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Chapter 2



Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, United States of America, Sol III
1423 EST January 18
th, 2004 ad


It shouldn't oughta be this way, thought Lieutenant Colonel Frederic (Fred) Hanson.

The incoming commander of the First Battalion Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment had years before retired from the Army as an Eighty-Second Airborne Division brigade executive officer. He was familiar from long experience with monumental screwups, but this one took the grand prize.

The way a unit is usually activated—from scratch or from "regimental reserve"—is from the top down. The commanders of the activated units would meet with their officers and work through a plan of activation. The plan could either be supplied or one they developed themselves. In good time the various senior noncommissioned officers would arrive, usually with the subordinate commanders and staff. Then the soldiers would arrive, before the staff was ready but after all the officers and NCOs basically had their feet under them. The equipment would arrive, training schedules would be finalized and the units would begin to come together. Slowly they would become a unit instead of a collection of individuals. In time they would be sent off to war—rarely are units pulled from storage in peacetime—and the hard work of the formation would be forgotten in the harder work of combat.

Under the best of circumstances it is a careful dance of supplying the right number of officers and NCOs along with their equipment. In any war the cannon fodder is the easiest to lay your hands on and trained and confident junior officers the hardest.

In the case of the First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth MIR—or for that matter any of the battalions forming throughout the world—the process did not occur so smoothly. Fred Hanson thought he had seen every possible combination of mistakes the United States Army had in store. As the borrowed Humvee pulled into the activation area he was forced to admit he was wrong. This time the Army had made one small mistake, actually microscopic, with macroscopic implications.

The Terran Ground Defense Commands—the various national armies of earth—were not worried about trained personnel. In return for humanity's help in battling the Posleen, one of the first technologies offered by the Galactic Federation was a rejuvenation process. A long-retired senior officer could take a graduated series of shots, possibly go through a few simple surgical procedures, and drop away years. Within a few weeks, months at most, the patient would end up an apparent twenty or so. Thus many of the senior military personnel retired over the previous decades were available for recall in a time of planetary need. There was, however, one tiny difficulty.

The rejuvenation program was matrixed on a combination of final rank and present age. An E-9, a Sergeant Major in the Army or a Senior Master Chief in the Navy, would be called up if he or she were within forty years of service, an E-8 within 39. The scale progressed down to the point where a soldier or sailor who left the service as an E-1 could be called up within twenty years of service. Officers followed a similar matrix.

The personnel of the first enlisted and officer ranks who had been out of service longest were the first called up and rejuvenated. Thus, in the United States, there was a sudden influx of extremely senior officers and NCOs, many of whom last heard a shot fired in anger during the Tet Offensive.

Simultaneously there was a general call-up of personnel shortly out of service and a universal draft. This created a rush of lower-ranking officers and NCOs along with a mass of low-rank enlisted. The rejuv program was designed to supply an equivalent number of field-grade officers, the military's equivalent of middle management.

There was a gap, but there would be more than sufficient capacity to provide command structure and unit integrity. For the first time in the history of an emergency call-up, there would be an overabundance of trained enlisted and commissioned personnel.

The two programs were carefully and strategically timed so that there would be enough recalled senior officers and NCOs to fill all the slots allotted to them. If all went well, before the second lieutenants, first lieutenants and captains along with their respective platoon sergeants and first sergeants got to their units, the brigade and battalion commanders and staff would be in place with their feet on the ground, their "warpaint" on, and an activation plan ready to get into gear.

Unfortunately for the plan, about the time the rejuvenation program reached the level of master sergeants and full colonels, brigade commanders and very senior staff officers, the nannites started to run low. While Galactic technology was impressive, Galactic production capacity was hampered by cottage-industry techniques. As with combat technology, human techniques were slowly gaining currency. That did not, however, help with the critical nannite shortage.

There was virtually no way to slow down the training and deployment of the new draft and the recalled prior service that did not need rejuvenation, so suddenly the Army and Navy had a whole bunch of chiefs and quite a few Indians but not many people to help them communicate.

Colonel Hanson had been briefed on the situation so the sight of trailers stretching off into the distance was not a shock, but the conditions were.

The area was a former live-fire range. He had spent one hot nasty week there as an observer/controller and he remembered it well. Now it was the snowy home of two regular infantry divisions and a Fleet Strike Armored Combat Suit battalion along with support for the activated but still widely distributed Twenty-eighth Mechanized Division formerly of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

There were twenty-six thousand personnel on the Table of Organization and Equipment of an infantry division and almost eight hundred in an ACS battalion. Hanson was one of the first crop of O-5 and below to be rejuvenated and he knew that this seething mass of humanity was critically short on senior officers.

The trailers were laid out in battalion and brigade formations with the battalion offices to the notional front and the battalion commander's, staff's, and senior NCOs' housing to either side. To either side of this "headshed" formation was a company street. Stretching down one side of the company street behind the battalion area were the company offices surrounded by officers' and senior NCOs' quarters and supply. Across the street were the enlisted barracks. Each enlisted barracks held fourteen personnel in six two-man rooms and two single rooms for squad leaders.

The companies of one battalion backed on a parade field; across the field was another battalion and the process started again. However, there were over nine thousand trailers in a mass a couple of miles on a side. And, although the personnel were theoretically barracked with NCOs nearby, most of these people were not even soldiers yet, much less units, and the senior NCOs, E-6s, -7s and -8s, were virtually absent.

By the time the rejuv situation turned critical, the pipeline was already full of incoming soldiers. Since basic trainees need constant supervision, the majority of the incoming senior NCOs were going to training units. Battalions in that seething mass were being commanded by captains and companies by brand-new second lieutenants. Most of the companies had staff sergeants as first sergeants, if they were lucky, and often only sergeant E-5s. Without the backbone of a solid NCO and officer corps, command and control was spotty. The children were all home but the parents were trickling in late.

So he had been told by the G-1 Personnel Officer of the Fifteenth Mechanized Infantry Division, and the picture was worse than any briefing could paint. He saw sections of the canton where control had obviously broken down completely. There was laundry strung on the walls of the barracks, garbage littering the company streets and soldiers openly fighting. Groups of soldiers huddled around fires, some of them in shreds of uniform that must barely be fighting off the Pennsylvania winter cold. One block was a mass of fire-torn trailers where a party had apparently gotten out of hand. Other areas were orderly, reflecting the attitudes of the junior officers and NCOs put in charge.

Without his battalion commanders and brigade and battalion staffs in place, the activation commander effectively had his hands tied. There was absolutely no way for a few generals, a handful of "bird" colonels and some sergeant majors to police fifty thousand people. The entire activation had been based on the rejuv program and with that prop kicked out it had fallen apart. Food and supplies were arriving and that was all the rampant juvenile delinquents in the cantonment cared about.

As the Humvee pulled into "his" battalion area Colonel Hanson wanted to cry. It was one of the "bad" areas, the kind of block he would have been loath to walk in without a weapon and body armor. He gestured for the driver to pull down a company street and was appalled. The battalion area was nice enough. It had a rock-bordered entrance to the headquarters and the sidewalks were shoveled and swept. But with one exception the company areas were a disgrace. He could see sections of the barracks that had been ripped away in apparently casual vandalism and garbage covered the ground.

As the driver swung around the back side of the battalion area he saw that the last company was quite neat. Furthermore it had posted guards clad in Fleet Strike gray "combat silks" outside the company offices and was running two-man patrols between the barracks. Since the weapons were M-300 grav-guns the show of force was impressive. The M-300 weighed twenty-three pounds—the same as the Vietnam-era M-60 machine gun which it resembled—but most of the soldiers in sight handled them easily. Their obvious fitness and gray combat silks were the first good news he had seen.

The thin uniforms were supposed to be proof against any normal cold and so it seemed; the lightly clad soldiers were handling the windy winter day with aplomb. Although combat silks were officially the daily uniform of Fleet Strike units, most personnel elsewhere in the battalion seemed to be wearing BDUs and field jackets. It also answered the question of whether any GalTech equipment was available. What the acting battalion commander had to say about wearing the uniform might be instructive. Colonel Hanson wondered why the rest of the battalion was out of uniform and where he was going to get his own set of silks.

He gestured for the driver to pull up in front of the company headquarters.

"Go take my bags to my quarters. Then head back to headquarters." He wished he could keep him—the kid seemed well turned out and smart—but the G-1 had been specific, "Send the driver back along with his Humvee, clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"If anybody gives you any flack over at my quarters, come get me. I'll be with the Bravo Company commander." He gestured at the company headquarters with a thumb.

"Yes, sir."

As Colonel Hanson headed up the snowy path to the trailer the two guards came to attention to a barked "Atten-hut" from the right-hand guard. The guard could see that it was just a baby-faced kid walking into the headquarters, but the kid had been riding in a Humvee and wheels were hard to find. Ergo, it was not a kid; it was a rejuvenated officer or NCO and it looked like an officer. When the private first class finally determined that the black rank on the kid's BDU collar was oak leaves, he blessed his prescience. The two dropped back to parade rest at a returned salute and traded shrugs after the colonel entered the trailer. The senior private blew on his frigid hands and gave a quiet smile. By the appearance of the commander, things were going to go either very well or very poorly for Bravo Company. And he was willing to take book which it would be.

Colonel Hanson was surprised and pleased to see a CQ—a sergeant detailed for a twenty-four-hour period to be in charge of the company area—standing behind a table inside the door at the position of attention. The slight, dark-haired sergeant, who did not look old enough to shave, saluted.

"Sir, Sergeant Stewart, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry. How may I help you, sir?"

The sergeant was either a refurb, or well trained, and Colonel Hanson could not tell off-the-cuff which it was.

"Well, Sergeant," he said, returning the salute, "you can show me to the company commander's office and get me a cup of coffee if it's available. Water if not."

"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, rather too loudly. Fred wondered why, until he realized that it would probably be audible through the paper-thin walls. He smiled internally as the sergeant continued in the same loud tone. "If the Colonel will just follow me to the commander's office, I'll see about the coffee!" Colonel Hanson kept from laughing with only marginal success as a small snort slipped out.

"Pardon, sir?" asked Sergeant Stewart as he led the colonel down a corridor on one side of the trailer.

"Cough."

"Yes, sir."

The narrow passage to one side of the trailer passed one door labeled "Swamp," a second labeled "Latrine" and a third, which showed signs of repair, labeled "First Sergeant." At the end of the corridor the area opened out to reveal a desk with someone who was probably the company clerk behind it at attention. On the table was a cup of coffee and the private's position was ruined by having a pitcher of cream in his left hand. He saluted.

"Cream, sir?"

"Black. Do you have sugar?"

"Sir!" The private held up a handful of packets.

"One, please." The sugar was dumped and stirred as Sergeant Stewart knocked on the door.

"Enter," came a raspy voice from the interior.

Normally on taking over a unit the incoming commander had the option of studying his officers' open records—their 201 files as they were called—and the officers' efficiency reports. In addition he was able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his subordinate personnel with the outgoing commander. In this case the G-1 admitted he was only able to provide the officers' names, and that with difficulty. The information systems were as confused as everything else and in most cases officers' files were still in storage in St. Louis. All that Colonel Hanson remembered was that his Bravo Company commander was named O'Neal.

"Sir, a Lieutenant Colonel Hanson is here to see you," Stewart said through the doorway, respectfully.

Colonel Hanson had pegged Stewart immediately as one of those individuals in any command who can make or break a small unit. He would have to be in charge of something and needed to respect his leaders or he would be running all over them in short order. So the deference he showed towards his company commander told Fred something. Of course the condition of the company had told Colonel Hanson something already but that could be due to several causes. This Captain O'Neal could have an enormously effective senior sergeant, he could be a martinet, and so forth. But O'Neal had at least one hard case eating out of his hand and that said everything necessary about his leadership. Now if he only had some tactical sense.

Thus Fred Hanson thought he showed admirable control when a squat juggernaut who, despite the faint sheen of sweat from a recent workout, was immediately recognizable from numerous TV appearances rolled through the door. Hanson noticed in passing the scars still on O'Neal's forearm as the captain saluted.

"Captain Michael O'Neal, sir, Commander, Bravo Company First Battalion, Five-Fifty-Fifth Mobile Infantry Regiment. How may I help you, sir?"

Fred Hanson slowly returned the salute, as properly as he had ever done in his life. That's how you do it when returning the salute of a holder of the Medal of Honor.

"Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Hanson," said the colonel into the silence. "I'm about to assume command of the One-Five-Five-Five and I thought you might like to come along."

Fred thought he saw a brief flash of suppressed glee go across O'Neal's face but the shuffle of Stewart's boots was the only sound in the silence that followed that announcement.

"Yes, sir. I'd like that main well. Stewart, go find the Gunny then come up to battalion."

"Yes, sir."

"Shall we?" asked the baby-faced battalion commander.

"After you, sir," answered O'Neal, his eyes shining.

* * *

"I think that went rather well," said the colonel, shutting the door on the departing major.

"Yes, sir. I think Major Stidwell will be a real asset at post headquarters," agreed O'Neal. "Although he might want to be a tad more careful about who he calls a 'snot-nosed kid' next time."

"I also suspect," continued the colonel with a slight grin at the memory, "that despite whatever damage this might have done to his career, any complaints that Major Stidwell might voice will be pro forma."

"Surely you're not questioning the major's, uhm, intestinal fortitude are you, sir?"

"Not really," Colonel Hanson said, glancing over the battalion commander's desk at his most junior company commander. The new battalion commander started taking down the late Major Stidwell's extensive "I-love-me" wall. As a piece or individually it was impressive. From his West Point diploma to his graduation from Command and Staff College Major Stidwell seemed to have all the merit badges any field-grade infantry officer could ever wish. A graduate of both Ranger School and Special Forces Qualification Course, when in uniform Major Stidwell would be entitled to wear the "Tower of Power": the three stacked tabs of Ranger, Special Forces and Airborne qualification. He was a holder of the PT badge and probably could make a fire with only two sticks.

But somewhere along the line the major had somehow missed the whole concept. What was conspicuously absent were plaques from previous commands. There were two possibilities and, without having seen his personnel file, Colonel Hanson could not decide which was more likely. Either Stidwell was so disliked by his commands that they celebrated his leaving without any sign of regret or he had had very few leadership positions. On second thought, it had to be the latter; some sycophant would always gin up a plaque no matter how disastrous your tenure.

"Although Major Stidwell seems to have all the requisite abilities to be a commander," the colonel professed, gesturing at the wall, "sometimes that does not mean a person has command ability. Often an inability to command can be masked in peacetime by an able staff. However, during times of stress when quick and accurate decisions must be made without benefit of objectively correct answers or able staff support, the inability to lead becomes crystal clear. I suspect that Major Stidwell can function as a junior officer quite well and may even be exemplary as a senior staff officer but is incompetent as a commander, especially a combat commander." He concluded the lecture with a shrug. "It happens."

"Are you supposed to discuss the merits of senior officers with junior officers, sir?" Mike asked, leaning back in a rickety armchair, probably acquired from post stores after being rejected by a dayroom as too old and worn out.

"Well, Captain," the colonel responded, "there are junior officers and junior officers. In your case you can be sure that I will discuss with you anything that I believe will help you in your military development and I will in turn solicit your advice on ACS tactics on a regular basis. I don't intend to take everything you say as gospel. But I will listen."

"Because of the Medal?" Mike asked with studied casualness as he pulled a cigar out of the sleeve of his gray silks.

It was not the first time Colonel Hanson had heard of Michael O'Neal. He was That O'Neal. Mighty Mite. Ironman O'Neal, the hero of Diess. Colonel Hanson had known more than one real hero in his military career and he knew that without being there it was impossible to determine what actions might or might not have occurred when a medal, especially the Medal, was handed out. Sometimes the most heroic stories turned out to be so much bullshit while others that seemed simple turned out to be unexpectedly complex. Some real heroes were braggarts, some quiet. Often heroes were simply in the wrong place and survived. Sometimes everything was exactly as indicated.

In the case of Michael O'Neal, the sequence of events that led to him being showered with medals was as analyzed, dissected and researched as any sequence in the history of military operations. When the media got as carried away as they did with O'Neal's story there was an inevitable reaction. First he was idolized, then the media tried to pick the story apart. It never found any detail to be any less than it appeared at first glance. Arguably the story had been understated.

As an advisor on armored combat suit tactics to the Diess Expeditionary Force, then-Lieutenant O'Neal had taken command of remnants of the Armored Combat Suit battalion to which he was attached after it had a drastic encounter with the first wave of Posleen. The platoon-sized band, initially weaponless due to a fuel-air explosion that had swept away their suit-mounted weaponry, ended up breaking the Posleen siege of the armored divisions of the expeditionary force. Along the way they killed a plurality of the Posleen in the attack and destroyed a Posleen command ship that had come in for close support of the Posleen forces. O'Neal had accomplished this last feat by the simple expedient of flying his command suit up to the ship and detonating an improvised antimatter limpet mine by hand.

The armor enclosing the young man across from him, who was now examining a cigar as if it were a weapon on guard mount, had been blown five kilometers through the air and several buildings. Finally that particular bit of detritus along with what was left of O'Neal had skipped a further two kilometers out to sea and sunk. Weeks later it was found by a SEAL recovery team homing in on the automated beacon and glad to find a half a billion credits' worth of combat suit partially intact. To their surprise the armor announced that the occupant was viable.

"Not just the medal. More the way you kept your company together. That's the sign of a good commander."

"Good command team, sir, pardon the correction. Gunny Pappas is tops."

"They sent us a Marine? I thought they were mostly going to Fleet." The way that the Galactic Federation fought the war against the Posleen had caused numerous schisms in the way the United States military did its job. The aliens' Federation supported their Fleet from funds drawn on all two hundred-plus planets of the Federation.

However, planets that were actively engaged against the Posleen had to fund their own ground defenses. In the case of established planets, corporations whose trade would be affected drew on multiple planets to fund the defense. The planet Diess, which O'Neal had served on, drew forces from the spectrum of Earth's armies. However, the planet Barwhon, which despite its lack of industry had more monetary resources to draw on, was being defended only by "NATO" troops.

Since Earth had only heard of the Federation three and a half years before, it was without any monetary support other than whatever it could raise by selling its military forces to the highest bidder, which also served to train Earth's forces for its own impending invasion, now less than two years away. Despite the situation, it seemed impossible to become politically cohesive and prepare as one planet for the invasion. This caused a number of compromises.

Some Fleet Strike forces were detailed directly to the Fleet, while others were detailed to the planets either under attack or about to be attacked. In the case of the Earth, those units detailed to Terran defense were to be retained for their parent countries' usage, while still being under the Fleet's regulations and chain of command. However, Fleet personnel were drawn primarily from Terran navies. And Fleet Strike forces—the ground combat, special operations and fighter forces—were drawn from each country's Marine, Aviation and Special Operations units.

Because of the size of the United States and NATO's Navy, Marines, Airborne and Special Operations, the defense Fleet was heavily influenced by NATO with Russia and China a close second. Virtually every Fleet Strike ground unit was found in those four areas with one battalion in Japan. There were howls of outrage over the patent injustice from the Third World, but this time nobody had time to listen.

The force situation and alien technology had modified some long-standing traditions in the United States military. Fleet Strike's American contingent now consisted of the First through Fourth Fleet Strike Divisions, drawn from the Marines, the 82nd, 101st and 11th Divisions along with the 508th, 509th, 555th, and 565th Separate Regiments, all drawn from the Airborne. The Marine and Airborne Units were or would soon be Armored Combat Suit units, mobile infantry units whose personnel fought encased in powered battle armor and wielded grav-guns that hurled depleted uranium teardrops at relativistic speeds or plasma cannons that could go through the side of a World War II battleship.

Since the Fleet Strike personnel placement system no longer recognized a difference between Marine and Airborne there were occasional situations that were extremely nontraditional. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant might be ordered to a unit that was drawn from the Airborne tradition or an Airborne commander put in charge of a Marine unit. There were more Airborne personnel and senior officers than Marine, so to cantilever the Airborne influence all senior battalion and brigade NCOs could be called "Gunny" although the actual rank was being slowly phased out. Fleet Strike's American Command Post, however, was at Twenty Nine Palms, a former Marine base. And their dress uniforms, while drawing heavily on certain well-known science fiction TV shows, were dark blue piped with red, the color of Marine Dress Blues. The Airborne establishment found itself busy playing catch-up.

A small ceremonial contingent of American Marines remained, passing back and forth between Fleet and the Presidential Guard. They were the only Terran forces under the sole and direct command of a country that wore battle armor. America, with not only tremendous economic clout but equally great military renown, was the only country with an off-planet credit high enough to afford the incredibly expensive suits.

"Yes, sir," said O'Neal with a characteristic frown. "An actual Marine Gunny, long, long service. He's a hippie."

"Hippie?"

"What they call a Vietnam vet. Real old timer."

"Well, I suppose us hippies will have to talk over old times," said the commander with a smile.

"Jesus, sir!" said Mike, looking at the apparently teenage colonel in surprise. "You're for real?"

"I took a company of the One-Oh-One into Happy Valley in Vietnam," said the colonel with a suppressed shudder at the memory. "I started off as a butter bar with the One-Eighty-Seventh."

"Hmmm. Well, at least I won't have to explain who Janis Joplin is."

"It is damn strange, isn't it?" said the commander, tossing another piece of "I-Love-Me" claptrap into a box. "How the hell do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The regimental commander is forty years younger than me. When I was retiring he was a second lieutenant. I'm glad I didn't know him; I can imagine what my memories of him would do to our relationship."

"What about his memories of you, sir? Can you imagine if you wrote him a bad OER back when?"

"However, like your first sergeant . . ."

"He's a Marine," said O'Neal with a chuckle. "Yes, sir, I know. Well, as long as we don't have to take any beaches everything should be fine. Actually I kind of prefer a Marine for this."

Colonel Hanson looked at him quizzically as he dropped the last plaque into the box. "Pourquois?"

Mike suddenly looked grim as he held up the cigar with his own querying expression. At a nod he lit it with a Zippo emblazoned with a black panther on a rock. Drawing in a series of puffs he said, "Well, sir . . ." puff, "the Airborne has a tradition," puff, puff, "of in and out. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am." Puff. "Also, the Airborne tradition is, practically, for hit and run." Deep draw, puff. "Hmmm, El Sol Imperials. Damn hard to find, what with the shortages." He dropped the affectation with a sudden intensity, stabbing the cigar as if to drive in the points.

"This situation is much more like the Marine tradition, especially the tradition of World War II and Korea. Take a hard objective. Hold it against all comers, against human-wave attacks with critical shortages and damn little support. Hold at all cost and die to the last stinking soldier if necessary, killing as many as humanly possible the whole time. No retreat, no surrender, no quarter. Sir."

Mike had a sudden vision of a narrow clay street with towering skyscrapers to either side. The street was packed with yellow centaurs, the horse-sized invaders in a bayonet to boma-blade battle with a beleaguered German panzer grenadier division. The bodies of the Posleen and Germans were piled in mounds, blocking his way. Their red and yellow bloods had commingled and an orange river was flowing into the alien sea.

He tilted his head down and fiddled for a moment with his cigar as he struggled to throw off the flashback. "Damn, it went out."

Colonel Hanson dropped into his swivel chair as Mike pulled the Zippo back out. He reached into his breast pocket and produced a pack of Marlboro Reds. It had taken him years to break the habit, but the Galactics had a pill to do that now and besides they had eliminated cancer, heart disease and emphysema for military personnel so . . . "You okay, Captain?" he asked as he tapped out a coffin nail.

"Yes, sir. I am just peachy-keen," said Mike, meeting his eye steadily.

"I . . . we cannot afford a shell-shocked commander."

"Sir, I'm not shell-shocked," disagreed O'Neal, against the cacophony of internal voices. "What I am is one of the damn few people you are going to meet short of Barwhon or Diess who is prepared, mentally, for this invasion. I had gamed it for thousands of hours, before Diess. Diess was, so to speak, just the icing on the cake. When you get your AID you can cross-check me on it." He took a pull on the cigar. Since Diess he had been hitting both tobacco and alcohol kind of hard. One of these days it was gonna catch up with him. "This war is going to be a form of hell, sir, for every single American. The shit just doesn't get any deeper than this."

Colonel Hanson nodded thoughtfully. That made a lot of sense. "Which brings us to the here and now. Now that I have that obnoxious oaf cleared out of my headquarters, what's the situation? The G-1 didn't even know the players and he had no ideas about ACS equipment, but he did say the supply situation is as confused as could be expected. Who are the acting staff? And since this headquarters seems to be absolutely empty, where the fuck are they?" he concluded.

"Major Stidwell was acting as his own G-3, sir, since that was his slot anyway. Actually, he was doubling up on everything except the -4."

"Maybe I should have given him the benefit of the doubt if he was that overwhelmed," the colonel mused.

"Actually, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, sir. The only reason there is an S-4 is that we got sent a supply officer, a mustang L-T, to the assistant –4 slot. Otherwise, Major My-Lot-In-Life-Is-To-Micromanage Stidwell would undoubtedly have taken that slot as well."

"Oh," said the colonel with a grimace.

"We also have a full set of captains as company commanders, sir, any of whom could have taken a second hat if Stidwell was overwhelmed. We're better off than the Line and Guard units from the point of view of company-grade officers.

"However, if he made the decisions he could be absolutely sure that they were the right decisions," the captain said with a snort. "God knows what decisions might have been made by mere captains that did not have his years of experience. They might have, oh, 'taken excessive initiative with the training schedule,' or, God forbid, 'begun ACS training before all the meetings about how to implement it were completed.' "

"If I remember my recent history, you have been there and done that as well, haven't you?" said the colonel neutrally.

"Yes, sir, I have," said O'Neal with instant seriousness. "As a matter of fact, he was trying very hard to have me court-martialed for insubordination."

"Were you insubordinate?" asked the new commander, wondering what sort of answer he would get. He shouldn't have wondered.

"Sir, I disobeyed not one direct order, but so many I can't begin to count," O'Neal stated definitively.

"Why?"

"I did not think anyone would dare court-martial me, sir, and if it was disobey them or have my company die in combat it was a no-brainer."

"Why would they have died?" asked Hanson.

"Sir, he was starting training exactly as they did with the Two Falcon on Diess. Yes, sir, I have been there and done that before and I was not going to do it again; that was an oath I swore on the souls of my dead. We had, have, a critical suit shortage, the unit has not received its issue and only a few of the troops, ones transferred from other ACS units, have them. So he wanted everyone to memorize all the parts to the suits, do Posleen flash cards, and all the rest of that. In other words, bore them to death. What I tried to explain to him was that I obtained a shit-load of Milspecs, VR glasses for training, through . . . some secondary channels." Mike cleared his throat and took a puff of his cigar.

Colonel Hanson smiled. He had to remember that although this officer had extensive experience with suits and even suit combat, he did not have extensive experience as an officer. Needs must when devils drive. Since time immemorial, units that were not properly supplied had found ways of obtaining the equipment they needed. As long as it was kept to a minimum and under control it was not a problem.

"We could have been training in the field simulating eighty percent reality combat weeks ago," Mike continued after determining that the colonel was not going to question him on the source of the Milspecs. Mike was prepared to back his personnel, but it had surprised him as much as the losing company when second squad showed up with a truck full of GalTech equipment. Since then, of course, he had learned all about Sergeant Stewart and "The Squad From Hell." Now nothing surprised him.

"But that wasn't by the book—which is not my fault, I wanted to include it—so he wouldn't buy it. Then we started having problems with shit being stolen out of the barracks, rioters, vandalism, and all the other fun stuff that has been going down around here. I broke out the 'nail-guns' and got rounds for them from the ammo dump out of the training budget. Forget the rants about extremism; I thought, still do, that it made sense to at least put the weapons in the troop's hands, give them a feel for those big bastards and get in some physical training that made more sense than long slow distance runs. But he wasn't worried about the image or whatever, he was most upset that the rounds couldn't be returned to the dump and were going to be charged against his training budget before he was ready to use them for training."

"Well, I can empathize," said the colonel with a frown. "Live-fire training is expensive."

"Oh, Jesus, sir, not you too!" Mike could feel the iron bite of anger on his tongue and tried to keep under control. The last two months with Stidwell had strained his already damaged patience to the limits. This colonel was an entirely different kettle of fish, though. All he had to do was keep in control and present the situation rationally. Right. And then maybe the dreams would stop?

"Captain, training budgets are just that, budgets. You have to stay in them, especially when everybody is having to make sacrifices for this goddamn war."

"Sir, what we will actually spend for training this year can come out of my pay," Mike answered reasonably.

"What? How much do you make?" asked Hanson, surprised.

"Well, in case you haven't noticed, Fleet makes a hell of a lot more, rank per rank, than the Army, sir, but what I meant was: What is included in a training budget?"

"Well, vehicle fuel, expended rounds, consumable expenditures, food, special field equipment, that sort of thing."

"Yes, sir. The first thing to remember is that the Army had no idea what training budgets for an ACS unit would be, so they kept the budgets that they would have had as Airborne, Marines, whatever. What wasn't considered is that the suits are fueled off a dedicated fusion plant at company level that is rated for forty years use with on-board fuels. The cost is part of our capital budget including the fuel, just like suits. Suit food is cheap, a basic supply comes with the suit and recycles itself so the cost of the whole battalion's food for the year, if we stayed in suits, would come out of my pay, easy. No field toilet paper, no MREs, no vehicle fuel, no disposable plastics, the suits take care of it all, garbage in garbage out. For that matter, food comes out of the general battalion expenditure. And no ammunition costs."

"What do you mean, no ammo costs?" Colonel Hanson replied, still trying to assimilate all his other assumptions about training costs being stood on their ear.

"When we start suit training, or even VR training, you'll see, sir. The suits are absolutely awesome training vehicles; there is virtually, pun intended, no point in having a live-fire. So, we are so far overbudgeted that we could all buy Cadillacs out of the ammo budget and leave plenty to go around. So, anyway," he concluded, "the big problem is not that we don't have equipment, it's that we haven't received all of our personnel."

"I wasn't aware that, except for senior officers and NCOs, there was a personnel shortage. It sounds like you're talking about troops or company-grade officers."

"Yes, sir, that's exactly what I'm talking about. We're still waiting on twenty percent of our junior personnel consisting of females and recalled enlisted and current training cadre."

"You did say females? Females?"

"It was recently decided to open the Combat Arms to females," O'Neal answered with another puff. He was tempted to chuckle, since the colonel had gotten quite red faced at the concept of females in his battalion. But he finally decided that discretion was called for. "We are expecting four female junior officers, that I am aware of, two transfer first lieutenants from other arms and two butter bars; hell, I am getting two of them. We're also getting a slew of privates and rejuv or current-service NCOs including one of my platoon sergeants. All the girls are going through infantry training at the moment. The others are either going through retraining if they're recalled or still at their units."

"Oh, joy."

"Yes, sir. Better now than when we were having the riots; I hate to think of what would have happened then. And then when they get here we have to retrain in ACS. There is still no ACS training center."

"Right, well I do not intend to wear myself ragged trying to be my entire staff. Until there is a qualified replacement, you are the acting G-3. Get the other company commanders up here one at a time. I am taking them all on sufferance given the condition of the battalion."

"It's only partially their fault, sir. In many cases conditions resulted from direct orders of Major Stidwell."

"Well, we'll see if I agree. Okay, who is senior?"

"Captain Wolf, Charlie Company."

"Get him up here."

"Yes, sir."

"Then get started on revising the training schedule. We don't have any duties to interfere and I believe in training. As soon as the new chums arrive, I want us out in the field, twenty-four/seven until Momma makes us come in from the rain. Create a training schedule beyond your wildest dreams."

"Yes, sir!"

"And in your planning, keep one thing in mind. Our job is to put ourselves between the Posleen and civilians. The mission is to save our people. And we will not fail."





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