The President hunched forward in his chair, watching the video from Barwhon. The scene was a large, dry open area in the towering forests and swamps. Debris was scattered across the field, bits of cloth and torn tents. Ripped packages of combat meals could be discerned in the foreground, the Mylar linings reflecting the omnipresent purple sky.
The voiceover from the reporter was unnecessary. A clip taken the week before of the same crew's visit to the command center of the First Infantry Division had preceded the current view. Where the brigade of logistics and management personnel had been was now a wasteland of shredded equipment and camouflage uniforms. There was not a body to be seen.
The mistake had been trivial, a battalion being rotated out of the line, their relief missing the "handoff" by a slim margin, an unanticipated Posleen assault. Suddenly a mass of Posleen equivalent to a division was in the rear area. While the flanked line brigades of the division had struggled for existence, the Posleen had sliced through the lightly armed and undertrained rear area personnel like a buzz saw through balsa.
The final casualties were still being counted. As always with the Posleen, it was the Missing In Action column that was the largest. Virtually all of them could be counted on as dead. Many would be rations for aliens, others bits and pieces lost in the ruck the Armored Combat Suits had made of the Posleen.
The ACSs, a British battalion this time, had led the rescue divisions. The suits, heavily reinforced with fire from the oncoming support, had slashed through the centaurs and relieved the survivors of the American infantry division. Then they had led the French reinforcements into their positions and hunted the Posleen into the ground.
But the losses were enormous. Most of the division was missing, which meant dead. And during the primaries, he was not in a position to take the heat from this debacle.
He flipped off the television and spun in his chair to face the secretary of defense.
"Well?" the President asked.
"It's not as if it hasn't happened before—" said the secretary, only to be cut off.
"Not in the last year. We lost heavily in the first year's fighting, but this is the first big loss anyone has had this year."
"The Chinese just took a big hit on Irmansul, Mister President," commented his national security advisor. The former infantry commander rubbed the side of his nose. He had made his suggestions the first week he had been with the administration. Now to see if they would take fruit.
"But not NATO forces," the President snapped. The treaty was nearly moribund, but the term was still used to indicate the units from "First World" countries. NATO forces commanded far higher funding from the Galactics than counterparts from other areas of the world; a NATO division cost the Galactics twelve times as much as a Chinese division. "Let the Irmansul consortium get what they paid for! But we cannot afford these sorts of losses. And they have to stop!"
"It's war, Mister President," said the secretary, casting a sidelong glance at the NSA. "You win some and you lose some."
"Well, I've never been a 'loser,' Robby," the President snapped, angrily. "And I've got to wonder if that's the case with all of our commanders?"
"Do you have a problem with the chain of command, Mister President?" asked the secretary.
"I don't know," said the President, snidely. "Do you think we have a problem? First we have all these news reports about training and discipline problems. Then we're still reeling from the arguments over whether we should defend the coastal plains or not. Then we have this. I have to wonder if we have the right people in the right jobs!"
"There are several issues currently—" the secretary started and was cut off again.
"I don't want to hear about issues!" the President snapped. "I want to hear about results! Now, do you have any suggestions?"
The secretary of defense finally understood what the President wanted. The President wanted a "policy-maker's" head. With the campaigning already started, he wanted to be distanced from the failure on Barwhon, while having the blame pinned precisely. That meant placing it at a high enough level that the administration could be seen as "doing something." The secretary suddenly realized that he should only offer his own resignation if he really meant it.
"I think we need to consider a new command team for Ground Forces," said the secretary, carefully.
"I think we need to consider more than that," said the President. "I think we need to completely replace the upper command and change the command structure . . ."
The NSA hid a small smile. Fertile ground indeed.
* * *
The general gave a broad and humorless smile. It was a well-known mannerism that countless subordinates had fallen victim to. "He did what?"
General Jim Taylor, Chief of Staff to the Ground Forces High Commander, gave a huge grin and balanced the Fairbairn combat knife he was playing with on one finger. "He canned the commander and the vice." Jim Taylor had dealt with plenty of Marines in his time, and as far as he was concerned, the vice commander was just a guy wearing a Marine's hat. "And he's completely changed the command structure. The High Commander will command Training Command, Intelligence, Logistics, what have you. Including 'Base Support Command.' "
"CONARC," said the other general. He gave a resigned sigh. At least his position had finally been given its correct name. He had held the position of CONARC for the past two years, ever since completing his assignment as head of the Infantry branch of the Galactic Technology Board. It had been an intensely frustrating period. Not only was his background as one of the most experienced combat commanders in the Army being squandered, he was responsible for bases that were out of his control. He was the "commander" of the base personnel and "owned" the bases, but he did not have command of the units assigned to those bases. And those units were halfway mutinous and engaging in almost daily riots. Then the cost of the cleanup for those riots came out of his budget. So he was watching a previously stellar career come crashing down because of others' failures.
"Nope," said General Taylor. "Continental Army Command is the biggest change. There will be two 'Force' commands under the High Commander: CONARC and ExForC. Continental Army Command and Expeditionary Force Command. The commander of CONARC will have direct command and control of all combat forces in the continental United States."
The silver-haired general Taylor had been addressing sat bolt upright in his chair and pinned his ebony-skinned superior with a glacial-blue gaze. "Are you kidding?"
"Nope," said Taylor with a grin. "And, before you even ask. Yeah, Jack, you get to keep the position. I say that as the new High Commander," he added with an even wider grin.
General Jack Horner sat back in his chair and a rare, real smile violated his normally serious mien. "Congratulations. Jesus, there is a God."
Taylor shrugged and expertly threw the knife into a cork dartboard with a picture of Jar-Jar Binks pinned on it. "There are other problems. He wanted to switch back to Ridicuplan, but I talked him out of it, I think. But we have to maintain forces on the coastal plains during the main invasion."
"Oh," said Horner with another thin smile. "Great."
"Yeah. He's got a point; public opinion is dead set against losing the plains completely. It would tear us apart as a country to fall back on the Appalachians and the Rockies, giving up all the major cities . . ."
"Nice recitation," commented Horner. "Are you considering running for Congress?"
"Say that and smile, partner," said Taylor, with a warning grin. "No, but it's also true."
"Sir," said Horner, formally. "There is no way to defend the plains."
"Oh, don't get me wrong, Jack. I know that and I'm not gonna piss away boys' lives trying. And I'm not gonna let the President, either. What we have to do is come up with a plan to defend certain key cities."
"Which ones?" asked General Horner, frowning slightly in agreement. "That I can live with, if we don't have to defend too far out."
"Well, we're going to decide which ones and where. But I more or less promised that if it is 'historic' it would get defended."
Horner nodded. "You know, I played around with that a while back. Defend the inner part of all the 'major' cities that we were planning on losing. But we don't want to do it with a normal population."
"I told him that, too." Taylor nodded. "We'll plan on evacuating all but the military and an essential civilian presence. No children stay."
Horner nodded with another positive frown. "Good. This will actually be a better defense plan, you know."
Taylor nodded with a grim smile. "The cities will pull some of the heat off of the mountain defenses."
"That and it will keep some of the Posleen where those refurbished battleships can reach them," Horner noted. "I'll have a list of recommended cities for defense by the end of the week. Count on Norfolk, DC, San Francisco and New York."
"Okay," said Taylor. "And start thinking about ways to pull out the defenders if it gets too hot. They'll have to be planning on staying for five years, without external support. But if they're going to get overrun, there will have to be a plan."
"Something else for the ACS to handle," Horner said with a frown. He had just the person in mind to write that part of the plan. Always call on an expert.