Protocol dictated that Colonel Montgomery should lead the fight. But Dieskau found the tactical details of combat to be the only compensation for enduring months of agonizing negotiation and positioning. The evolution of the tactical situation allowed Dieskau the exercise of power with immediate consequences; a continuous stream of enemies isolated, hounded, frightened, intimidated and ultimately destroyed. Dieskau’s patient, thoughtful positioning of a command structure, allies, bases, and movement of war materiel lacked the gratifying reward of tangible victory.
Dieskau was, unlike his command staff, a completely professional soldier. In twenty-five years, he’d been in eight significant campaigns, and several smaller “situations” that hadn’t evolved into war. He’d served three different governing bodies within the Outer Rim. He still loved the blow-by-blow tactics of pushing aside enemy opposition. The glorious joy of victory purged the rotten lying and duplicity of politics and counter-intelligence.
Dieskau had been pacing the bridge, occasionally hovering over the executive officer of the Champlain. Captain Linois recognized that his career depended on being deferential to the supreme military commander. Dieskau rapidly progressed from suggesting orders to the XO to simply giving his own independent orders. The XO took his cue from Captain Linois, and acquiesced to Dieskau without complaint.
Dieskau had spotted yet another tactical flaw in the Core System’s attempt at an organized retreat. His opponent was clearly thorough and energetic, but spent their time scrambling to correct basic mistakes. He could see that they had never led a battle of this scale before. Dieskau was reasonably sure that his intelligence service was wrong about the leadership of the retreat. He was sure that Williams had abandoned the Horicon and continued to conduct the battle from the Sacroon or one of the other frigates. His intelligence service claimed it was a junior officer, a Lieutenant Colonel who was issuing the tactical orders. Dieskau scoffed at the idea, insisting that the orders had to be fakes, sent merely to confuse.
Dieskau’s sacrifice of several scouts had shifted the Outer Rim attack. Dieskau was sure that it would appear to the retreating Core Planets fleet as a hole in his web of defenses. Indeed, several Core scouts had pulled out of the retreat to form a wedge. As Dieskau had hoped, they flew into the trap.
“Ten degrees up!” Dieskau said, leaning over the helmsman’s shoulder.
Linois looked disapprovingly. The XO glanced over, saw the disapproval, but still got a curt nod from Linois. Once assent was granted, the XO ordered the helmsman to adjust the gravity foils.
“There, the Sacroon’s scouts have chased our bait and left the Sacroon vulnerable,” Dieskau said, making sure that Linios was paying close attention to the turn of the battle. “Close range and fire.”
The XO looked; Linois nodded.
“Aye sir, closing range to engage,” the XO repeated. To the bridge crew, he started giving the sequence of commands to close range and start firing.
As the foils shifted position, the ship’s components began to precess at a different rate, everyone on the bridge leaned slightly to counter the shift in torque.
The sensor officer got a report from one of the crew manning the complex array of sensor systems. He caught the Linois’ eye. The Captain of the Champlain looked down at the computer screen to see what the message was.
“Baron Dieskau,” Linois said, with a slight emphasis on the Baron. “There are additional ships on the way.”
Linois, like Montgomery, was a titular Lord in the vast association of royal families and titles that made up the Outer Rim government. Linois outranked this mercenary who styled himself a Baron, because Dieskau held no planetary systems within the Outer Rim. Dieskau was somehow a distant relative of what had formerly been an imperial family, but that ancient human empire had crumbled into separate factions centuries ago. Linois, however, had extensive planets under his or his family’s immediate control.
Dieskau frowned and took two steps over to Linois.
“What ships?” Dieskau asked.
Captain Linois looked down at the sensor officer and nodded.
The sensor officer looked from the Linois to the XO to Dieskau. “Sir, they scan as the Whitehall, third-rate, and support.”
Dieskau leaped for joy. He shrieked, jumped and pumped his fists in the air. It was a display that no officer would ever engage in, for fear of starting rumors about his fitness for duty, or casting shadows on his family or heritage. Emotional displays were considered to be a weakness of the common classes of society. The nobility, the exclusive members of the officer’s corps in the Outer Rim Navy, were above childish emotional outbursts.
“Yes!” Dieskau shrieked. “They will be crushed!” Dieskau did a small dance around the bridge. Linois watched, but was careful to sneer. The crew should know that he disapproved, but would not dare to rebuke an inferior but commanding officer.
Dieskau stopped, and leaned over the communications officer. “Give me a channel to the fleet command staff.”
The communications officer did not need to check with the XO. As a guest on the Champlain, this was a request that within Dieskau’s traditional rights.
The XO reported, looking at Linois, but loud enough for Dieskau to hear, “Range made, engaging Sacroon frigate.”
The bridge lights came up. The communications officer took out the hand-held camera. There were a few minutes of scurrying to realign some of the lighting. Dieskau had to move to one of the marks on the bridge. A lamp was out, leaving a large shadow; forcing them to reset the scene facing in a different direction.
Once they were set, Dieskau struck a heroic pose. When the communications officer finished the countdown and pointed at him, Dieskau knew that his victory was complete. He would wipe the Core Planets out of this cluster. He would, without any doubt, be elevated to commander over all of the adjacent clusters. He took a breath, the command staff were waiting.
“Commanders!” Dieskau announced, making no effort to suppress his glee. “Our trap is sprung. The arriving ships are all that remain of their forces. Pursue the Core back to their base! When we take their base, we will have broken their military force in this cluster. They will be unable to defend themselves further. Victory is ours!”
The communications officer nodded. She grabbed her headset and leaned over to hear a conversation. She nodded again. She waved an OK sign at Dieskau. The message had been sent around the fleet, and acknowledgements were coming in. The second battle would begin shortly. There would be isolated skirmishes as he drove through the remains of their fleet to assault their base. The retreating ships would have to switch roles to defending ships, and after that, they would become refugee ships.
The fleet communications channel chimed. Someone announced that Colonel Montgomery was calling from his battle-ship, the Brittany. Dieskau went to the communications console.
The video feed was weak and garbled, the audio was weak. “My Baron,” Montgomery began, “we don’t have the reserves for this.”
Dieskau recognized Montgomery’s endless worrying as simple greed. Montgomery, in order to maintain his status, needed to command a fleet of over 1000 men. Dieskau sneered at Montgomery’s position: if he won, but his force was reduced, he would lose face among his peers; if he lost, he would be mistrusted by his superior officers. Dieskau could see how Montgomery viewed the narrow knife-edge he walked. But Dieskau also knew that Montgomery’s detractors would turn even a well-won victory into a new problem, namely, how to man the two new bases. Poor Montgomery, Dieskau thought, without better allies, you will be defeated no matter what you achieve.
“We don’t need numbers,” Dieskau said, patiently. “Look at them run. Their brave line of retreat falters. What will happen when the ships start to reach their base with damage, wounded and killed? It will break their will to fight!”
The video flickered and jerked. Dieskau couldn’t see what Montgomery’s reaction was.
Linois stepped up to Dieskau.
“I agree,” he purred. “My Baron, we need time to prepare for the assault on a base.”
Dieskau started pacing on the bridge. He was well aware that Montgomery’s opinion was not his own. Dieskau kept Montgomery close because he appeared to be the mouthpiece for a faction of officers that supported him as a usefully weak future leader for this cluster. Linois was now clearly part of this faction propping up Montgomery. Dieskau could see that his presence on the Champlain was strengthening this faction within his army. He knew that this was the kind of dissension that would sap away the morale and spirit of his troops. Dieskau put these officers on a par with Caughnawaga and the other cowardly Cephalopods. He would need to reverse this, and show the various ship captains that the Champlain, under Linois, was completely loyal to Dieskau.
Dieskau went back to the display. “No!” he said, leaning closer to Montgomery’s image on the screen. “We cannot give them time to retreat or prepare defenses.”
Dieskau turned away from the display, saw Linois watching him closely, and the XO watching Linois for his cue. It infuriated Dieskau.
Dieskau half turned to the display, the better to address both Linois and Montgomery. “I will not have factions within my force,” he snarled. “I will break you and every one of your skulking faction of cowards and dissenters. We can only win with a single, unified assault. We will lead those worthless Squids to Henry base. While they loot, we will form up for the glorious final assault on Lyman base.”
The video was too grainy to see any response other than a flickering face.
Dieskau peered at the display. There was a long pause, then the transmission ended. Dieskau hoped that he could find some leverage to appease Montgomery’s worries about destruction of his precious ships. While he was on the Champlain, Dieskau knew he could pressure Linois; he also knew that he needed to locate the faction that Montgomery spoke for and remind them of their duty.
Fatigue caught up with Dieskau as he slumped into the seat at the console. He heard the whirr of a camera as it followed him. He sighed, realizing that he should probably try and catch some sleep before the second battle began in earnest.
Ships were using every docking pier of the Henry base. There were ships in planetary parking orbits waiting for docking space. The priority list, based on the contents of the ship, gave medical emergencies the first open pier. Weapons resupply was second. Everything else was being parked and ignored.
Commanders of large warships were fuming, tying up communications channels with their protests. If the ship could fly, it was parked, no matter how badly damaged. Shuttles and lighters were ferrying men and equipment around. If the ship was too damaged to park, it was ditched on the planet for repairs.
Command staff in the base were trying to reassign personnel to create full fighting complements in the ships that were still working. Computers were taxed to the limit, failures were increasingly common, tempers were flaring.
The largest loading docks were converted to infirmaries. The shuttles and lighters would tie up to the smaller piers; the wounded loaded on gurneys and raced to the large docks for triage and treatment.
Corpsman Robert loved the emergency room. He didn’t like all of the trauma cases he saw, but he lived and breathed the adrenaline rush of being the first to respond to an emergency. He’d been a corpsman and nurse for only a few years, but he’d studied hard and the frontier allowed him to see much of the vast array of human maladies.
Robert had been raised in a very religious tradition, and he kept a tenacious grip on a faith that there was an order and a sense to the universe. While the cruelty of war was wrong, he had to believe that a just war could be a good man’s response to evil and injustice. Rather than look for tidy, complete answers or remedies to rape, assault and other pointless criminal acts, he tried his best to comfort and heal the victims as much as possible, and prayed that some help could be found for abusers.
When the wounded started arriving, he had simply reported to the medical facility, assuming that some jar-headed marine had broken a foot in a typical accident involving massive, complex explosives. The first of the wounded, however, had suffered barotraumas from a leaking ship. This was rare, but ships did suffer catastrophic accidents if they were mishandled.
The medical corps were busy with the injured and dying, but soon they were the only ones on Henry base to recognize that they were responding to an ambush. No one in intelligence had been able to piece together a coherent story as quickly as the crews trying to set up trauma centers as the ships came in. The traffic control and communications staff were careful only to repeat the official announcements, and did not report their private understanding of an ambush. Even when the available docking spaces were exhausted and ships had to be parked, the traffic control unit was able only to parrot back an official ignorance of the situation.
One of the traffic controllers began prioritizing the ships based on their level of distress. This tipped the scale from simple active ignorance to a kind of silent denial. The policy among the traffic controllers was to avoid using words like ambushed or attacked or even fighting. The ships were described as “in distress” or “needing resupply” until some official word was bubbled up from intelligence and then trickled back down from Major General Johnson.
Corpsman Robert had ordered the construction of a triage area in the companionway between one of the scout piers and a cargo area. The wounded were offloaded into the pier as quickly as possible, moved to the hallway for triage. From there, the living and dying were separated from the dead and sent to different cargo bays for treatment or interment. Corpsman Robert both loved and hated triage.
As the battle wore on, the wounds had progressed, also. While the primary cause of death was almost universally barotrauma from a ship leaking away its life support, these bodies were generally lost in the vacuum of space, and officially counted among the missing for a decade until they were retroactively pronounced dead. After the first waves of hypobaria victims, later casualties suffered from hand-to-hand combat with Outer Rim marines. There were burns from ion and plasma weapons; there were the horrifying holes and amputations from projectile weapons. These had standard treatments; they were Mammal weapons and the medical corps understood them.
The latest waves of the wounded had been in fights with Cephalopods. They suffered from bizarre cutting-weapon attacks and blunt trauma from being beaten or strangled. Many suffered attacks from dimly understood Cephalopod chemical agents.
Corpsman Robert could make an immediate diagnosis of the spectrum of injuries caused by Mammal weapons and non-combat accidents. The Cephalopod weapons were less familiar, and involved a delicate balance. While he could be wrong and consign someone to a slow death that they might have survived, he was balancing the load on the medical staff. Not everyone could be saved. He was no less random that the ion blast that ripped open their ship in just the right place to save one person but kill all of their mess-mates. He held tight to the belief that he was part of the larger design of the universe; he was as random and inevitable as gravity itself, even as he worried about his abilities.
The Core medical researchers had identified several Ceph chemical agents, and simply labeled them Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The Alpha agent was designed to kill Cephs; it incapacitated, but rarely killed Mammals. The Bravo agent was a general-purpose nerve gas, and could be lethal to an unprotected marine. Its biggest effect was to paralyze marines who didn’t scrub down properly before taking off their armor. The Charlie agent, however, had two parts. It had some kind of catalytic agent that rotted away the joints in the armor almost instantly, exposing the marine to a lethal chemical that lead to burns and profound external bleeding.
Corpsman Robert coded a corpse missing an arm. The armor was punched with holes showing that the marine had been in a terrible fire-fight against Outer Rim projectile weapons. Nurse Robert wondered how much fear and adrenaline this marine had endured in his last minutes. He could see that someone had eventually used some kind of explosive to amputate the arm and part of the leg. The marine had bled to death rapidly after that, but his squad had recovered his body. Nurse Robert felt that it was likely that his bravery had allowed the survival of his squad, and blessed his sacrifice.
On the next gurney, a marine was thrashing in pain, his armor falling apart even as he moved. He was still bleeding, but couldn’t survive for more than another hour. There was no treatment to Agent Charlie; any attempt to scrub off the chemical also scrubbed off the skin, and the survivors died of infections or complications from the scrubbing. Nurse Robert coded him as fatally injured and started to move on.
The marine grabbed onto Robert’s scrubs. He croaked out a question. This was the worst part of triage duty.
“I’m sorry,” Robert said, forcing himself to look at the condemned man. “The squids got you good; it’ll be over soon.”
Corpsman Robert waited a moment. Was the marine religious? Did he want to know more? The marine was twitching in pain, but said nothing. Nurse Robert looked over at the next gurney. There were too many; he’d need another triage nurse, and another hallway to put gurneys in.
“Why me?” the marine asked.
Why does anyone die? Why do we fight? Corpsman Robert had pat answers to many questions, but sometimes the answers sounded hollow. He was sure that it was not just a human trait. Every species fights; pain and death seem to be the antithesis that makes joy and life so precious.
“I wish I knew,” Robert said. “I hope that who lives and who dies is in the hands of the almighty.”
The marine’s hand slipped away, leaving a trail of blood down the surgical gown.
The next gurney had a more common barotrauma. It called for emergency re-pressurization followed by examination for neurological damage and surgery for embolism and ruptures. Corpsman Robert coded the gurney. The attention indicator went to green. An orderly would move him as soon as a chamber was available.
The next gurney was rigged with drip bags of plasma. The marine had been partially stripped of armor, and someone had applied several layers of bandages over an explosion wound that had clearly torn off his right shoulder. This would require extensive surgery. Corpsman Robert checked the instruments for pulse and blood pressure and checked against the standard profiles to see how long before he could be expected to die. In the back of his mind he wondered where the marine had been hiding that left his shoulder exposed; how horrifying is the shock of knowing your arm has been blasted away?