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CHAPTER EIGHT Options and Obligations

Major General Xavier Servais looked up as Colonel Mondesi entered the compartment. The colonel's great-great-grandparents had migrated from the island of Haiti to the Fringe World of Christophe, and his face was the color of obsidian . . . and utterly expressionless. Which, Servais thought as he stood behind his desk, meant Mondesi had already heard about his orders.

"Colonel." Servais offered his hand, and the younger man clasped it firmly. "Sit, please." Servais gestured at a chair and waited until Mondesi obeyed his polite command before he reseated himself. He pulled a pipe from his pocket and took his time stuffing it. It was an archaic affectation, but he sometimes found it a useful bit of stage dressing, and he used the delay to study Mondesi.

He liked what he saw. The colonel had posted a superb record in the specialized world of the Marines' Raiders, and despite whatever he'd already heard, he returned the general's measuring gaze levelly. That argued for more than his fair share of intestinal fortitude . . . and he was going to need all of that he had.

"I wanted to see you to discuss a special operation, Colonel," Servais said once he had his lit pipe drawing. "We're calling the overall plan Redemption, and you've been tapped to command one component of it: Operation Citadel. The good news, such as it is, is that you're being breveted to brigadier for the op, but I won't sugarcoat things. The odds of your living long enough to have the rank confirmed aren't good."

He paused for Mondesi's reaction, but the colonel simply nodded and said, "May I ask what this operation will consist of, Sir?"

"You may." Servais leaned back, caressing the polished bowl of his pipe with one hand. "Now that the enemy-the 'Bugs,' as Admiral Murakuma calls them-have K-45, it's only a matter of time until they hit Justin. The Fleet hurt them badly, but they got in their own licks, and the Admiral's staff estimates we have no more than three weeks before they resume the advance."

Raphael Mondesi nodded again. Most space battles were both violent and brief. When fleets threw antimatter warheads at one another, it seldom took long for the weaker side to be annihilated or run, but the Battle of K-45 had been different.

TF 59 had done what it set out to do and mauled the enemy brutally, but at a price. With the Archers eliminated, TG 59.2's battleships' superior datalink had let them hold their own, but their mixed missile and force beam batteries had compelled them to come into range of the enemy's Avalanche-class SDs. They'd learned the hard way that the Acids did, in fact, mount missile launchers to back their plasma batteries, but their salvos had been too light to break through Murakuma's point defense, and the only Bug energy weapon with the range to reach her had been the Avalanches' force beams. She'd taken a pounding from those beams, but she'd ignored the Acids and coordinated the fire of her battle-line's shipboard weapons with strikes by carefully hoarded fighters to pick off as many Avalanches as possible, then broken off. But this time it hadn't been to withdraw. She'd disengaged just long enough to carry out emergency repairs to her own ships, then resumed the action.

No one had ever seen a battle like it. For five full days, Vanessa Murakuma had played matador, smashing away at her overwhelming opponents with ever dwindling numbers, drawing them ever further from her exit warp point. She'd battered ship after ship into wreckage, and as each mangled hulk fell out of formation, her surviving fighters pounced upon it and finished it off. She and Demosthenes Waldeck had reorganized their battlegroups on the fly-mixing and matching as damage drove individual units out of action, pulling out ships with empty magazines to race back to the colliers and reammunition. Damage control crews had labored till they dropped, fighting the mounting tide of crippled systems, and not a single unit of her own battle-line had escaped unhurt. When she finally disengaged for good, she'd lost eighty percent of her fighters, a battleship, three battle-cruisers, two heavy cruisers, and five destroyers, with eight more capital ships-including the battleships Conquistador and H'eros-so damaged they'd barely been able to limp back to Sarasota. But she'd destroyed fifty-three superdreadnoughts first.

It was, by any measure, the most one-sided victory in naval history . . . and it hadn't changed a thing, for yet another wave of Bug capital ships had entered K-45 even as Murakuma disengaged. Her superior speed had let her break contact, preventing the Bugs from tracking her to her exit warp point, so they'd have to find it the hard way, but when they did . . .

"I understand, Sir," the colonel said. "May I assume Citadel has something to do with what happens when they do arrive?"

"You may." Servais' voice was much grimmer than before. "In the absence of direct divine intervention, they're going to push us out of Justin. We managed to evacuate eighty-five percent of the Merriweather colonists . . . but that left over a million behind. And while the transit time from Justin A to Sarasota is less than twenty percent that from Merriweather to Sarasota, there are four times as many people in the system, and we've got, at best, a month. That means we're going to have to leave at least nine million more people behind. Admiral Murakuma feels-and I agree-that we cannot simply write those people off, and that's where you come in."

He pinched the bridge of his nose, then sighed.

"I don't like last-man battles," he said, "but that's exactly what this war's going to demand. We can't negotiate civilian surrenders, because we don't have the least idea how to communicate with these Bugs. And, judging by the Erebor transmissions, there's no point trying to figure it out. They see us as food sources, Colonel. All we can do is give them the worst case of bellyache they ever had, and civilians don't have the training or the firepower for that."

"But Marines do," Mondesi said.

"Marines do," Servais confirmed. Their eyes met for a long, silent moment, and then the colonel nodded once again.

"What's the plan, Sir?" he asked quietly.

"We'll concentrate on evacuating Justin A." Servais activated a holo display of the Justin Binary System above his desk. "Justin and Harrison"-the third and fourth planets of Component A flashed as he named them-"have much larger populations than Clements"-Justin B II lit in turn-"and with the Sarasota warp point associated with Justin A, the transit time is seventy hours shorter. Admiral Murakuma's already instructed Clements to shut down all emissions and go bush. There are less than a million people on the entire planet, scattered around in very small settlements, so they may be able to conceal their presence from anything but a very close scan.

"But we can't do that for Justin A, so Admiral Eusebio's sent up every rifle, mortar and HVM he can find. Your job, Colonel, is to distribute those weapons to the civilians of Justin and Harrison. I've already contacted General Merman, the system Peaceforce CO, and we're organizing quicky classes to bring his people up to speed on frontline equipment. We're also combing out our Marine contingents, and I estimate we can give you the equivalent of a light division."

Servais paused, looking into Mondesi's steady eyes, and raised one hand, palm uppermost.

"Even with the Peaceforcers to back you, a light division could never stand off an invasion, Colonel, but that isn't your job. The Navy's going to reinforce as quickly as possible, and it's our intention to retake Justin at the earliest possible moment. I wish I could tell you how soon that will be. I can't. All I can tell you is that it's your job to organize and lead a guerrilla resistance for as long as you can-hopefully until we can retake the system. In the meantime, Admiral Murakuma's staff is organizing a plan for Redemption, a raid to be launched in the event the Bugs offer us an opportunity to mount it. They will designate refuge areas, landing zones from which we will attempt to lift out anyone we can if we're able to fight our way back in even temporarily, but don't count on that happening."

The grim-voiced general held the colonel's gaze and spoke very quietly.

"I have never before sent an officer into a situation in which I expected him to die, Colonel Mondesi. In this case, however, I have no choice but to do precisely that. Admiral Murakuma truly thinks she may be able to relieve you. I believe she'll make every humanly possible effort to do just that . . . but I expect her to fail. Which means you and all your people will be on your own. I won't insult you or them by pretending otherwise to stiffen your morale. I will simply remind you that you are Marines and that you will be defending nine million civilians."

Servais stood and held out a data chip to the officer he'd just condemned to death.

"Your official orders and full data on Justin and Harrison are on the chip. Under the circumstances, the least I can do is give you complete freedom in planning your own operations. Anything my staff or I can do to assist you is yours for the asking."

"Yes, Sir." Mondesi slipped the chip into his pocket. "We'll remember we're Marines, General," he said.

"I never doubted it, Colonel." Servais extended his hand once more, and Mondesi gripped it as firmly as he had when he first entered the compartment. "God bless, Colonel," the general said very quietly, and Mondesi nodded, released his hand, and walked through the hatch.



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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