency had failed to provide the covert support the Alliance diplomats needed. He knew Li An had gotten the best of him in the race for allies, and her manipulations had helped the CAC assemble a bloc of five Powers lined up against the Alliance and its allies.
Warren had known the ancient CAC spy was a master manipulator, and he realized she had taken him to school in the frantic espionage that surrounded the various negotiations. The prelude to global war had seen the Powers scrambling for allies, and Li’s CAC had decisively won that struggle.
The ancient Li An had been a match even for Stark himself, or at least nearly so. No other adversary had challenged Alliance Intelligence’s brilliant master so effectively. Indeed, Warren thought, she may have even gotten the best of him in the end. The perpetrator of the attack that destroyed Alliance Intelligence headquarters and killed Gavin Stark had never been identified, but C1 and its brilliant leader were at the top of everyone’s suspect list. Even without proof, the incident was a major factor in provoking the war now raging across the Earth.
“Number One, we have a priority one communication for you from Chancellor Schmidt.”
His head whipped toward the com unit on his desk. Otto Schmidt was the Chancellor of the Central European League, President Oliver’s counterpart in the CEL.
“Put him through immediately.” Warren felt a knot in his empty stomach. He could speculate on a number of reasons the CEL Chancellor would contact him, but none of them were good news.
“Mr. Warren?” He could hear the exhaustion in the voice on the com, and he could tell immediately there was no AI translating. The Chancellor spoke flawless English with only the slightest accent, a major improvement over Warren’s poor mastery of German.
“Yes, Mr. Chancellor. This is a rare honor. How may I help you?” His voice was tentative, confused. Schmidt should have rightfully contacted Oliver, not him.
“I have been unable to reach President Oliver despite several attempts, and it is vital that I speak to someone at the top levels of your government immediately.” They both knew the head of Alliance Intelligence was one of the most powerful members of the government, despite being ranked fairly far down on official lists of seniority.
Warren held back a sigh. He knew Oliver was nearing a total breakdown, but he couldn’t imagine the fool being unavailable to an allied head of state during wartime. “I am sure I can help you, Chancellor.”
“Conditions on our eastern front have been deteriorating rapidly as the RIC continues to mobilize and reinforce its armies.”
“We are aware of the pressure your forces are experiencing on both fronts. As you know, we are increasing our shipments of…”
“Pardon my interruption, Mr. Warren, but I am aware that your government is doing everything possible to aid our war effort. Unfortunately, the sum total of this is insufficient to alter the tactical situation.” He paused. “Unless we take immediate drastic measures to defeat Europa Federalis, we will be crushed between two enemies.”
Warren felt his stomach roll at the word drastic. He knew immediately what the Chancellor was going to say, and his mind raced at the likely consequences.
“As per our treaty obligations, I am advising you that at 11PM Washbalt time, General Werner’s First Army Group will launch an offensive to break through the Europan lines and capture Paris. The attack will be preceded by a hurricane bombardment, including unlimited tactical and intermediate-range nuclear and chemical ordnance.” Schmidt paused for an instant, the gravity of what he was saying laying heavily on him as he spoke. “I have authorized and instructed General Werner to restrict the bombardment to targets of military significance, however, I have also advised him that potential collateral damage resulting from his attack is not a consideration.”
Warren took a breath. In less than two hours, the CEL’s army was going to unleash a massive bombardment that would kill hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, of Europan civilians. His mind was running wild with the potential consequences. He knew there was no way to stop the CEL from following through. It was their only chance. If they didn’t knock the Europans out of the war, they were finished. If they win a complete victory on the western front, they could rush General Werner and his veterans to the east. Werner was their star commander, and his troops the best they had. Maybe they could at least stalemate the invading RIC armies.
“Thank you for the notice, Chancellor.” He swallowed hard. “My best wishes to General Werner and his men.” He paused. “And to all of us.”
“Thank you, Mr. Warren. You will of course pass this on to President Oliver and the other members of your Cabinet?” It was more a statement than a question.
“Of course, Chancellor.” Schmidt cut the line. Warren sat still for a few seconds, trying to organize his thoughts. He had to get Alliance Intelligence locked down, in case this thing escalated wildly. He punched at his workstation, pulling up the emergency protocols for potential worldwide nuclear exchanges. All the years he’d longed for Stark’s job, and now that he was here, he might find himself presiding over the biggest catastrophe in human history.
He put his face in his hands. There was one thing he had to do first. He hit the com unit. “I need to see President Oliver. Now.” The fool couldn’t have gotten too far. They were all locked down deep under the Virginia countryside, with Stonewall protocols in full effect. “All personnel are to stop whatever they are doing and locate the president immediately.”
Warren sighed. The fool was probably drunk or strung out somewhere. Perhaps he had to revisit that coup idea. Oliver was losing his shit, and the Alliance couldn’t afford a leader right now who was caving under the pressure. Warren didn’t want Oliver’s job, but he was beginning to realize he might have to take it anyway.