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CHAPTER TWENTY Ashes of Victory

"It's confirmed, Sir-they never even landed on Clements!"

"I'll be damned." Major General Raphael Mondesi, TFMC, Lion of Terra, Grand Solar Cross, shook his head. He'd never believed-never let himself believe-Admiral Murakuma's order to go bush would work, but the entire population of Justin B had eluded the Bugs. It wouldn't have worked against humans, he thought. We're too damned curious. Someone would've landed, if only to see what was there. But the Bugs didn't. Interesting-and possibly useful. If they're that much less curious than we are, we may just be able to use it against them.

He nodded, but he had little time to ponder the thought, for his assault force was closing on the planets of Justin A. After lengthy discussion, he and Least Claw Thaaraan, Fang Anaasa's senior Marine, had concluded they had no choice but to hit Justin and Harrison in succession. Neither liked it, and their troopers were going to be enormously outnumbered anyway, however they operated, but this time Mondesi had the assets to equalize the odds. His transports' assault shuttles would make mincemeat out of any Bug helicopter foolish enough to contest the air, and their escorting starships would be available for fire support. They could lay conventional precision-guided munitions in right on his own positions at need, and the Fleet Base had diverted enough of its capacity to build sufficient support weapons to arm the Allied contingents with Terran mortars, heavy grenade launchers and HVM.

He turned to the holo Fleet had already generated from radar and optical mapping, and his eyes were bleak. That detailed, space-eye look at the terrain was invaluable, but it also revealed what had happened to the planets he'd tried to defend.

What had been cities were wastelands churned by high explosives, incendiaries . . . even nukes. The humans of Justin and Harrison had known what would happen to them, and those who'd been unable to make it to the refugee camps had stood and fought with the ferocity of despair. Now their hopeless fight had ground to its ghastly conclusion, and the shattered ruins told him what he was going to find.

He glared at the glass-floored crater which had once been Justin's capital, and hate boiled at his core like lye. This deliberate mass slaughter of noncombatants said there not only would not but could not be any question of quarter or negotiated peace. As Admiral Murakuma had said so many months before, when this war ended, there would be only the victors and the dead, and so Raphael Mondesi embraced his hatred, for if a species must die, it would not be his.

* * * | In Death Ground | * * *