Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chapter 3 of The Fall

One last preview chapter of Crimson Worlds IX:  The Fall:

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Chapter 3

Front Lines
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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Chapter 2 of Crimson Worlds IX: The Fall

First of all, Happy Veterans' Day.  The NYC parade is passing under my window even as I type this.  It looks great, and it's nice to see veterans get the attention they deserve.  Things were a lot different when I was a kid in the 70s, and it's fantastic to see such a change for the better. 

Since I know a lot of my readers are vets, I thought I'd post a second chapter of CW9 today.  Enjoy!

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Chapter 2

Admiral’s Workroom

AS Pershing

Orbiting Columbia, Eta Cassiopeiae II

Augustus Garret sat at his desk, staring across at General Catherine Gilson, acting Commandant of the Alliance Marine Corps.  It had been more than half a year, but it was still a shock to look at that chair and not see Elias Holm sitting there.  Garret and Holm had forged a highly effective partnership over their years in command of the respective services, and a close friendship as well.  Now Holm was gone, another friend and comrade lost to the endless wars that seemed to plague man wherever he went.
Garret had seen so many killed in his years of battle there was nothing left inside but an aching numbness.  He’d witnessed more death and suffering than any man was intended to endure, but duty owned his soul, and it commanded him ever onward, wherever the call of battle echoed out to him.
The struggle against Gavin Stark’s Shadow Legions was his fourth war.  He’d been blooded in the Second Frontier War, and he’d gotten his first taste of true sacrifice in that conflict.  He’d survived that struggle, and the pain and loss it had caused him, to become a hero leading the massively expanded fleets of the Third Frontier War.  But it wasn’t until the First Imperium War that he became a true legend, the most feared and celebrated warrior in human space, and perhaps in all history itself.
His list of victories had grown, one great battle after another won, but no triumph, no matter how swift or complete, ever seemed to achieve peace.  Now he was at war again, not facing the robotic legions of long-dead aliens, but against a human monster, a psychopathic genius bent on total domination of mankind.  It never ended, he thought grimly, the constant sacrifice, the endless bloodshed.  Now he would lead his people into the fight again, but would victory this time bring a lasting peace or just more suffering and death?
Gilson was fidgeting nervously, clearly uncomfortable to be sitting on the fleet flagship while her Marines were preparing to hit the ground.  Indeed, she had fully intended to go down with the first wave, ignoring all objections from her officers.  Finally, Garret had prevailed on her that her duty was to coordinate the entire attack, not to get herself killed in some pointless gesture.  She owed it to her Marines, he had said.  She owed it to them to stay alive and give them the leadership they needed to win and survive this new battle.
Gilson had been ready to argue, but she, like the rest of her fellow officers, considered Garret to be the overall Alliance commander, though officially he only led the navy.  Unable to ignore Garret’s wishes, she reluctantly agreed to manage the invasion from the flagship.   Augustus Garret was famous throughout occupied space, the man who had stopped the First Imperium and saved mankind from total destruction.  Elias Holm, Erik Cain – and Gilson herself – had all won their own share of fame and glory in that terrible conflict, but Fleet Admiral Garret had received the largest share of acclaim, even from his own peers, though he wanted none of it. 
Garret hated the hero worship, the senseless acclaim he received wherever he went.  His own people were the worst offenders, and he’d come to dread that starry eyed look they gave him, the awestruck silence in the ranks as he passed by.  He’d long ago lost his taste for glory, far too familiar with its often heartrending price.  The victory against the First Imperium had saved humanity, but it had cost Garret his soul.  In his own mind he wasn’t a hero; he was a butcher, leading thousands to their deaths and worse.  The fact that those sacrifices were necessary, that they had saved millions, was enough reason to do what he had done, but not to forgive himself for the cost.  He’d sacrificed friendship, even love, to achieve his victories, and the taste was bitter in his mouth.
He’d never forgive himself for what he had done in that final battle on the frontier, how he’d left his best friend and 40,000 Marines and naval personnel behind, trapped at the mercy of a massive fleet of First Imperium vessels.  His friends and comrades had told him again and again he’d had no choice, and Garret himself knew that was true.  But no one else seemed to understand it just didn’t matter.  Some acts were so horrifying, so soul-killing, no amount of justification could make a difference.  Some things you did killed the part of you that made you human.
“The first waves will be launching in three minutes.”  Ali Khaled sat next to Gilson.  The former Caliphate commander, now a fugitive from his nation along with all his men, sat next to Gilson, staring at a bank of monitors along the wall.  Some showed live shots of the activities in the assault bays, while others displayed lists of stats and projected launch times.
“Yes.”  Gilson nodded, her own eyes fixed on the monitors.  “General Heath is in command of the lead elements.”  Then-Colonel Heath had served well on Arcadia, when Gilson’s forces returned from the frontier and reinforced the battered Marines James Teller and Elias Holm had led to the aid of the locals.  She’d given him his star for it, and now he was commanding the advance elements of the invasion force, proof she thought grimly, that no good deed goes unpunished.  Heath’s people would be landing in the teeth of the enemy defenses, and they’d be outnumbered and under constant fire as they clawed to carve a foothold for the rest of the forces to land.
James Teller would have been her first choice to command the vanguard, but he was off with Erik Cain, hunting down Gavin Stark.  Teller was Cain’s protégé, much as Cain had been Holm’s.  When Erik decided to hunt down Gavin Stark, Teller had followed him without a second thought.  She had both men’s stars in her desk, waiting for them to return and claim them.  She’d wished more than once that they were with her, helping to lead the Corps into this new fight, but she understood why they had made the choices they had.  And, if they were successful in finding and killing Stark, perhaps they would do more to end this war than the entire strike force about to invade Columbia.  Maybe they could wear those stars again in peacetime, helping her rebuild the shattered Corps.
Nevertheless, Gilson had tried to convince Cain to stay, and Garret had thrown his own efforts behind hers.  But Erik Cain was as stubborn as any human being who’d ever lived, and he respectfully declined both their entreaties.  Killing Stark was not only vengeance for General Holm, he’d declared, but the best way to defeat the Shadow Legions.  Stark had been their enemy for years, secretly plotting against them before he declared openly and launched his Shadow Legions to conquer occupied space.  He’d been a cancer consuming the body of the navy and the Corps, even as they struggled against the robot legions of the First Imperium.  Stark had worked against them as far back as the Third Frontier War and the rebellions, engineering Rafael Samuels’ treachery that had almost destroyed the Corps.
Lop the head off, Cain had said simply, and the body will die.  There could be no peace while Stark lived.  He was too capable, too intelligent – too evil.  He would never stop, and no victory could be final while he still lived.
Garret and Gilson had argued, but they both knew Cain was right.  If he and Teller succeeded, if they found and killed Gavin Stark, maybe this war could be stopped before the last veterans of the Corps and their Janissary allies were gone.  Thousands were already dead, lost in the endless, brutal battles.  Perhaps Cain’s pursuit of vengeance could save the few who remained, and the Corps itself with them.
The three officers stared at the monitors, waiting for the launches to begin.  There was an eerie quiet in the room, an absence that each of them felt keenly.  They all knew Elias Holm was dead, of course, yet it seemed every time one of them turned around, they expected to see him standing there, calmly directing the invasion force.  It had been six months, but the loss was still fresh, a wound that wouldn’t heal.
Gilson’s emotions were volatile.  Despite her understanding of his motives and the potential rewards of his success, she was angry at Cain for leaving her to fill Holm’s shoes by herself.  Worse, she envied him.  She wanted to hunt Stark down herself, to kill the psychopathic bastard with her own hands.  Her feelings had been confusing at first, threatening to tear her apart, but she’d made peace with the whole thing.  Cain was the right one to pursue Stark.  She had been close to Holm, a loyal officer and a comrade through decades of brutal fighting, but Erik Cain had been like a son to the fallen Commandant.  It was his right to go after Stark, even more than hers, and she’d come to realize and accept that.
Besides, Cain was the right man for the job.  The grim Marine had a dark side, a coldness and a relentless determination Gilson knew she couldn’t match.  Cain would follow every lead, and he would do whatever had to be done to track his prey.  Whatever had to be done - those were dangerous words, ones she wasn’t sure she could back up with the brutal ferocity she knew Cain would.
“Admiral Garret, General Heath requests permission to commence his launch, sir.”  Tara Rourke’s voice was clear and confident on the comlink.  She’d been Garret’s flag tactical officer for several years now, and he’d declared more than once that she was the best junior officer who’d ever served under him.
Garret glanced across the desk at Gilson.  “It’s your order, General.”  He flipped a button.  “Your link is live.”
Gilson nodded softly.  “Attention all Marines, this is General Catherine Gilson.”  The Marines had liberated a number of smaller worlds over the past six months, but this was the first major planetary assault since Arcadia and Armstrong, and she could feel the tension in her gut.  “You are about to liberate one of the oldest and most populated colony worlds in human-occupied space, a planet that has seen more than its share of war and destruction in its century of human habitation.”  She hoped it was still one of the most populated.  The enemy had been there for 18 months, and the Columbians were well-known for their willingness to resist, whatever the cost.  She was deathly afraid they had paid that cost in blood.
“As always, you have my utmost confidence.  You are battered and tired.  We have all suffered terrible losses and grief.  You have fought without rest, struggled from one end of human space to the other and even into the First Imperium itself.  No men and women could be expected to do what you have done, let alone more.  But you are Marines first, and men and women second.  In the final accounting, that is all that matters.  Marines are always ready to do the job, to fight whatever battles must be fought.”  She paused, taking a deep breath.  “And there are struggles yet to be won.”
She hesitated, pushing back the tears she could feel welling up in her eyes.  “I know that General Holm would be proud to see you all today, ready to fight another battle for freedom.  Know as you go forward into the fight once again that he is with you, as he will be forever.  You are the Marines he helped to make you, and I know you will live up to that standard.” 
She glanced over at Khaled.  “In this fight, as in our last one, we have allies, men who once fought against us, but now stand at our sides as friends.  They are honorable warriors who march to the fire alongside us, and they have earned our trust and our respect.  We are grateful for their aid and proud to fight at their sides.”
She swallowed hard and sucked in another breath.  “Go now, and fight with the valor all have come to expect from you.  Go and free our people on Columbia and destroy the Shadow Legion invaders.  Show the enemy just what Marines can do.  Forward, to victory.”  She cut the line and turned toward Garret and nodded.  “Commence the landing.”
All around Columbia, men and women sprang into action at Gilson’s order.  Transports fired their thrusters, moving into low orbits, positioning themselves to launch their Marine and Janissary contingents into Columbia’s upper atmosphere.  Escort ships maneuvered to cover their movements, providing protection and close support.  Farther out, the battlefleets and logistical trains were moved into position.
Columbia was surrounded by almost all the military might Garret and Gilson could muster.  The combined fleet was divided into three task forces plus the former Caliphate ships under Admiral Abbas.  It was an awesome display of naval power, and Garret was practically daring Stark to come out of hiding with his fleet and offer battle.
Taskforce One was commanded by Elizabeth Arlington, and it was in close orbit, protecting the transport armada.  The troopships themselves were in a long line, ready to begin launching dropships into the upper atmosphere.  The Marines and Janissaries onboard were suited up and loaded onto their landing craft, waiting for the final order.  Arlington’s warships were in high orbit, covering the transports from any enemy that might slip past the heavier fleet units on station farther out.
Taskforce Two, under Admiral Michael Jacobs, had been the first units to approach the planet.  They’d conducted a pre-invasion bombardment, blasting any enemy positions they could identify and target without undue danger to civilian populations.  Jacob’s ships were on the move now, half pulling away from the planet to rearm, the rest taking position to provide support to the Marines on the ground.
Taskforce Three, under Camille Harmon, was the largest, with most of the heavy capital ships. 
Harmon’s force was organized for one mission, and one mission only, to blast the hell out of any enemy ships that tried to interfere with the invasion force.  Her units were posted about three light minutes from the planet, along with Abbas’ Caliphate ships.  They hadn’t detected any enemy naval presence, but they were on full alert anyway.  Garret and Harmon were aware of Stark’s unpredictability, and they weren’t taking any chances.  Harmon had scoutships patrolling the entire system, and her combat elements were ready to destroy any naval force than entered the system without authorization.
Garret stared at his screen, though he’d committed every detail of the fleet and operation to memory.  He knew every ship under his command, and its position and its orders.  His people were ready for whatever had to be done, and Gilson’s as well.  That wasn’t what worried him.  But the supply situation was becoming dire.  He was watching numbers scroll slowly across the screen, and his frown deepened.
Provisioning Gilson’s Marines for the invasion had almost depleted the fleet’s stores, and many of his own ships carried half-loads of missiles and other ordnance.  He’d tried to contact the high command on Earth a dozen times, but he’d been unable to get through.  There were no shipments of supplies coming through, no orders, no news.  He’d tried to focus on the crises at hand, but now he was really worried. 
What was happening on Earth?
“Good luck, Marines!”  Captain Harlow’s voice echoed loudly in the helmets of the Marines of A and B companies of the 3rd Battalion.  They were the leading edge of the first wave, the first 350 men and women scheduled to hit the ground on Columbia.
The tradition of the ship’s captain wishing the strike force luck had come down from the earliest days of the spaceborne Corps, and it had endured through three Frontier Wars, the struggle against the First Imperium, and now the battle to defeat Gavin Stark’s Shadow Legions.
Lieutenant Callahan gritted his teeth.  He knew the captain’s address was the final thing he’d hear before the catapults fired and launched the heavy Liggett 10-man landers out into the edge of space above Columbia.  Callahan was a veteran who’d fought in the rebellions as a private and the First Imperium War as a non-com.  He’d received a battlefield promotion during the fighting on Armstrong, a reward bestowed on him by none other than the legendary Erik Cain himself.
He exhaled hard as the magnetic cannon accelerated his lander down the rails and through the open outer doors.  His armor absorbed some of the g-forces, but he was still slammed back hard inside his suit, losing his breath for a few seconds before he adjusted.  It was the same with every assault landing, but it was something you never got completely used to, no matter how many drops you made.
Callahan had no illusions about what he and his people faced down on Columbia’s surface.  They were all veterans, and they would do what had to be done.  But the honor of leading the advance guard carried a heavy price.  He knew casualties would be high, very high.  And if the first Marines down failed to secure a perimeter, they could all be overwhelmed before the fleet could send down enough units to strengthen the landing zone.  If the invasion of Columbia failed, if the enemy put up too strong of a defense and General Gilson called off the rest of the landings, Callahan knew his people would all be KIA.  He knew that because he was damned sure none of them would surrender.
Callahan glanced at his display, watching the five landers carrying his platoon descend into Columbia’s atmosphere.  The formation looked good, and they seemed to be right on schedule.  If everything went according to plan, they’d be on the ground and in action in less than ten minutes.
He felt the lander bounce hard to one side, as it tore through the thickening air.  The Liggett landing craft was an improvement on the old Gordons, carrying ten armored Marines and a large cargo of ammunition and equipment.  With four heavy duty laser turrets and enough ordnance to keep a squad supplied for hours, the Liggett was designed to land right in the teeth of an enemy position, blasting away in close support as its squad jumped right into battle.
“Projected landing in six minutes.”  The voice was female, calm and pleasant, typical for a fleet AI.  Callahan knew everyone in the first wave had gotten the same announcement.  He took a deep breath, preparing himself once again for battle.  He knew his people were ready, that all the Corps was prepared to do what had to be done.  His heart had swelled with pride when General Gilson addressed them, when she had invoked the name of Elias Holm.  The Commandant had been beloved by every Marine in the Corps, and Callahan and his people were ready to lash out at the enemy that had taken their leader from them.  The Corps would fight on Columbia with its usual tenacity and professionalism, but there would be something else here too, a ferocity driven by their pain of loss.  The Marines was here to do battle for Elias Holm, and God help any who stood in their way.
“Four minutes until projected landing.  All Marines, complete final diagnostic check on weapons system.”
Callahan’s visor plate opened, and he could see the bright blue sky above Columbia.  He was held rigidly in place, but he managed to glance down toward the ground as he checked his weapons.  There was water below, nothing but a seemingly endless sea stretching as far as he could see.  He knew his people were still thousands of kilometers from the inhabited areas of the planet, tearing through the atmosphere at 40,000 kph heading for the LZ just outside the capital city of Weston.
He could feel the lander’s maneuvering thrusters kick in, and the small craft begin to zigzag wildly.  They were entering the inner defensive perimeter, and the Liggett’s AI was conducting evasive maneuvers, trying to avoid the incoming AA fire.  He could see the laser turrets whipping around, and he caught the barely perceptible flash of one of them firing.  He knew that had probably been a surface-to-air missile heading for his lander and, in the back of his mind, he suspected that laser blast had saved his life.  His and those of the other nine Marines bolted in next to him.
There was land below the Liggett now, and he could see they were much closer to the ground.  He could make out terrain features ahead, and he tried to match them with the maps he studied in the pre-mission briefing.
“Two minutes to landing.”
His own com unit activated, allowing him to contact the men and women of his platoon.  He was about to speak when he saw a bright flash off to the extreme right.  His eyes snapped back to his display, and he felt his stomach in his throat.  There were only four Liggett’s displayed.  Lander 4 was gone.  Just gone.
The shock of battle hit him hard.  He’d understood they were going back into the fight, but it never seemed real until somebody got hit.  Now it was official.  They were back in the shit.
“Alright, Marines.  Stay focused.  We’ve got a job to do.”  But all he could think about was the crew of ship four.  Hiller, Haggerty, Ash – Ash had saved his life on Armstrong.  Now they were all gone.
“Thirty seconds to landing.”
The AI snapped him back to the present.  He had a job to do, and that came first, before everything.  Ten of his people were dead, but the rest were counting on him.  It was time to make these sons of bitches pay.  And now the men and women of A Company had one more reason to waste these motherfuckers.
He felt the Liggett’s braking rockets fire and then the slow, sickening drop as the lander floated down the last 30 meters, settling hard in the soft ground.  There was fire ripping all around them, the enemy already moving on the LZ determined to pinch it out before a second wave could get down.
“Let’s go!” he shouted into the com, leaping from the lander and whipping around his assault rifle.  “Company A…attack!”
The Marines were back on Columbia.