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Chapter 13



The Sons of Mary seldom bother,
for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother
of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once,
and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait on Mary's Sons,
world without end, reprieve or rest.

"The Sons of Martha"


Rudyard Kipling, 1907


Washington, DC, United States of America, Sol III
2317 EDT September 5
th, 2004 ad


Except for the profusion of uniforms, the nation's capital was virtually unchanged. Mike had taken the shuttle bus from Washington National and it went all over town before heading to the relatively nearby Pentagon. He caught brief glimpses of the Mall, and the streets of Georgetown were surprisingly crowded with partyers. Mike finally saw males out of uniform, persons with jobs so vital that they could not be spared as cannon fodder for the war effort. From their suits, age and haircuts, they were mostly attorneys or congressional aides. Probably for the best, thought Mike. God knows what they would be like in uniform.

In the previous year, while on tour after the Diess victories, Mike had had his fill of politicians, political aides, political military officers and everything else spin-related. Diess had given him such a clear and uncompromising view of the coming storm that he sometimes felt like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind. There had also been much more exposure to the upper echelons of the military than he had been used to and it had not been a successful exposure.

Mike's idea of subtle was to not tell the person, word for word, that they could not find their ass with both hands. Nonetheless the message came across. When a lieutenant, as he had been then, even a lieutenant with The Medal, takes an attitude like that towards officers thirty or more years his senior the lieutenant comes out of the contest the loser.

The problem, from O'Neal's point of view, was that although many of the senior military officers he had met were quite prepared for and capable of, even brilliant at, fighting humans, they still could not get their minds around the Posleen. Despite the ongoing stalemate on Barwhon and the horrendous daily losses it inflicted, they insisted on thinking of the Posleen as simply suicidal humans, something like the Japanese in World War II. And the numbers were not real to them. They thought in terms of weapons systems, tanks and armored personnel carriers, then troops, because waves of humans simply could not stand up to a modern army.

But the Posleen not only boasted incredible masses of troops so fanatical they would happily take any ordered loss to achieve any ordered objective, they also had weapons capable of negating the utility of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Although the weapons of the normal Posleen were unaimed, fired "from the hip" without careful sighting, many Posleen carried heavy railguns, capable of penetrating side armor on an M-1 tank, or hypervelocity missile launchers capable of penetrating frontal armor. And the God King leader caste carried either automatic HVMs, laser cannons or plasma cannons. A plasma cannon, even if it struck a modern tank with a glancing blow, raised the interior temperature so high it cooked the crew to death.

But all that senior officers heard was "wave charges" and "unaimed weaponry" and they assumed it would be like fighting Napoleonic-era human troops. It might even have been true were it not for the God Kings and their systems. It seemed to those senior commanders as if a modern, well-trained and equipped force should be able to slaughter them.

On that point Michael agreed; the Posleen were going to be slaughtered. What he could not get across to the senior leadership was that the Posleen couldn't care less how many they lost. They came in such masses that reducing their numbers by ninety percent often left them still outnumbering defenders, and with superior weaponry. Well, the powers-that-be would discover the error of their ways soon enough. Unfortunately Mike expected blood baths aplenty in the near future.

The bus finally pulled up to the side entrance of the Pentagon, disgorged a mass of uniformed personnel and prepared to take on another mass headed back to the airport. Mike stared at the busy, scurrying officers, so intent on superior performance of their little niches, and wondered what they all did. What in the world were thirty captains, majors and colonels, most of whom wore the Military District of Washington shoulder patch, doing flying out to distant places at ten o'clock at night?

"Their contribution to the war effort, I guess," he muttered as he stomped wearily over to the MP-guarded entrance. His day had begun at 3 a.m. and had included a prepared attack, a hasty defense and a prepared defense. He had fought three virtual "murthering great battles" and it was, in his opinion, getting nigh on to bedtime.

"Can I help you, Captain?" asked the MP lieutenant in an oddly supercilious tone, as he stepped in Mike's way. Mike recognized the symptoms. Many Army and Navy personnel resented the whole concept of Fleet Strike, effectively American units being put under a broader command, some of them removed from America and not directly defending it. And the difference in pay scale did not help matters.

Since Fleet and Fleet Strike were paid by the Federation, as opposed to Terran governments, they were paid in Federation credits. The Federation had a fixed payment scale for every level of worker throughout the Federation and the soldiers and spacemen of Fleet and Fleet Strike were given positions in that hierarchy.

Through one of those quirks of Federation law that was so beneficial to humans, military personnel had an automatically advanced caste position. Federation law legitimized differing legal structures for differing societal rank; what was illegal for a lower-rank Galactic might be legal for a higher-rank Galactic.

Since the Galactics did not recognize the difference between the legality of things civilian and military, most military activities, such as terminating sentient life, required special permissions. These, in turn, required a higher "caste." That being the case, the lowest ranked soldier or spaceman was ranked the same as an Indowy junior master craftsman. The higher ranks were thus extremely advanced in the overall Galactic hierarchy.

Given these advanced ranks, the Galactic pay scales were equivalent. A Fleet Strike captain made as much as a junior Darhel coordinator–nearly as much as an Army major general. On the other hand, with the tax increases for the war he was being taxed at almost eighty-seven percent of his income. It was a reasonable contribution to the war fund by anyone's estimation. Mike had also heard something about a Federation-mandated bonus from the Diess action. That would further add to the disparity in pay scales. Whatever the case there was extreme prejudice over the pay structure.

It was an attitude that would slowly dissipate after the war, if anyone survived, as Army units were subsumed into Fleet Strike. In the meantime it was just another hassle to be shrugged off.

"Yes, you can, Lieutenant. You can check me in. I'm supposed to report to CONARC."

"I'm sorry, Captain, you seem to be in the wrong place. CONARC is based at Fort Myer. There will be a shuttle in about forty-five minutes."

Mike handed over his copy of the e-mail and fingered the AID wrapped around his wrist. "As you can see, the orders clearly state to report to the CONARC commander at the Pentagon, not Fort Myer. So, where am I supposed to go?"

"I don't know, Captain, I'm just the gatekeeper. But these aren't authority for Pentagon entry." He did not seem a bit displeased by the problem. "And in case no one ever explained this sort of thing to you, when it says report to the commander, it actually means report to someone at the command who will report you as arrived." The lieutenant proffered another smug smile, having to explain such a simple item to one of the lords of the Fleet.

Mike fingered the AID for a moment. "Would you care to try to find out?"

"I wouldn't know where to start, Captain. I suppose you could call CONARC," he finished, pointing to a rank of pay phones outside the entrance.

"Okee-dokee." Mike slipped the AID off his wrist and set it on his head. It automatically conformed into a headset/microphone array. "Shelly, get Jack, please."

"Yes, sir," the AID chirped. There was a brief pause, then, "General Horner on the line."

"Mike?" came the clipped tones.

"Yes, sir."

"Where are you?" asked General Horner.

"At the side entrance."

"Tell the MP to clear you through to the High Commander's office, ASAP."

"Yes, sir." He looked at the MP. "Okay, Lieutenant, the Continental Army Commander say, go to dee High Commander's office, ASAP. Whadda you say?"

"I have to have an authorized clearance to permit you entry to the building, sir," said the MP, obviously calling the snotty Fleet jerk's bluff.

"Jack, he says he has to have clearance."

When Mike used the Continental Army Commander's first name, without being rebuked, the MP's face turned as white as milk. It was obviously not a bluff.

"Give him the phone," General Horner said, icily.

Mike handed over the AID, which the MP accepted gingerly, and watched as the lieutenant basically melted into the concrete. After three "yes, sirs" and a "no, sir" he handed the AID back and waved over one of the guards.

"Sergeant Wilson, take the captain directly to the High Commander's office," he said quietly.

"Have a nice day." Mike waved airily as he snapped the shiny, black AID back around his wrist.

"Yes, sir."

REMF, thought Mike.

* * *

Although Shelly could have led him through the labyrinth to the HC's office, Mike was just as glad to have the sergeant along. The slightly smiling noncom led him first to a secondary guard room to get him a temporary pass, which was, miraculously, already cleared for him, then to the area formerly dedicated to the Joint Chiefs.

They walked in through the clerks, still hard at work, and up to the desk of the final keeper of the portal, an aged black warrant officer who looked like he ate nails for breakfast. Mike had heard of Warrant Officer Kidd, an SF legend who apparently had decided that General Taylor needed a keeper at all times. He and the general went way back, so it was said, to an unlikely incident involving an annoyed alligator and two bottles of Jack Daniels. The sergeant stopped at the final keeper and saluted. "Chief Kidd, Sergeant Wilson reporting with Captain Michael O'Neal, who is here to see the High Commander."

Warrant Office Fourth Class Kidd returned the salute. "Thank you, Sergeant. Return to your post."

"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, did a perfect about-face and marched out.

"I think I ruined his whole day," said Captain O'Neal.

"Naw. Made it maybe. But you sure as hell ruined that L-T's. Or so I heard," said Kidd with a cruel chuckle. "Did you really call CONARC 'Jack' to his face?"

"And you've never called General Taylor 'Jim'?" Mike answered with a smile.

"Well, not where anyone could hear." The warrant officer stood up and towered over the dwarfish captain. "Damn, you are short," he said and held out his hand. "Warrant Officer Kidd. You can call me Mister Kidd."

"Captain Michael O'Neal," said Mike as Kidd's hand engulfed his. Kidd went immediately for a crusher grip which Mike deflected through superior gripping power, although it was hard with the size of Kidd's hands. They wrestled for a moment until a look of pain flashed across the warrant's face. "As a special favor, you can call me Mighty Mite," said Mike as he let up, slowly.

"Okay," Kidd gasped.

"Can I go in now?" asked Mike, maintaining a grip.

"Will you let go if I say, 'Yes'?"

* * *

"Mike!" said the CONARC, striding across the office with his hand outstretched, "it's good to see you. You look a hell of a lot better than the last time."

"Thank you, sir," said Mike after a perfunctory salute, shaking General Horner's hand. "Belated congratulations on the fourth star. It is well deserved. Sorry, I didn't bring any cigars, I'm flat out."

"Good cigars are getting hard to find," said General Horner, leading him across the office to a sofa set. General Taylor stood up and walked to his desk to retrieve a cigar box.

"Here," the High Commander said, proffering the box to Mike, "on the house. There's a guy in Readiness that flies down to Guantánamo about once a month. What with the warm relations we're developing with Cuba, cigars are no problem. He always brings me a couple of boxes."

Mike extracted one of the long black panatelas. "Thank you, sir."

"Take a handful. I'll get a box sent over to your company next trip."

" 'He said to the captain, just before the axe fell,' " said Mike.

"What gives you that impression?" asked Horner.

"Well, both of you gentlemen are nice guys, but there has to be a reason you're up until after midnight plying me with tobacco," Mike said with a smile.

"Not really," said General Taylor, chuckling as he lit one of the long, black cigars. "We were going to be up anyway and now was as good a time as any to brief you on your temporary mission."

"Which is?" asked Mike as he extracted his Zippo and began to puff.

"Mike," started General Horner, "as you know, as everyone knows, the defense plan that everyone was calling 'The Mountain Plan' has been scrapped. The President and the Congress will not stand for the Armed Forces not defending the coastal plains, especially the coastal plain cities. The President accepts that we cannot fight for every piece of ground, but he insists that we defend every major city. You with me so far?"

"Airborne," said Mike, carefully judging the flame on the end of the cigar. When it was drawing just right he took a deep puff. Good cigar, he thought. "Okay, boss, it's a given: The cities will be fought for. Does the President realize that that will probably inflict more damage than if we can come back in two–three years' time with full Fleet backing and kick them out?"

"Yes," said Taylor.

"Oh."

"That has actually been the subject of a series of news magazine reports," said General Taylor, dryly. "I gather you haven't been keeping up with current events."

"No, sir, I haven't," said Mike. "Not even Net news. I've been getting my company as ready as it can be."

"Apparently you succeeded," said General Taylor, chuckling. "I got a rather snippy e-mail to the effect that there must be a bug in the software for your engagement. You were able to score one hundred percent on a no-win situation. There is some question whether you diddled the software."

"I don't think so, sir," said O'Neal with a smile. "It is a well-known fact that only SFers cheat. We happened to luck out and the God King assigned by the software on the final engagement was a wuss and routed. But mostly, it helps to have done the same exercise a couple of hundred times in VR and Tactical Exercises Without Troops. I play those scenarios in my spare time for recreation, sir, something that other leaders need to learn to do. I mean, most of them don't even play Mario Brothers with their kids."

"Are you saying they need to play video games more?" asked the High Commander, surprised at the frivolous approach.

"Basically, sir," said Mike, peering at the cigar blearily. The fatigue from the long day and the days of preparation beforehand had him saying more than he intended at a first meeting with the generals. He still was not too sure of himself.

Preparing his company was at a level he understood. This "strategic" level was something else. But if being in the game had taught him one thing, it was never lose the image of confidence. Sometimes rep was the only thing that would carry your men through. And sometimes the definition of "your men" could get awfully broad.

"This gear creates a video game environment and the wargames are based on a number of video game archetypes," Mike continued. "If they would spend less time doing the work of their first sergeants and pushing hardcopy and more time in the VR environment they would do better in notional battles."

"Well," said General Horner, "we, and by that I mean General Taylor and myself and to a lesser extent you, need to decide what that battle is going to be and how it is going to be fought. I am going to outline for you, in broad strokes, what the strategic and operational mission of the ACS should be and, over the next two weeks, you suggest how we should do it, in as much detail as possible given the time. Got it?"

"Got it," answered Mike, leaning back in the chair. After a moment he leaned forward again. The comfortable armchair was a surefire way to put him to sleep. If he was going to keep from making an ass of himself in front of these officers, he was going to have to stay on his toes.

"Okay." General Horner looked up at the ceiling as if drawing thoughts from the pooling cigar smoke. "We are required, by order, to do as much as humanly possible not to lose the cities to the Posleen. First we have to define what a city is. We have arbitrarily decided to defend only the city core, because, quite frankly, we don't see any way to defend into suburbs. Oh, we'll have some depth, and some outer defenders, besides the parasite forts I'll talk about in a minute, but basically we're just going to try to hold 'downtown,' the part with the skyscrapers that Posleen shy away from landing on anyway.

"Outside the cities, near the beltway that is around most of them, now, we are going to construct modern fortresses. They won't be 'state-of-the-art' like the planetary defense centers, but they'll have some sort of curtain wall and moat system along with massive conventional firepower. We are going to give the fort commanders pretty wide leeway on how they want to arm their walls. The idea of these forts, and the central city fortifications, is to catch the Posleen between two fires. We call the outer forts 'coral forts' because they are like a spreading coral.

"The cities and the coral forts will have enough supplies to hold out for five years, if necessary. Each of them will also be just out of line of sight of a planetary defense center; that was already in the PDC plans, so we don't have to worry overmuch about them being directly assaulted by landers or command ships. If landers or command ships take to the air less than en masse, the planetary defense centers should be able to sweep them out of the sky.

"If the situation becomes completely untenable for a city's forces, they may attempt to flee to refuge. For the purely coastal cities, we are coming up with plans to evacuate them by sea."

"How, sir?" Mike interrupted. If he had one weakness it was sleep. Without regular doses his brain turned to mush. It had pretty much gone south sometime around the landing in D.C. He was currently well beyond playing guessing games. He took another hit of the nicotine hoping it would clear some cobwebs.

"Partially by subs. We're reactivating a bunch of the nuclear launch boats, boomers, that haven't been scrapped. We're ripping out all the weaponry and upgrading the environmental systems. We figure we can pack nearly a battalion into the missile section alone, more in the torpedo rooms, and so on. We're substituting the nuclear kettle with power crystals to appease the environmentalists."

"Like there's going to be an environment left," snorted General Taylor. He walked over to a sideboard and poured a measure of scotch. "Anyone care to join me in a snort?"

"I'll take a vodka, straight," said General Horner.

"Bourbon on ice, sir, thank you, sir. Much ice, sir."

"Don't be so uptight, Captain. We're all old soldiers here," said the High Commander.

"Yes, sir," Mike answered with a wink. He would rather have asked for coffee, but when the High Commander offers drinks you don't refuse.

General Horner snorted and went on. "The Navy is also reactivating all the battleships that haven't been turned into razor blades. Since there were a bunch of them that have become museums and since there were howls of protest over scrapping the last two of the Iowa class that weren't, it turns out we have eight."

"I heard about that, sir," said Mike. "Can they stand up to Posleen weapons?"

"Well, their belt—that is, the portion of their hull that is above the waterline, and most of their bridge armor—is twelve to fourteen inches of homogenous steel. That would normally be light to stand up to plasma cannons, but the steel that they are made of turned out to be surprisingly resistant. Also they're adding on some lightweight ceramet enhancements that increase their resistance to laser and plasma fire by about twenty-five percent. They'll be able to hold their own, even at short range, and think about the firepower! Each of those things has nine guns, either fourteen or sixteen-inchers."

"Didn't the Iowa lose one in an accident?" asked Mike, rubbing his chin and thinking about having a battleship broadside at his beck and call.

"Yes," said General Taylor. "But they are building a new breech at Granite City Steel in St. Louis. It'll be ready in about ten months."

"However, for those cities which cannot be evacuated by sea," continued General Horner, "there must be some alternative means."

"If you mean fighting their way out through the investing Posleen, sir," interrupted Mike, "I don't see any. Are we talking about light infantry, sir?" He hid a yawn and took a deep breath to drive some oxygen into his flagging brain.

"Some, but with enough transport organic to the division to move the whole thing. Basically a motorized infantry regiment. Most will actually be mechanized infantry, Armor or Armored Cav. The tanks and AFVs will be positioned in forward revetments or ready to sally and the troops will be in bunkers. If they have to retreat or sally there will be trucks and other transports to move the entire force and any civilians who've stayed behind. In one sortie."

"Okay, let me give you a situation and a city, sir," said O'Neal, rubbing his chin in thought, flogging his brain. "Let me see if I understand this plan. Let's talk about . . . Sacramento."

"Good choice," said General Horner, leaning back.

"Okay, sir." Mike tapped his AID. "Map menu." He tapped the icons on the hologram until he had the map he wanted and yawned again. "It looks like about a two-hour drive from Sacramento to Placerville, where, I would guess, the first of the mountain defenses would be placed. How am I so far?"

"About right," said General Horner after a moment's thought.

"Okay, sirs. That means about six to ten hours of battle to reach the first defense lines," Mike said, taking another pull on the cigar. He looked at the ceiling and flicked an ash.

"About that," agreed Taylor from the bar.

"Through a Posleen swarm," said Mike, still contemplating the ceiling.

"Yes," the generals chorused.

"Nope," said Mike, shaking his head definitively. "Sirs."

"Really?" asked General Taylor, handing out the drinks.

"Really, sir. Look at Diess or Barwhon. Remember that French armored division on Barwhon that got caught out of prepared positions during a movement?"

"Right, Third Armored Cav," said General Taylor.

"Troisieme Armore Chevalier," Mike corrected. "They lasted, what? thirty minutes?"

"There had just been a landing, Mike," pointed out General Horner, "the Posleen numbers were at their maximum."

"We have to assume an outside influence to force the evacuation, sir," O'Neal pointed out and took a sip of the bourbon. He raised an eyebrow at the quality of the sourmash. It had been in an unlabeled decanter, but it was a nice Kentucky distillery, probably an "estate" brand. Obviously being High Commander had a few perks even in these days of universal rationing.

"Okay, I'll give you that," admitted the CONARC. "Now, assume MI support for the retreat and reconfigured roadways to maximize terrain cover. How much MI support would you want to evacuate the remains of a corps out of Sacramento?"

"Oh. You're talking about covering three or four divisions?"

"Yes, or five. I think Sacramento is detailed for five divisions."

"Jesus, sir." Mike shook his head. "I don't think you could lead five of the current standing divisions to a whorehouse on a Sunday morning much less through five hours of battle with the Posleen in open field combat."

General Horner looked at Taylor and raised an eyebrow. "You wanna take that one, General?"

General Taylor smiled and shook his head. "We hope to get that under control, Captain."

Mike snorted. "Better you than me, General. Which particular magic wand are you planning on waving?"

"Mike," said Horner, warningly.

"No," said General Taylor, holding up a hand. "He's right. Things on the ground are totally fucked-up. Every fucking report we get from the IGs says the same thing." He turned to the frowning and bleary-eyed captain. It was always hard to tell if O'Neal was pissed off or not, however, because the frown was plastered on his face at all times. "There's no magic wand. We're getting more and more rejuvs in the pipeline. As we get people into their positions, most of the major problems will correct themselves. When there are officers and NCOs available to lead and be held responsible the directives that are already in place will start to take effect.

"We've got the better part of a year to fix things. And most of the divisions, especially the really bad ones, will be fighting in fixed positions. So even if they crack in places it should be controllable. But we do have one trick left."

"Mike," interjected Horner, "remember back when we were with GalTech we discussed who was going to be called up in what order?"

"Sure," said Mike, thinking back. "Combat background personnel first. Start from the highest ranks and work down. Noncombat experienced last." He thought about it a bit more and smiled faintly. That was in the days before the Galactics' problems with supply became evident. When everything was going to be pure Tech as a salvation. When the plans were perfect and the future was rosy. "Good days," he added.

"Well." General Taylor nodded, with an understanding smile. "That was the plan. But somewhere along the line the plan and the process went astray."

"One of my 'computer geeks,' " said Horner, with a wry aside to General Taylor, "finally got a look at the algorithm the personnel department was using for the call-up. It was based on Officer and Enlisted Evaluation Reports."

"Oh, shit," said Mike, with a chuckle. Although good soldiers generally came out fine on the Army's evaluations, the reports tended to miss the difference between a good leader and a "Lifer." The original plan had been to call up warriors as the first wave, setting a tone for the forces to follow. That had obviously not happened.

"So," said General Taylor, "we've had the software rewritten . . ."

"By my people," General Horner interjected.

"Right," continued Taylor. "From now on combat experience will have a high multiplier along with medals for valor. We're calling it 'The Old Soldier' program."

"Oh, hell," said Mike with a grim chuckle. "No modifier for age, right?" Most of the files that a program like that would spit out would have been formed in the caldrons of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Old soldiers indeed.

"Right," said Horner. "The program has been in place for a couple of weeks getting the bugs out, but the really big call-up will be during the conference."

There was an unexpected bark of laughter from Taylor. Both of the officers looked at him in puzzlement. Then Horner realized what he was thinking about and frowned in humor.

"What?" said Mike. The fact that something had discomfited his former mentor was obvious even through his fatigue.

"There were . . ." said General Horner, carefully.

"A few bugs," completed Taylor with a laugh. "His computer super geeks forgot that there are certain persons who, shall we say, are unavailable for recall." The senior commander laughed again, uproariously. "Oh, Jesus, the look on his face!"

Horner frowned. Hard. A sure sign he was about to burst out laughing. "The computer was searching for high-ranking officers who were still alive and had combat experience. We felt that if there were bugs, it would be better to make the mistake with senior officers than junior. The program had been deliberately set to ignore whether their experience was as the rank they 'retired' at."

"Although in one case it wouldn't have mattered," pointed out Taylor helpfully.

"I still don't get it," said Mike, looking from face to face.

"Mike," said Horner, with a slight snort of his own. "You do realize that Commander in Chief is a rank, don't you?"

"Oh," said Mike, then, "Oh!"

"Yep," said Taylor, and howled in laughter, "it called up all the surviving Presidents who had either served during a time of combat at any rank or who were President during a time of war. It recalled them at the rank of four-star general, that being the highest available, and ordered them to report to Fort Myer immediately for inprocessing as same."

"Oh, God," laughed Mike, "that's rich."

"I got a couple of very irate calls from the Secret Service," Taylor laughed. "But what was even funnier were the direct calls. One of 'em even offered to come back as his 'original' rank."

"Did you take him up on it?" asked Mike.

"Nah. I was tempted. God knows Fleet needs every pilot it can get. But it would have been a political nightmare. I hope he was just joking."

"Anyway," said Horner, severely, "right after this conference is the big kickoff. To make sure nothing goes too wrong on one end of the spectrum, we will, with great ceremony, recall every single winner of the Medal of Honor still at large."

"Oh, man," said Mike, quietly. Although he wore the Medal himself, he was sure that most of the other winners were real heroes. Whenever he was in their company he felt like a piker. What he had not yet realized was that most of the Medal winners felt the same way about the other holders.

"We're hoping that the infusion of 'heroes' will put some spine in the force," said Taylor, seemingly pulling a knife out of the air and cutting the end off of his own cigar. The knife, after a brief flurry that looked like a simple habit rather than showing off, disappeared as rapidly.

"We're reactivating the 'Strike, Line, Guard' concept as well," the High Commander continued. "The plan of creating 'elite' Line forces that were mobile shock forces fell by the wayside along with a lot of other ideas." He lit the cigar with a silver lighter. The inscription "Who Dares Wins" was faintly visible along with a chased dagger and wings.

Taylor took a drag on the cigar and let out a stream of blue smoke. "Right now, other than the Fleet Strike Forces and Special Operations, the only forces that show overall high readiness are some of the Cavalry regiments. We're going to start the Line concept around them. They will become mostly volunteer and will be moved to locations where they can be used to reinforce defense points and sally against Posleen columns. They're going to take a hell of a lot of casualties, but I expect there will always be volunteers.

"So, most of the 'heroes' will end up in Line units," Horner pointed out. "But they're going to be bearing the brunt so it's the right place to put them."

"Just remember," said Mike, rubbing his eyes, "some of these guys are not going to be tightly wrapped."

"Speaking from experience, Mighty Mite?" asked Horner.

"I've had my bad days, sir," Mike admitted, quietly. "Nights, usually."

"You need a break, son," said Horner. He didn't tell him they already had something in mind.

"I had one, remember, sir," said Mike, sourly. "I was on a Bond Tour."

"That wasn't a break and you know it," said Horner. "And it wasn't my fault. I didn't have a shred of pull back then."

Mike nodded and decided to change the subject. "Apropos of nothing, sir, where is the equipment for all these mechanized and mobile divisions coming from?"

"Chrysler is back in the armor-making business, has been for nearly a year. They and GM have been producing like mad, son," said General Taylor. "They've not only stepped up their production rate beyond anything they expected, they've converted two factories in western Pennsylvania and Utah for M-1 production and four for Bradley production. The Toyota plant in Kentucky is about to get into the business as well. Modern equipment we have out the ass. What we don't have is GalTech."

"And even an Abrams can't stand up to Posleen for very long," continued General Horner.

"Hmm. Any more rabbits in the hat?" asked Mike.

"Like what?" asked Jack.

"Like independent forts along the way?"

"No," said the CONARC. "We've only got so much logistics to go around. Not to mention bodies. We have to concentrate on the cities, not long-ball chances like the evac. There might be some small outposts—we're looking at doing some stuff with militias—but by this time they will probably be swept away. That's where the mobile infantry comes into play." The fate of the defenders was obvious. But the general carefully did not comment on that.

"And in the southwest," interjected General Taylor, flicking an ash from his stogie.

"And in the southwest," agreed Horner, "which is going to be an Eleventh Mobile Infantry show. The other use for the MI will be as support during the initial retreat to the montane defenses and to ensure that the Posleen do not break through the Appalachian defenses especially. What we want you to do is go over the conventional battle plans being developed and set up the MI zones of responsibility.

"Zones of responsibility will not be detailed to units smaller than a battalion," continued Horner. "The units you have to work with are the 508th , 509th and the 555th. The Eleventh will be used as a division to hold the 'underbelly.' "

"Are we going to have all of those?" Although there were plans in the pipeline to supply all those regiments with suits, the schedule of supply had been pushed back and back. Pretty soon they were going to start taking losses and the new suits would be going to replace casualties.

"We have to assume so," Horner stated. His grim smile belied the words. "I've set up an office with a couple of staff and all the necessary clearances. And of course you've got Michelle," said General Horner, gesturing at the captain's AID.

"Shelly," corrected Mike, fingering the bracelet of black intelli-plastic. "Michelle died on Diess."

"Sorry," said General Horner, ignoring the inquiring glance from General Taylor, "Shelly. Can you work out the details with just that?"

"I could do it without the staff, if everything is in the network."

"It is," said Horner.

"Then no problem."

"Initial deployments and SOP battle plans for three regiments in wildly varying terrain?" asked General Taylor. "No problem?"

"Yes, sir," said O'Neal with a tired smile. He thought it would be a nightmare, but doable. "After activating a company of multigenerational soldiers being introduced to science fiction technology for the first time, in an encampment that has daily riots, this will be a piece of cake."

"Okay," chuckled General Horner, tossing back the last of his vodka. "You have three weeks. Your company will be on leave by then and you're going on leave as well. Colonel Hanson asked me to make that an order, by the way."

"Yes, sir. I could do with a little time off."

"I agree," said Taylor. "And so did Lieutenant General Left."

Mike looked suspiciously from general to general. "How did the Fleet Strike Commander, who I trust is still safely ensconced on Titan, become involved?"

"Well, Bob seemed like the best point of contact to make with Fleet," said Horner with a frown.

Mike flicked an ash off his cigar and frowned warily. "And why did Fleet get involved?"

"Well, we had to get permission from Vice Admiral Bledspeth," explained Taylor.

"Yes, sir," said Mike, his suspicions fully aroused. "I suppose you did. For what is the question?"

"Well, to get them to kick Sharon loose," said Horner.

"And shuttle her down for a break of her own," pointed out Taylor. "That was almost harder."

Mike's jaw dropped. "Sharon's taking leave?" he asked incredulously. "Since when?"

"What time is it?" asked Taylor, ostentatiously looking at his watch.

Horner gave one of his rare true smiles. "Close your mouth, Mike, flies will take advantage. Think of it as having friends in high places. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a reward for maxing your FSTEP."

"Sir," the captain spluttered. "This is not funny. It is completely unfair to everyone else in the world who has a spouse on detached duty! It is the worst case of personal privilege I can imagine!"

"Yes, it is," said Taylor, seriously. "But most of those soldiers have not made the contributions you have. Most of those soldiers are not going to be asked to shoulder the burdens you, and Sharon, will be asked to shoulder. And most of those families, despite the occasional tear-jerker news report, don't have both parents in harm's way."

"Mike," said Horner, seriously also. "It's a done deal. I knew you would react this way which is why I didn't even ask you about it. Take it as a gift from a friend or an order from a general. I don't care which. But Sharon will be on leave a week before you get kicked loose. Then you'll have a week together. After that you'll have a week by yourself. And that will probably be the last break you have for years."

"Yes, sir," said O'Neal, finally getting over the shock. Looked at a different way it was a hell of a compliment. The only part that bothered him was the personal privilege. He finally decided that this was one gift horse where he wasn't gonna look at the teeth.

"Take off, Mighty Mite. It's good to have you around."

" 'Night, sir," said Mike. He paused at the door in thought. "And thanks," he said.





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