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Authors: John G. Hemry

Tags: #Science Fiction

Stark's Command (3 page)

BOOK: Stark's Command
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"That's how you stop them."

"Depends. Forget where the enemy troops are this second. Forget about trying to hold on to as much ground as possible. If you had your choice, where would you try to stop the enemy advance? Stop it cold."

"My choice? You mean the best terrain?"

"Yeah. Anywhere short of the Colony."

"Right here." She illuminated the spot, an isolated ridge of rock rearing up slightly off center from the enemy advance. A remnant of a very old crater, perhaps, the rest of its walls long since pulverized by subsequent minor impacts. "Great ground. But it's too far back. If that spot didn't hold we wouldn't have anyplace else to make a stand before the Colony."

Stark narrowed his eyes, studying the position. "That's its strength, Vic. It gives us time to establish a line before the enemy gets there."

"Ethan, if you don't hold the line there, we've lost."

"Yeah, but if we can't hold there, we won't be able to hold anywhere." He nodded, once. "Okay. Get those battalions on the way there."

"Both of them?" Reynolds questioned sharply.

"We gotta stop them and then roll them back."

"Not that way," she insisted. "Main force against main force? And what if all those running soldiers break a battalion the way they broke Charlie Company? Think, Ethan. You don't want every egg in one basket."

Every nerve demanded action, but Stark forced himself to stand before the display. "Okay, one battalion goes to hold the ridge. Where should the second go?"

Vic swung one arm along an arc, a planner in her element, the despair of a moment before lost in the rush of action. "Deploy them along this side of the penetration. Hit the enemy in the flank after you've stopped them. Or, if worse comes to worse, hit the flank and try to stop them that way."

"Good. Great." He turned to go. "I'm on my way."


"I'm on my way," Stark repeated. He pointed again, this time to the retreating symbology. "Those running soldiers won't stop just because there's a battalion waiting at that ridge, anymore than they did when they hit Charlie Company. I've gotta be there to hold them."

"Ethan, you're all that's holding this entire army together! If you die, everything will come apart!"

"Vic, everything
coming apart." He turned away, leaving her groping for an answer. "Sergeant Tanaka, I need a ride out to the front. How soon can I get an APC here?"

She nodded and gestured simultaneously. "An Armored Personnel Carrier? You got one. Two, actually. The Commanding General's Mobile Operations Centers."

Stark scowled. "I said I wanted an APC."

"They are APCs. Just a little modified with extra command and control gear." Tanaka's fingers danced over several screens.

"I've downloaded the directions to the APC loading dock into your Tac and alerted the drivers. Have a nice trip."

"Thanks Sarge." Stark ran, following the path Sergeant Tanaka had entered into his armor's Tactical Combat System, but deliberately slowing his pace from a mad dash to a quick jog.
No way I want people to see me running like crazy—
The APC loading access gapped ahead, much larger than Stark was used to and set into the side of the vehicle so he could board just by walking.
Why the hell did they compromise the armor and the camouflage by putting a door in the damn thing? Guess Generals don't like having to climb into their personal vehicles.

Stark dove into the seat directly facing the command displays, fumbling with his restraining harness until he realized it had been much more heavily padded than usual. With a muttered curse he slammed the buckles home, then sat for a long moment.
Alright, already. Let's go!
He jacked in, cursing again at the delay. "Driver? What's the holdup?"

"Awaiting orders, sir."

Ah, hell. All my career I've gotten on these things and they've gone where someone else told them to go. Guess I've got to break a few habits.
Stark pinpointed the ridge on his display and bounced it to the APC systems. "Here's a position. Get me there as fast as you can."

"Yessir." The APC rose with a smooth glide, unlike the wicked lurches Stark was used to experiencing when riding as a simple grunt. Accelerating rapidly, the vehicle shot down the wide lane leading through the lunar surface over the headquarters complex, only to slow significantly as it entered the broken terrain outside the developed areas.

"What's the problem?" Stark snapped. "How come you slowed down so much?"

"There's a lot of rocks out here, sir. I've got to be careful maneuvering around them."

"A lot of rocks?" Stark switched to an exterior view, watching the terrain scroll past. Tortured rock, interspersed with puddles of dust. Dead as only something that had never known life could be dead. The terrain didn't look too bad for a lifeless expanse of rock on the Moon. "How long you been driving up here?"

"Four years."

"Four—? Why don't you have more experience with driving around this junk?"

"I'm the General's driver, sir," the driver noted with a trace of annoyance. "I'm always on call if the General needs a vehicle."

And all those Generals probably only rode this thing around the Colony, if that. What a waste of a good soldier and a decent vehicle. One more thing to fix if and when I get the chance.
"Well, mister, you're driving me, now. Get this thing moving. I don't care if the paint gets scratched or the fenders dented."

"Uh, standing orders—"

"Just got changed. Move it!"

"Yes, sir." The APC accelerated again, not to the pace an experienced driver could have maintained, but noticeably faster than it had been poking along at before.

Stark worked the controls before him, bringing up the sector display. He paused, one finger poised to call up direct vid from a frontline soldier, then lowered the hand.
Too easy to watch this battle through the eyes of the people fighting it instead of doing my own job of trying to watch the big picture. Blasted command and control gear is too good.
Without his willing it, Stark's memory flashed to the initial assault on the Moon. Years ago, the first time the command and control vid had been fed straight to the networks with minimal time-delay as another form of mass entertainment, the first time the brass in the Pentagon figured out that a public hungry for blood-and-guts entertainment would pay to watch the real thing going down. A clever way to boost the military budget and fund some more hyperexpensive weapons without inflicting pain on civilian taxpayers, never mind how the average soldier felt about it, and never mind another big wedge driven between civilian and military society.
Why'd we put up with it as long as we did? And how do I get my people to fight now?
He stared grimly at the sector display.
Still running. Lots of them. But the flanks are holding. Nobody's even bothering the Castle.
He flinched at the sight of the forces massing against his old Squad's position on the other flank. "Anita," he called. "How's it goin'?"

"Been better,
Only someone who knew her well could have detected the worry behind her grim words. "They lost a lot of people trying to push us out fast, and now they're trying to do it smart. Nothin' we can't handle so far, though. Kinda busy to talk."

"Understand." He broke the link, fighting off an overwhelming sense of dread.
What was that story my friend Rash had told me about? Spartans. Yeah. Hold 'til you die. Why did it have to be my old Squad?

"Stark?" The voice could have come from beside him, but the command display highlighted a location on the other side of the perimeter. "What's going on?"

Stark took a deep, calming breath before replying in an even, confident voice. "We got problems in one sector. I'm heading there now."

"Problems?" another Sergeant queried. "Looks like the front collapsed there."

"Yeah. That's how it looks 'cause that's what happened. But the edges of the penetration are holding, and we got a coupla battalions headed to knock the enemy back on their butts."

"How come they're running, Stark?" a third voice wondered.

Count to five, slowly, before answering. "I'll ask them when I get there."

"We're getting some pressure, too," a fourth Sergeant added. "They're pushing us in front and the guys guarding our rears are running away. We can't hold our positions with that happening."

Stark stared bleakly at the display, feeling uncertainty rising on all sides, the small hesitations multiplying, every one inconsequential in and of itself, but together building into a force that could turn the defenders into a panicked mob. "I told you we're gonna seal this penetration."

"Maybe we oughta fall back a little."

"No!" Stark almost shouted it.
Start falling back now, and they'll never stop.
"Hold on! Everybody hold their positions."


Why. Simple question. One word. Very hard answer. Why get yourself killed for something and someone else? Just having that question asked meant trouble, because "why" was one of the things you were supposed to be able to take for granted that everybody knew. "Why" had been easier to answer before Meecham's offensive had slaughtered the Third Division in repeated attacks against strong defenses, before the long habit of obedience had been shattered as unit after unit in Stark's own First Division had revolted against their own officers in order to try to save the remnants of the Third. Now, every possible reply seemed to have too many words, explanations too lengthy to have meaning to someone staring at incoming fire. Stark spoke with forced calm even as his mind churned in futile search for the answer that would likely do the job. "If anybody falls back, they'll screw everybody on their flanks and everybody in the rear."

"We're getting screwed now, Stark."

"You're in fortified positions," Vic broke in. "If you run, you'll be out in the open and much easier targets."

"Sure, Reynolds. But you'd still be at headquarters, and we'd be just as dead either way. Why should we do that?"

Stark felt pain, looking down to see his fist clenched so hard the armored fist of his suit was forming a vise. What reason could he give these Sergeants, what cause, when so much they'd always believed in and depended upon had been swept away along with the authority of their imprisoned officers? But maybe "what" was the wrong question right now, right this moment. Maybe right now he could only give them a "who." Sometimes people who couldn't find strong enough reasons to fight for themselves could find the reasons to fight for somebody else.

Stark let his anger and frustration boil over, spitting out each word with accusing force. "Okay, Goddammit. You apes elected me to this rotten job. I didn't want it, but I said I'd do my best because you guys gave it to me."

"We trusted you—"

"And I trusted you! So now you're gonna leave me hanging while I try to do this damn job? Is that right?"

"Stark, we've got our butts on the line here."

"What the hell do you think I'm doin'? Looking at the damn scenery? I'm goin' out there. I'm goin' on the line. And I'm gonna hold that line. Because you gave me a job to do, and I'm gonna do it. So who the hell's gonna screw me? Who's gonna leave my backside hangin' out? You, Carmen? How about you, Jones? Or maybe Truen?"

A moment's silence as the APC swerved around obstacles, rocking Stark in his harness though his eyes stayed fixed on the command display. "We ain't gonna screw you, Stark," an answer finally came. "We just, you know . . ."

"No, I don't know. This is a battle. The enemy's in front of you. Kill 'em if they come at you, and they'll stop coming. That idea too complicated for anybody?" Silence, maybe embarrassed, maybe defiant. "So, you gonna fight? You gonna hold? You gonna back me up?" Stark demanded.

"Yeah. We put you out there. We'll watch your flanks. Give 'em hell, Stark."

"Thanks." He'd meant it to come out at least half-sarcastic, but relief made it sincere. A moment later, the APC braked gently, coming to a carefully controlled stop. Stark waited, fuming at the delay until the vehicle finally halted, then popped his harness and the access hatch in one motion. With the ease of long practice in low gravity, he shoved off surfaces with hands and feet to drive himself out and down instead of depending on the Moon's gentle pull for impetus. "Get the APC back about ten meters," he ordered the driver. "Have the gunner cover the ridge, but don't fire without my say-so."

"Uh, sir, mobile command center-configured armored personnel carriers don't have any armament."

"You don't have a gun? Nothing?"

"No, sir. All the command and control gear takes up too much space."

"Oh, for . . . never mind. Get that damned thing back ten meters and try to look threatening." Stark stood on the surface, the unnamed ridge rising before him, blasted black rock merging into endless black sky lit with a trillion trillion tiny lights that offered neither heat nor comfort. On the other side of the ridge, panic-stricken soldiers were streaming his way. Behind him, a battalion of soldiers was rushing toward this spot. But here, now, everything around sat quiet, still, and empty. Shut out the frantic messages filling comm circuits, look past the HUD crawling with enemy and friendly unit symbols, ignore the APC resting a short distance back, and Stark might be alone on the surface, the only human on the otherwise dead lunar landscape.
Just like that first human here, the guy who made the speech about everybody cooperating to share the Moon. Too bad all the other countries thought we meant it and came up here to get their share. Too bad our greedy corporations couldn't be happy with owning everything on Earth and had to tell their bought-and-paid-for politicians to order us up here to take it all back, so we end up fighting an endless war that we can't win and refuse to lose no matter how much we bleed. Yeah, too bad that for every human who wants to cooperate in building something there's usually two willing to cooperate to destroy it.
Far above, the blue-white marble of Earth beckoned, gazing down serenely at the organized violence its children had brought from their home.
You ever feel a little guilty, Mother Earth? Inflicting your offspring on other planets? Hell, you ought to. Maybe if you'd treated the human race nicer when we were growing up we'd have turned out better.

BOOK: Stark's Command
2.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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