SHADOWS OF WAR
September 1st, Earth Standard Calendar
The D.C. Proper glistened in the night with reflections from the cold rain falling from a low, heavy sky. An early autumn front had settled in, and was intent on soaking everything up and down the eastern seaboard.
While the White House was ablaze with light on the outside, most of the interior was dim at the late hour. Offices were empty, and the hallways quiet, save for the occasional footfalls of a Secret Service agent making his rounds.
In the Oval Office, the lighting was dimmed to half-power as well, allowing the fireplace to cast a warm, orange glow throughout the middle of the room, leaving the outer edges in shadow. The flames were gas, and were thus without the cozy crackle and snap that a wood fire would provide, but the ambiance was still a welcome one. Outside, lighting flashed, but the rumble of thunder was muted through the reinforced walls, and bulletproof windows. Rain beat against the thick glass, smearing the streetlights and passing cars into a Picasso-like image.
A mantle clock over the fireplace chimed the eleventh hour, its soft gonging the only noise in the room, save for the occasional turning of a page as report after report was reviewed by the tired-looking woman seated in one of the plush couches situated before the fire. Despite it being so late, United Earth President Petra Reyes was still very much at work. At sixty-one, she managed to still hold on to her youthful appearance. Reyes was a pretty woman. Not a knock-down beauty, but a woman that projected a confidence that matched her personality. Didn’t need make-up. Never worried about her weight. Content with who she was. That sort of strength tended to attract people. That, and the fact that she was a kind person. Authority had not gone to her head, and authority she had. The seventeen major global districts had elected her president, after all. A four-year office that meant she was responsible for the entire globe.
She felt her beauty being challenged as of late, though. Stress had a way of sucking one’s life force from them, and that was one thing that she had suffered an abundance of for the past few weeks. This was a stress borne of things that were far more serious than the run-of-the-mill stuff that the daily grind demanded from her. Politics, economics, trade agreements, and commerce enforcement were trifling compared to this. It was something that had not reared its ugly head for nearly two centuries, and was in fact so out of the norm that no one really knew how to approach it.
The coffee table before her was piled high with folders stamped ‘Top Secret.’ The forms and gathered reports were gleaned from intelligence agents out in the field, all information and technical data that went far beyond simply disturbing her. It sent chills up her spine in the worst way. Only one year into her presidency, and she felt herself being backed into a corner where there was only one way out, and that way spelled certain disaster.
Reyes sighed, and dropped the folder that she held back down with the rest of them. It fell next to the silver serving set that jutted from the stacks, the coffee pot having been refilled twice already that evening. The caffeine, combined with the dire news that had come in, had her nerves jangling. There would probably be a sleepless night ahead of her despite feeling so drug down. She rubbed at her burning eyes, and reclined back into the soft cushions, regretting that she couldn’t give in to their seductive softness, and just drift off to dreamland.
Reyes spoke, and her normally silky voice conveyed the fatigue that weighed her down.
“The global district governors are soiling their pants right now, Doug, and I’m not far from doing the same.”
Sitting in stoic silence on the couch to her left was a silver-haired, gruff-faced gentleman who appeared to be ageless. He could have been of her own decade, or a hundred more, but there was no defining a year to that face. It was chiseled from bedrock. Eyes severe, and of the deepest blue. Jaw line sharp. Thin lips that rarely smiled. Yet, despite the cold countenance, the man had a heart of gold. It was years of struggling to preserve his department from one budget cut after another, and of watching potential enemies grow in military might while his own resources dwindled that had made him look that way.
The command admiral of the United Earth Space Navy gently set his own folder down, and reached for the coffee pot, pouring himself another cup. The sound of the liquid seemed loud in the quiet room. Douglas Green peered at the president over the rim of his reading glasses.
“Do you know if Lance has been briefed on this latest report?”
Reyes stifled a yawn, nodding, “I called for him. He should be getting here pretty soon.”
Green tipped the creamer jar, slowly stirring his drink. His movements were slow, deceivingly relaxed. He was actually turning things over in his head, analyzing the intel. Considering alternatives. Consequences. None of them bode well. Reyes knew that his languid speed, and silent demeanor meant he was digesting every detail. He disliked snap decisions. His decisions were nearly always the right ones. It was one of the reasons she had appointed him as one of her joint chiefs of staff. The man was reliable, and he was a friend.
“The Storian government has a history of political instability,” he observed at length.
Reyes leaned forward, interested with what he had to say.
“Emperor Grozet is as much a fanatic for power as he is insane. His cruelty towards even his own people is something to behold, let alone anyone he deems an enemy of the state. Thank God the Storian star system is so far away. That at least keeps his influence at a minimum.”
The president nodded her agreement, “I hear what you’re saying, Doug, but I’m afraid that this latest stunt of his is going to be too much to ignore.”
Green sipped his coffee while unbuttoning his uniform jacket. The stiff material opened to reveal a wrinkled shirt beneath. The normally clean-cut officer was tired after not only a long day, but a trying month. Everything was in turmoil.
“How are the Attayans reacting to this?”
Reyes made a face, “Prime Minister Ro is not enthused. They’re calling for trade sanctions, if not something more severe. Grozet might lose his U.N. seat.”
The admiral smirked, “Lose his seat. The man has declared himself a supreme chancellor. A dictator. He’s slaughtering his own citizens wholesale, and all the U.N. has the balls to do is kick him out of the Trade Alliance?”
Reyes watched him as he stood, and moved to the fireplace. Green stared into the flames, free hand thrust into his trouser pocket. He sipped his coffee as he contemplated. He was troubled by what lie on the horizon. While Storia was tucked in a planetary system far toward the galactic center, at a distance so great that even with Anderson Drive, a ship took two full standard months to get there, the developments taking place in that region were reaching all the way home.
The Attayans, a gentler race with a thirst for science, were nearer neighbors in a cosmic sense. A system only two days distant at the same speed, with a governmental influence that was far greater. If Attaya was unhappy, then Earth was as well.
Reyes cursed inwardly. Who could blame them for being unhappy? Grozet had crossed the proverbial red line. Genocide. It was unthinkable. Intolerable.
The secret service agent posted outside the door softly knocked before entering, giving Reyes an apologetic look for disturbing them.
“Major General Parks has arrived, Madam President.”
She nodded, “Thank you, let him in.”
The agent stepped aside for the commandant of the recently reorganized Global Marine Corps. The man strode in, appearing crisp, and fully awake. His severe, dress-black-on-khaki uniform perfectly pressed, adorned with decades-worth of service ribbons. Training exercises, police actions, disaster relief after the asteroid strike back in the previous decade. He had risen through the ranks all the way from a greenhorn private to his present command. There wasn’t a human being alive who had not heard his name at one time or another, nor was there a more highly respected officer in her administration.
“Evening, Lance,” the president greeted, her eyes flitting over his uniform and his face, “how can you look so fresh? Aren’t you ever tired?”
The general permitted himself a grin, “Only when I’m begging Congress for more funding.”
That got a chuckle out of Green, who himself had sat before a number of those hearings, and despised having to do so.
Parks removed his jacket, and laid it gingerly over the back of one of the free soft chairs, waiting until the agent had left the room to speak further. Once the door clicked shut, he loosened his tie, and took a seat. Reyes needed to smile, though, thirsting for some humor to break the tension building in her gut.
“You look like you’ve stepped out of a recruiting poster,” Reyes said dryly. “I didn’t call you here to make us look shabby next you.”
Parks feigned innocence, batting his eyes, “Why, I have no idea what you mean!”
Reyes laughed, and it felt good. Some of the coil in her stomach eased up. She regarded the pair of men she trusted most on her cabinet, and the smile waned as it became back to business.
“So, gentlemen, what are your thoughts on this new round of nonsense from Emperor Grozet? How do we spin this thing?”
The general’s smile fell away as well, and he seemed to transform from boyish middle-aged handsome guy to something akin to an intimidating boss.
“I only had time to skim the new reports,” he admitted.
“I’ll fill you in,” Admiral Green said from where he stood by the mantle. “It’s gone way beyond political posturing this time, Lance. He’s moving against his own people, the Pala sect that’s refusing to recognize his self-declared dictatorship.”
Parks nodded, “The Pala colony. That planet is his main industrial center. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s taking control of them.”
Green’s eyebrows went up, “Taking control? Lance, the Storian First Fleet encircled Pala this morning, and began setting ground forces down on the mainland. In just the past nine hours, he’s killed thousands of civilians, and stated that he intends to do away with the Palan-Storians altogether.”
The general smiled sadly, “Tragic, yes, I admit. Fact is, isn’t this still really an internal matter for the Storians? We can object to it, sure, but butting in could bring even greater grief.”
“It’s growing into something beyond internal politics,” Green told him.
Parks frowned, “I’m not following.”
The president chimed in, “Storia ejected our ambassador a few hours ago. The embassy is burning to the ground as we speak.”
There was a moment of stunned silence between them.
“Oh,” Parks said gravely.
“The staff was unharmed,” Admiral Green added, “they’re on their way to the frontier, where a cruiser will pick them up on our side of space.”
The admiral moved from the fireplace, and took his spot on the couch again, reaching for a particular folder, “It gets worse.”
Park accepted the folder, thumbing through the meat of it while his counterpart spoke.
“Intelligence agents report a massive build-up of troops and equipment near the space ports on Storia’s surface, an indicator that they’re being prepared for deployment. There is also a significant movement of supplies and munitions from the surface to the orbital docks. And, last, but certainly not least, the power plants of every one of their vessels are being ramped up to full capacity.”
Parks was all business now, the time for banter over, “Which battle group?”
Green shook his head no, “Not battle group, Lance. The entire fleet.”
The general swallowed hard, “A full mobilization, then. All of that for Pala? It’s little more than a colony.”
Now Reyes was shaking her head, “Not for Pala. The Galactic Command Authority thinks he’s planning to expand his territory beyond the frontier.”
Parks fished through the stacks of folders, reaching for a celestial chart, and scowling at it. He followed trade routes, and territorial lines with a finger until finding where the major ones converged.
“The next nearest inhabited world is Denmoore,” he stated, his voice taking on a strained tone. “That’s an Attayan territory.”
The silence of the other two while they stared at him spoke volumes. Parks let out a breath.
“Do you really think this guy is spinning the gears of war?”
Admiral Green shrugged, “Everything points in that direction, my friend. He knows that his future in the Trade Alliance is over, so I’m betting that he’s intent on simply taking what he wants. Or, at least attempting to.”
Parks dropped the map, and helped himself to some of the java, “Jesus. Sweet Jesus. We could be facing some real problems, then. You both realize that, don’t you?”
“I know that budget constraints have been a long-standing issue for you guys,” Reyes admitted.
The general waved that off, “I’m not talking about purse strings. Fact is, we haven’t had a real, full-out war in over a hundred years. Since the formation of the Global Union. We have no living combat veterans, only rudimentary training programs, and a much smaller standing military than Storia. If they come at us with the numbers we have right now, we won’t stand a chance in hell!”
Reyes sighed, “That being said, how do we best prepare for something like that?”
The two officers exchanged looks that were clearly ones of resigned dread. Admiral Green spoke first.
“The capability of our space navy is nominal at best. If I combine our First and Second Fleets, there is a chance that we could stave off an invasion force, at least for a short time. Even then, it would have to be in-system. Best place would be the Kuiper Asteroid Limit.”
Parks agreed, but only partially, “Earth is the furthest point from Storia. If Grozet goes to all the trouble of sending his fleet out here, and dealing with the logistics of such a protracted deployment, he’s going to throw everything at us that he’s got. This won’t be a simple hit and run. We have to accept the fact that if he comes, he will eventually set down on our soil.”
Reyes tried her best to referee the debate flying back and forth, “Okay. Assuming that we face an invasion. He breaks past our space navy. What then?”
The general looked at Green again, “We want to preserve something for a counter-strike. We also have no idea where he would intend to land his first wave. I’d suggest preparing all of the district army units for domestic defense. Have the surface navies away from port, and the Air Force ready to be airborne at a moment’s notice.”
“And, the Marines?” The president asked.
Admiral Green was nodding discreetly, following where Parks was leading.
“The Marine Corps should be moved off-planet in its entirety,” Parks told her flatly. “Shift that asset to Attaya, to be held in reserve. When the time is right, we’d bring them in with Attayan support, and hit the Storians from the rear. By then, we would already have intel on where they would have occupied, and their troop strengths.”
Green jumped in, “In the meantime, we have to assume that an invasion is eminent. If you initiate the War Powers Act, we could shift all of the global industry to war production, and begin stocking munitions. We also need to shift into high-gear for recruitment efforts. Reactivate the Civil Defense Department. Time is of the essence, we have to bulk up our troop numbers.”
General Parks wandered over toward the windows, gazing outside, thoughtful. He turned, facing the other two with a pensive expression.
“There is another thing that we have to consider,” he told them. “Earth’s populace has outgrown the concepts of war by several generations. Our citizens don’t even understand what it entails anymore. A century of relative peace and prosperity in the sciences have created a society of lax, naïve comfort-seekers. How do we get them prepared for what may come, if they can’t wrap their minds around it?”
Green chewed his bottom lip, taking that in. His counterpart was right. Sad as it may be, an era of peace that lasted too long could actually be a detriment to survival.
“Parks is right,” he said to the president. “A sudden leap into a war footing would send the planet into a panic. We need to appeal to the sense of humanity, and play on their patriotism. Flood the networks with Grozet’s atrocities, and make it clear that we face the same demise if we don’t stand up against it.”
“And, how do we go about doing that?” Reyes wanted to know, standing to stretch tired muscles.
The admiral set his cup down, and began pacing, “I have a few contacts over at the Global News Network. We could arrange for reporters to be embedded with select combat units, and naval commands. Get the viewership fired up by having them get attached emotionally to the troops. Make them love us. Timed press releases that are careful not to reveal strategic planning, all the appropriate propaganda. By the time we’re done, the districts will be begging us to go to war.”
Reyes went to her desk, and opened one of the drawers. Taking out a pack of SafeSmokes, she tapped one of the cigarettes from it, and flicked a lighter. The new brands that the agricultural divisions had developed were nano-bot integrated, like most everything else. Not only did they no longer cause cancer, the nanos actually worked to cleanse the lungs.
She inhaled, and leaned against her desk, regarding the piles of dead trees stacked on her coffee table. Reports upon reports that all promised Pandora’s worst nightmares.
“Do you fellows think that we can bulk up our troop numbers by increased recruiting alone?”
General Parks pursed his lips, looking at Green for confirmation. The admiral nodded.
“If we do it creatively enough, yes,” Green answered.
The admiral nodded again, “The fastest route to the numbers we need is through the high schools. Offer fully paid college funds, and glorify the services for the adventure of it all. Those teens will eat it up.”
“To double that, we could also graduate high school seniors early upon signing up,” Parks added, “so that we could get them off to basic training right away. We need time to get them in shape, and capable of handling a weapon.”
Reyes took another long drag, and blew the smoke toward the ceiling, “How much time does Basic require?”
“Marine Corps standard is nine weeks, followed by another sixteen of advanced infantry training, and another three months of whatever specialty a recruit has signed up for. Tank, artillery, and the like,” Parks replied. “We don’t have that kind of luxury anymore, so I would order that new recruits be ushered only through the nine weeks of basic, and immediately assigned to the battalions. They’ll have to learn the rest on the fly. We should be able to establish troop numbers close to another five hundred thousand within the first three or four months.”
The president tapped ashes into the tray, “You’re speaking of drawing from high schools across the globe, not just America.”
“Absolutely,” Parks assured her, “the larger the recruitment base, the better.”
Reyes sighed, and finished her smoke in a third, hard pull, then stabbed the butt out. The artificial nicotine helped to take some of the edge from her nerves.
“I don’t like this, Lance, not one bit,” she told him gravely. “We shouldn’t have to prey on our unsuspecting youth in order to save our sorry asses. It isn’t their fault that their government has lost its edge by too many years without conflict.”
Parks held his hands out by his sides in appeal, “I don’t either, Madam President, but we have to face some hard facts. If Grozet decides to hit us, he will have the upper hand on troop numbers alone. That’s not even to include their superior weapons technologies, and naval power.”
Admiral Green ceased his pacing, and went to wringing his hands, “Not to mention the sad reality that we just don’t know the art of war anymore, and the Storians have a mastery of it. Do you realize that we’re going to be reduced to digging through historic archives just to study up on tactics?”
President Reyes went back to the couch, and stared down at the files. When she spoke, it felt as if her voice were coming from somewhere far away, scarcely her own.
The command officers relaxed a little, knowing that she would support what needed to be done.
Still not meeting their gaze, she went on.
“I’ll take care of the logistics involved with recruiting our youth from the schools.”
Parks cleared his throat, “Um, actually, military recruitment is…”
Reyes looked at him sharply, “It’s the part that sickens me the most. Sending our kids to fill gaps that will amount to nothing less than cannon fodder. That will therefor be my burden to carry.”
Both men nodded feebly.
“We will accept no one under the age of seventeen,” she insisted.
Another set of nods.
“Lance, go ahead and begin moving your Corps. Immediately. Announce it as a training exercise to the media. I’ll get in touch with Prime Minister Ro, and arrange all of the clearances we’ll need. I’m assuming that you’ll situate everything at Fort Dixon?”
“Yes, Ma’am. It’s the largest reservation we have on Attaya.”
Reyes rubbed at her temples, trying to stave off a headache, “Doug, bring me up to speed on our space naval capabilities.”
Admiral Green crossed his arms, and ticked a thumb against one elbow, “While we technically have three fleets, only two of them are truly operational. The First and Third have two battle groups each, consisting of a super-carrier, a pair of destroyers, missile cruisers, and the support tenders. A fast-attack star-sub, and a missile class star-sub offer security for the groups. We have twenty 100 megaton nuclear warheads in the arsenal.”
Reyes held his gaze, “And, the Second Fleet? Has poor funding effected it?”
“In part,” Green admitted. “Mostly, it’s because it’s being utilized mainly for transportation. We use it for taxiing back and forth between Earth and Attaya.”
“Well, that could work out for us, then,” Reyes said. “Second could be held in reserve in Attayan space, for the Marines. First and Third remain here for defense.”
“Exactly,” Green agreed.
The three of them regarded one another for a moment. Outside, lightning flashed, and thunder rolled soon after. It seemed appropriate for the mood in the room, and for what was apparently coming at them with dreadful finality.