The panzer crested the low ridge. It did not rock to a halt, but practically sighed; Epsilon Automotive had rarely made fighting vehicles before the Republic-Empire War, but they learned quickly. Everyone in the Republic did.
Paint had been stripped from the panzer's sleek hull and turrets where enemy fire had struck, but none had penetrated, though a few centimeter-deep gouges here and there testified to direct hits from the main guns of Imperial tanks. Those were no real threat to a Republic panzer, but there had been a few losses to naval-class particle beams mounted in the larger enemy strongholds.
Nendel thought of the enemy machines as tanks; they did not deserve to be called panzers. Kill rings marked the barrel of his panzer's main gun, two narrow and eleven wide, for fifty-seven enemy tanks it had pierced with Mach-10 penetrating darts since Fourth Legion's landing outside Sacramento.
The prisoner spoke, grinning maniacally. "That's the Mississippi River, Captain! As far as you go!"
He turned to the prisoner, an Imperial armor platoon leader dragged unconscious from his burning tank two days ago. Why did I save him? Nendel wondered. He's of little value. Lingering compassion? Morbid curiosity?
Simple sadism? Do I want him to watch me destroy his Empire, as we watched his kind try to destroy our Republic?
Simple sadism? Do I want him to watch me destroy his Empire, as we watched his kind try to destroy our Republic?
"I am aware of my location, Lieutenant," Nendel said.
"By the time you bring in bridging equipment, my comrades will have killed you all!"
"Master Gunnery Sergeant, please gag the prisoner," Nendel said calmly over his shoulder. He took the time to use Bollinger's full rank, never but in the heat of battle shortening it to "Gunny" or some other convenience; she had earned every stripe, and the respect that went with them. Bollinger considered it a silly habit, but he persisted; Nendel knew he had a reputation as an eccentric, but also knew it was overlooked by everyone he served with.
He keyed his transmitter as the Imperial officer struggled futilely in the background. The prisoner's cause was as lost as his Empire's; Bollinger dedicated her every free moment to bodybuilding and martial arts. Nendel paused to consider the analogy. Perhaps, years from now, he would be able to smile about it. "Olympus, this is Tadpole. We are in position."
"Tadpole, Olympus, roger. Unicorn ETA forty seconds. Zeus en route."
The prisoner's eyes went wide above his gag as the gray sky above Vicksburg began to glow.
The M-93 series was the very latest word in armored fighting vehicles. The long, narrow "barrel" of the traditional tank-killer in the main turret was still there, but it was by no means alone. The Patton was a hundred-ton Swiss-army knife: anti-aircraft missiles, baby cruise missiles for surface attack, long-range artillery, howitzers and mortars for shorter-ranged, high-angle bombardment, even a surface-to-orbit maser on some versions, all lurked beneath the sleek armored hull. With his company in position on the west bank, Nendel could shell the Imperial fort to rubble - in a day or two; but that was time which the notoriously impatient commander of Fourth Legion did not wish to spend. General Keyes had stated it colorfully: "We're gonna put the blitz in these bastards' kreig."
The Republic troops stood like the professionals they were, cooly snapping down the anti- glare visors of their helmets. Bollinger crammed another such helmet, the power supply for its communications and tactical displays removed, none too gently over the prisoner's head.
A streak of flame pierced the cloud cover like lightning and touched the Imperial fortress.
Nendel's company was well beyond the minimum safe distance, but he could still feel the heat of the kinetic weapon. He bathed in it, spreading arms and fingers, soaking it up from five kilometers away; for a moment it drove out the chill of winter, unusually harsh for the American south, but did little to warm his heart.
He couldn't remember the last time he had felt that kind of warmth.
As the flash subsided he raised his visor and watched the mushroom cloud rise. The big pellet of asteroidal nickel-iron from JRS United States' keel-mounted mass-driver, plunging through the atmosphere at a horrible velocity, released the energy of a nuclear weapon with few of the unhealthier aftereffects. Terra would shortly belong to the Republic, and there was no sense in polluting her more than she already had been.
The shockwave rolled across his panzer formation, at this distance gently caressing the war machines like the warm breath of a lover. He stared at the cloud, rising, thrusting into itself from below in Freudian splendor - the colors were beautiful, and Nendel had difficulty tearing his eyes away from the spectacle. Orbital bombardment as an art form, he thought. Something I'll have to mention to my daughter - if I ever see her again.
"Tadpole, this is Unicorn Alpha. We have you in sight, closing from your Whiskey."
"Tadpole, this is Unicorn Alpha. We have you in sight, closing from your Whiskey."Nendel turned in his cupola and looked west. He didn't have to look hard; the C-11 Bullfrog aerospace haulers couldn't be missed. Four of the brutes howled literally overhead, thrust outlets swiveling. The mammoth cargo carriers, a hundred tons empty, settled gently mere meters in front of the lead platoon. Before their landing gear had fully compressed, the aft ramps were down and the first four M-93 Patton heavy panzers, each a hundred tons itself, were rolling into the cavernous cargo bays; one each, as the cargomasters, dwarfed utterly, waved the immortal lighted sticks at the drivers.
Nendel wondered what his panzer's notorious namesake would have thought of the Republic, and this war. Patton agreed that civilian authority should make national policy, but complained that the civilians never let the military finish, always leaving us another war to fight later.
Bellowing like a mythological beast, the Bullfrog's engines reached maximum power and the two-hundred-ton bundle rose majestically, as smoothly as the Admiral's personal lift in the flagship of the Republic Navy.
We won't make that mistake. Not this time.
Nendel's inner ear - and the data projected in his helmet's faceplate - told him the mighty Bullfrog was sliding east, balanced on the thrust of its titanic engines, the muddy Mississippi churning in the blast fifty meters below. Nendel activated his lift and sank down into his cupola, his hatch sliding smoothly shut over his head, Bollinger following suit at her gunner's hatch, dragging the prisoner after her.
I used to wonder if the war would ever be over - now I'm about to end it, maybe personally. General Keyes' Legion - ‘Jane's Calamity,' we've all started calling ourselves - is two hundred kilometers ahead of any other Republic unit, and this company is fifty klicks ahead of her.
As smoothly choreographed as any dance troupe, handlers plugged umbilicals into the panzer, pouring bulk pellets into the magazines of the light anti-personnel mass-drivers protruding from the turrets and hull, dropping five-round cassettes of darts into the main turret's "mail slot" loading hatch, replenishing coolant and lubricant, restocking the crew's ration bins, emptying the waste tank.
We won't halt for lack of supplies, either. Patton was forced to, and his war was lengthened by months. Our fusion-powered panzers can drive for days without adjustment and weeks without real service. The anti-personnel guns have enough pellets to fire for half an hour when only seconds at a time are needed, and we have nearly three hundred darts for the main gun. We can roll to the Atlantic, killing every Imperial soldier we meet on the way.
The darts didn't look like much, but the little gray sticks, four centimeters by twenty, were composed of a tungsten-titanium-ceramic superalloy in a buckytube sheath. Accelerated through the panzer's big railgun by the awesome power of the fusion engine deep within its armored bowels, they often shot completely through the Imperial fighting vehicles at better than one-third escape velocity, leaving armor, equipment and men to vaporize in their kinetic wake. When they didn't go all the way through, they dumped a fantastic amount of energy into the target, with spectacular results.
The captain's thoughts took a darker turn. How can I go back to my life? After what I've seen, what I've done? How can I bounce my little girl on my knee and look into her big brown eyes and smile, after-
The Bullfrog descended, landing on the east bank with a full load as gently as it had on the west with none. The handlers flew to safety, riding the powered hoists of their umbilicals back to storage positions. Already the forward ramp was opening, the cargomaster waving them out, the driver working throttle and steering bar as though the armored monster were an extension of her own forty-kilogram body. The rest of First Platoon followed, slipping into the wedge formation that had cleaved through everything the Empire could throw at it for half a decade. Nendel gave no orders; his troops knew what to do. General Keyes had hand-picked him to lead this final advance, and he in turn had hand-picked his entire company.
Specialist Mosley, best driver in the Legion, Nendel reflected as the panzer swept smoothly forward through the kilometer-wide bank of boiling dust and smoke left by the kinetic weapon. Barely passed the physical at enlistment. Bollinger's been trying to put meat on that young woman's bones for four years, through campaigns on three worlds. Doesn't realize Mosley has the body she's always dreamed of. She even sleeps in the panzer now, ever since... Albuquerque.
Nendel couldn't blame her. He hadn't known until then that she had Scottish blood. He didn't realize for two days after, that the tartans of the Twenty-First Legion's Free Scots murdered there by the Imperials were of Mosley's ancestral clan.
Seven to one the Scots were outnumbered, and they still managed to take more than half the enemy with them, while Fourth Legion fought through three times their own number to try to relieve them. The only Scots left alive had no weapons or ammunition, and were too badly wounded to use them if they had; that was the only reason they had surrendered.
We were too late, and the Imperials took them out one at a time and hung them from the streetlights, and they swung in the breeze as we drove under them....
Miraculously, an Imperial tank had survived the orbital strike, though badly damaged. It shambled out from behind the ruins of the reinforced structure that had sheltered it from the blast. "Tank, three-two-zero, range one-three-hundred," Nendel crisply said into his intercom. There was little chance of mistaking any class of Imperial vehicle for one of the Republic. For one thing, they only had two track units, one along the full length of each side of the hull; for another, they weren't nearly as impressive to look at.
Form follows function. On the battlefield, we are our own combat engineers; to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘down goes all before us.' But even these hundred-ton panzers can be converted for peaceful use in a few hours - mining, heavy construction, exploration, search-and-rescue, even in the most hostile environments. The Jeffersonian Legions are truly the equivalent of the ancient Roman: once we're done wrecking Terra, we'll rebuild her.
"Identified," Bollinger responded, the main turret already swinging as smoothly as oiled glass. "On the waaay!" That last phrase was a holdover from the dawn of panzer operations, when it may have taken one or two full seconds for a shot to reach its target. Most Jeffersonian armor crews didn't use it, but Nendel wasn't the only eccentric in the Corps - or even in this panzer.
There was no real recoil as the "big" four-centimeter railgun fired, but a barely-perceptible lurch. Far more noticeable was the thunderclap of displaced air as the dart leapt away at nearly three and a half kilometers per second. The trajectory was very flat - the dart didn't have time to be affected by gravity or atmospheric friction. Barely a third of a second after firing, the Imperial tank thirteen hundred meters away rang like a bell, spraying molten gobbets of liquified armor; through his vision blocks, Nendel could see where the dart sliced a long, narrow divot in the rich Mississippi soil far beyond, throwing up a roostertail of splintered stone and shattered trees. After a moment, the tank brewed up, flame shooting from every orifice, the volatile substances within ignited by white-hot shards of its own hull. Its turret, fifteen tons by itself, rose on a column of golden flame and black smoke, tilted, slid away to dive into the soft earth. "Target," said Nendel, completing the ancient ritual that confirmed its destruction. Out of the corner of his eye, Nendel saw Bollinger scratch a piece of chalk against the housing of her gunsight. They hadn't had time to touch up the paint recently; the count on the barrel was a week behind.
The Empire reverse-engineered the first "safety-valve" ship, released three centuries ago, but the Pentamvirate prepared for that, and it took the Terrans a long time. To protect the Republic's intentional monopoly on starflight, the hyperdrive was programmed to slag itself after one successful jump, and the fusion power plants on board were already obsolete on Terra by the time the ship arrived. Far behind the Republic in technology, the Empire still used chemical fuels to drive their tanks, unable to make a fusion engine small enough to fit. They still used chemical propellants to launch their single-or double-alloy projectiles to a laughable Mach 4, enough to kill another of their own kind but barely sufficient to annoy a Republic panzer with its exotic and sophisticated armor. The oppression of the totalitarian Imperial government discouraged innovation, and the kind of free-thinking that had made the Republic so lethally superior.
The four Bullfrogs had already hopped back across the Mississippi for Second Platoon, which had moved up as First had lifted off. In four minutes all twelve of the company's panzers had crossed the river; in two more, the support column had followed, and Nendel's twenty-ninth use of the Leapfrog Maneuver was a success. "Unicorn, eh, sir?" Bollinger had joked the other day. "The fella picking the call signs is one sick puppy."
Nendel now performed a more conventional version of the immortal military leapfrog, his company's panzers taking up positions behind buildings - ruins, anyway - or terrain features, their heavy armament commanding the area near the crossing point while the M-47 Stuart cavalry vehicles swept ahead and spread out into their screening formation. The little armored scouts barely massed twenty tons fully loaded with ammunition and a squad of troops, but could stand hull-to-hull with sixty-ton Imperial tanks and usually come out on top. More, they were nearly twice as fast and vastly more maneuverable than the Patton-class panzers for which they served as eyes, ears and hands.
Armor alone could destroy an enemy, create and help exploit breakthroughs, but it couldn't capture or hold territory. Patton and his counterpart Rommel both knew the value of combining different types of forces, and their hard-won lessons had not been forgotten by the Jeffersonian Marines.
Why do humans always make war on one another? Nendel asked an unresponsive universe. Why don't they ever remember how terrible it is, what it does to us?
Mosley, wrapping the panzer around her tiny body like a hundred-ton security blanket. Bollinger- that time in Phoenix, the guerillas jumped us and we fought hand to hand, she loved it, dripping in blood head to foot and smiling.
And me, warming myself over the funeral pyre of five thousand soldiers who were just doing what they were told, making a mental note to tell my little girl how pretty the cloud was....
"Tadpole, Unicorn, all done."
Bollinger, sensing her commander's mood, answered for him. "Thank you kindly, gentlemen. Maybe After, I'll turn one of you into a prince!"
Bollinger was a legend throughout the Corps. Completing the ritual she had established, the Bullfrog pilots responded in chorus with the Battle Cry of Airlift Command: "RIBIT! RIBIT!"
Nendel used to think it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He used to love the way everyone in the Navy and the Corps did their jobs with such pride, such professionalism and moral certainty, as though they were all on the grandest crusade.
This has been a long war. It really started at Europa a hundred-thirty years ago, when terrorists - the United Nations claimed that's all they were, and did damn little to prove it - destroyed the passenger liner Virginia Heinlein. We cut ourselves off from Sol system and let them decay, trapped on their single world and handful of outposts.
Was that the right decision? Could we have prevented this by maintaining relations?
The panzer kept rolling, cresting another ridge. Mosley rarely spoke anymore, except for business. Watching her own screens, she called out, "Troops!" Without hesitation, Nendel and Bollinger grabbed the controls of the anti-personnel weapons, and the little three-millimeter mass-drivers buzzed; the Imperial infantry shattered, pieces flying everywhere in a ghastly mist of red, pink, gray and white. Even a lone infantryman could be a threat to a panzer, if he were determined enough; tactical nuclear weapons had been used by the Empire in land mines, booby traps and suicide missions throughout the war, but even that kind of weapon had to be very close to kill an M-93, its carrier firing it manually at the last instant.
Nendel remembered the horror he had felt as a fresh lieutenant at the Second Battle of New Israel, watching his platoon being shot out from under him by shoulder-fired rockets with shaped-charge fission warheads. He didn't remember the two months he'd spent in the regen tub after, getting his DNA unscrambled a strand at a time.
He considered what that meant for the Imperial troops who had used those weapons. The Empire doesn't have anything like our medical technology. That was one of the things they forfeited when they murdered our people at Europa.
The scraps of Imperial troops lay still. Nendel imagined he could smell the death, though he knew it was impossible through the armor and now-sealed environment of the panzer. He couldn't feel the tracks crushing the remains, but imagined that, too.
The dismembered bodies, the astonishing amount of blood, reminded him of an earlier battle: Houston. The Terran civilians had run wild in the city, looting, burning, after the Imperial garrison had pulled out rather than engage Keyes' approaching Fourth Legion. There was a boy in Houston, maybe fifteen years old. Nendel had seen from his cupola. He didn't want to remember, but knew he had no choice.
The boy was on top of a little girl, about eight, with big, brown eyes.
He thanked his memory for failing him then; the next thing he remembered, he was on the street beside his panzer, covered in blood that was not his, Bollinger pulling him off a... thing... that might have once been a fifteen-year-old boy. The girl was already dead, he reminded himself. Broken neck.
Didn't feel a thing.
Even while trapped in such memories, Nendel joined Bollinger in a search pattern, spinning the main and auxiliary turrets, glancing at every screen, cycling through infra-red, ultra-violet, and electro-magnetic displays, raking the surrounding terrain for an enemy that was becoming increasingly scarce, yet increasingly stubborn when found.
No, we couldn't have prevented this. Humans always turn on each other this way. We didn't dare share the secret of starflight with them, didn't dare take them with us, but in seventy years or seven hundred, they would have come for us.
But not again. Not after this.
But not again. Not after this.
The panzer rolled along, passing the northern outskirts of Vicksburg, grinding beneath its meter-wide tracks the ruins of buildings leveled by the kinetic strike. One was, barely, recognizable; Nendel felt he had seen it before, in his history classes perhaps, a centuries-old relic of an earlier attempt to escape government tyranny, though that cause was tainted with the fouler curse of slavery.
Did the South ever have a chance? What if Lee had smashed McClellan's horribly-led army at Antietam and threatened or even captured Washington City early in the war? What if Britain and France had then recognized the Confederacy, and President Davis had negotiated secession from a position of strength? He thought of the flag streaming from his panzer's mast; it was nearly identical to the first national flag of the Confederate States of America, three big horizontal bars, red-white-red, with a big square starfield in the corner over two of them. The Confederate flag had carried a blue field, with one white star for each state in the Confederacy; the Republic's flag held a single, large star on black, symbolizing a united Republic across the depths of space. Would slavery have been phased out peacefully, as was already underway even in the South through simple economics, preventing over a century of resentment and hatred? Would the Founders have felt the need to Escape that different world?
Would our flag be a different color?
Nendel pulled off a glove and looked at his hand. Generations of mating without racial prejudice had given many Jeffersonians a healthy, permanent tan. Or would I?
A statue crumbled beneath the panzer's tracks - Kresek III, successor to the overconfident Emperor captured at Nouveau Corsica. Kresek II wasn't completely insane - he saw us poised to blow his planet and his whole empire out from under him, and ordered a surrender. But his son was mad, ignoring the order, declaring his father dead, himself emperor, and the war to the death.
We don't have an emperor - or a president, or a king, or a prime minister. No one person or family should have that much power. We divide it among five, each elected every five years in one-year rotation so that no one, or two or three, can build a political power base; and those five answer to representatives from all over the Republic, standing not just for planetary or provincial boundaries but real percentages of the population. Our ‘leaders' know their place, and have learned not to stray from it.
Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the idea of a president, but supported the American Constitution because no one had any better ideas. The Founders studied every government in history and performed countless experiments to make an improvement.
The Pentamvirate makes policy, but they share the process and its results with us. I know how this war will end. The Empire thought our government weak - and it is, and we like it that way. It is our people who are strong.
Strong enough to destroy the Empire.
There will be no armistice, no treaty, no demilitarized zone. The Terran Empire will cease to exist. There won't be a shred remaining beyond museums and re-enactment hobbyists. Captured ships will be converted for our use, or given as payment for ships lost by civilian passenger and freight lines who donated theirs to the war effort. Weapons and equipment will be sold as souvenirs to our Citizens, at public auctions all over the Republic. Nendel glanced at Bollinger's trophy, the Imperial lieutenant's sidearm. Another example of Terran stagnation, it still used metallic cartridges and land-and-groove rifling; in the Republic's forces, even caseless small-arms were being phased out in favor of portable mass-drivers and the new directed-energy weapons. The lieutenant himself seemed to be in shock, his mind reeling from the kinetic weapon's fantastic display of controlled power and the captain's casual acceptance of it.
The funds raised at auction will be used to rebuild our worlds and care for our wounded. Nendel glanced at the scars on his hand, thought of his synthetic ribs, Mosley's artificial leg, Bollinger's skin replacements. I can't remember the last time I met a Marine who hadn't earned the Crimson Band. He knew that the next time he wore a dress uniform, there would be four blood-red stripes ringing the left sleeve - at least four. If he was careful - and lucky - the arm in that sleeve would still be the one he was born with.
He put his glove back on.
The Navy will be de-federalized and called the Space Patrol again. We won't disarm - that would be... unnatural - but we will stand down. The Marine Corps will be gradually downsized, or transferred back to the Exploration and Colonization Service, our soldiers rewarded and retrained as Imperial worlds are pacified and occupation forces become unnecessary.
The worlds of the Empire will be annexed, protected, controlled. Their children will become Subjects, with the same right and opportunity to earn Citizenship that I was born with. For the first time in the Republic's history, there will be more Subjects than Citizens, and it will stay that way for at least a generation - possibly several.
That's dangerous. But in time, our methods of education, health care, the liberation of human potential, proven over three centuries, will take hold. In time, their descendants will become our fellow Citizens. In time, the balance will be restored, and they will all be free, like us, participating in their history classes in fascinated horror, as I did.
They will not forget. We cannot allow anything about this war to be forgotten. But they will finally, after having slaughtered each other for thousands of years, change - and they won't be ‘they' anymore.
Nendel knew his cause was just. He knew that, aside from the haunting memory of what he had done to the boy in Houston, he and his nation fought clean. He knew what he had to do, and he knew that he would not hesitate to do it. But still, he wondered.
He wondered if he would ever laugh at anything again.