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Stark's Command - Excerpt

by John G. Hemry

Stark's Command coverThe organized violence humans call warfare takes many forms. An attack can be as sudden and brief as an earthquake, a surprise spasm of fury in which soldiers dash against defenses, then fall away.

Or an assault can be slower, gradually building in strength as soldiers cautiously push forward, seeking weak points in defenses, their efforts as continuous and unrelenting as a sea straining against barriers holding it from dry land.

So the attack began, slowly building in intensity. Like a flood of water, the pressure rose, in a place where the only real water rested eternally frozen beneath the lifeless rock of the surface. Gradually, it increased. Testing here, pressing there, searching for any signs of weakness, any give in the defenses holding it back. Every probe met a firm barrier, each push repulsed with varying ease. But the pressure continued, shoving harder, the strength of barriers at some points herding it toward those areas where the defenses held with less strength. Not much less, but enough, as the flood pressure gathered at those points where resistance seemed softer, where trickles of advancing elements could push through. Slowly, so slowly as not to be apparent at first, but with increasing speed, the apparently firm wall of defenses began to crumble.

"Ethan, we got problems."

Sergeant Ethan Stark, acting commander of the rebellious soldiers still defending the American Colony on the Moon, hastily donned his battle armor. "I'm still suiting up, Vic. What's happening?"

"You don't need battle armor inside the headquarters complex," Sergeant Vic Reynolds, Stark's acting Chief of Staff, scolded. "I need you in the Command Center. Now."

"Okay. Okay. But I'm gonna be in armor." Stark sealed the last fastenings on his suit, grabbed his rifle, and darted out the door. The corridors around him still felt unreal, wood paneling where bare rock should be. I'll never get used to the luxury here at headquarters. Maybe we can sell this stuff to pay the troops.

Most of the personnel in the command center were unknown to Stark, experienced enlisted troops manning their consoles to maintain a constant stream of symbology, communications, and video feed between individual soldiers. All of it centered here, where until recently officers of every rank had tried to dictate their subordinates' every action. Now that those officers sat within the stockade under arrest, that role, if he wanted it, was Stark's.

"Wow." Stark paused to admire the massive main display screen on which a sector of the front glowed in enhanced 3-D. Green American symbols hung in a slightly ragged arc marking the perimeter, each group of friendly soldiers clustered around the heavy weapons fortifications symbology which indicated the presence of strong defensive positions. In front of those green markers, clusters of red symbols ebbed and flowed, shifting in a constant dance as sensors reported the presence of enemy soldiers trying to break through the American defenses. "They're pushing harder than before, aren't they?" In the three days since the horrible failure of General Meecham's grand offensive, forces of the enemy coalition had tested for weaknesses in the American line a dozen times as rumor of riot and rebellion came dimly across to them.

"Yes," Vic agreed, one clipped word which spoke volumes. "We should be able to hold it, though."

Should be able to. Stark studied the display again, scowling. "Why are those enemy units getting so close? Why aren't they being shoved back further?"

"I don't know." Vic tried to keep her frustration hidden, but it swelled to the surface as the Sergeant tried to handle far more soldiers than her training and experience had ever prepared her for.

"I don't like 'I don't knows' in combat, Vic."

She fought down another sharp answer before speaking more calmly. "Neither do I, but I'm not sure what's happening on the line. Everything looks right, but our defenses don't seem to be as strong as they ought to be." Vic glared at him briefly. "We shouldn't have gone ahead with the unit rotations this early."

"Vic, we didn't have any choice. The units on the line had been extended there because of Meecham's offensive, and they were getting really ragged."

"They could have stayed on line a few more days. Another week. We started rotating units the day after we took over, for Christ's sake!"

"Everybody insisted on it," Stark reminded her. "What could we do?"

Vic set her jaw stubbornly. "Tell them no."

"I haven't got that authority, Vic."

"The hell you don't. They elected you commander, remember?"

Stark jabbed a finger at her. "Yeah, I remember. You helped that happen. And you know as well as I do that saying I've got full authority and actually being able to order people around at the drop of a hat are two damn different things. I can't buck every other Sergeant. Not yet. They're still gonna think about it before they do as I say."

She bent her head, then nodded wearily. "You're probably right. No, you are right, but I still don't like it. Everything is still too soft and rotating units made it softer. I've activated the on-call reserves for that sector," Vic added.

"Good move. How many soldiers is that?"

"Two companies."

"Where are you putting them?"

"I don't know!" The frustration surged into the open again as Vic waved at the display. "Where do we need them?"

"If you can't tell, I sure as hell can't." Vic's the best tactical thinker I ever met, so if she can't read this mess nobody can. Stark watched the display, hundreds of symbols clashing together and apart, a constant stream of data scrolling along the sides of the display where it framed simulated terrain so real Stark felt he could fall into it.

She stared first at him, then back at the display. "I think that's because there's too much on here to think through, Ethan. They packed every bit of data they could onto these displays so it's just about impossible to see the forest for the trees. We've got to prune this junk back to essential data."

"Sounds like a real good idea. But we can't do that now."

Vic lowered her voice, barely whispering so only Stark could hear. "I wish the hell I knew what we could do."

The other enlisted were glancing back at them, expressions guarded. Stark smiled tightly, eyes on the display as if unaware of the attention. Just like leading my Squad, only a lot bigger. People have to think you're confident. Even if you're scared as hell and don't have a clue what to do. The distraction triggered an instinct as something nagged at Stark's mind. He stared at the display, green and red markers swimming amid the rapidly swelling and just as rapidly disappearing threat symbology that marked the flight of heavy shells. It felt like that odd itching between the shoulder blades when a sniper had you in their sights, as if the display were saying something his conscious mind couldn't grasp, but which caused a subconscious honed in uncounted battles to shout alarms. "What else have we got for backup? What's the next reserve?"

"The next?" Vic frowned at the question. "Two battalions. But they're not on-call. We'd need to activate them, get them suited up."

The words felt wrong. Advice from Vic was always good, but right now it felt wrong. "Do it. Get them ready to hit the line."

"Ethan, there's no reason at this point to jerk around a lot of soldiers we'll probably need sharp later on."

Reasonable words. Reasonable advice. Vic playing her old role of guiding his decisions down the right paths. Stark kept his eyes on the display, almost unfocused, seeing the rhythm of movement rather than the details, and not liking the feel of it. "We don't have a handle on this, Vic. We need those troops ready."

"If we keep them suited up too long -"

"I know. I know. Let's get them activated."

"Ethan, I don't -"

The itching intensified, urging action. "I said do it!"

Vic halted in mid-sentence, face rigid. "Yessir."

The word hit Stark like a fist in the stomach. We've always worked as equals, or I've deferred to Vic. Now I'm supposed to call all the shots, and I don't like it and neither does she. He wavered, trying not to be seen noticing the angry lines etched on his friend's face as she transmitted the order to the on-call battalions. Am I wrong? Am I just being a jerk? No. No. I've got to be in command and every instinct I've got says I'm gonna need those troops. "Thank you," Stark stated softly, leaving anything else unsaid.

Vic glanced his way, startled by the reply but still mad. "You're welcome. This isn't easy."

"It ain't for me, either. We'll talk later, figure out how to work this better. I still want you telling me what you think."

"You won't get it if you cut me off like I'm a stupid recruit," Vic noted, her tone still hard, but somewhat milder.

"You're right."

To Stark's surprise, the last words brought a smile to Vic's face. "Now, that's never happened. I never worked for a commander who told me I was right." She glanced at Stark, one eyebrow raised in question. "I've got two battalion commanders asking me why their people need to suit up and deploy."

"Because…" I said so? Real bad answer. "Because we've got some real strong probes hitting us. They're stressing the line. The guys holding the front might need back-up." Too soft. "No. Leave out the 'might need.' Say we need back-up for the front."

"Okay." Vic rapidly repeated Stark's words into her comm unit, then nodded. "They rogered-up. Ethan, that's a real vague reason for activating that many soldiers. What's got you so worried?"

Even as she spoke the question, an answer appeared before them. "That." Stark pointed a rigid finger toward the display, where a small patch of their own soldiers had suddenly begun moving. "They're falling back. That Squad. Retreating. Why the hell are they falling back?"

"Bunker status is okay," Vic muttered. "What's going on?" she called over the headquarters communications circuit. "Corporal Hamilton. Why did your Squad abandon your bunker?"

Stark linked in to hear the reply. Hamilton's words came quickly, rushed with fear and the stress of rapid movement. "Too many of them. Too much pressure. Couldn't hold."

"Hamilton," Vic barked, "there's nothing out in front of you an entrenched squad can't handle. Return to your position."

"Negative. Too hot. Falling back."

Stark forestalled Vic's next transmission with one hand on her shoulder, using the other to point again. "Look how fast that symbology's moving. They ain't falling back. They're running."

"Running." Vic repeated the word as if she'd never heard it before and couldn't grasp the meaning. "Oh, God," she added in a whisper as the squads to either side of the abandoned bunker also left their positions.

"Over there, too," Stark observed through a tight jaw. "In another company's area. The line's crumbling." More symbology moved as soldiers broke from their defensive positions, heading toward the rear in ragged groups as the red markers of enemy soldiers began following, the enemy advance almost tentative, as if they feared ambush.

"What's going on?" Vic wondered, whispering the question, then glaring at Stark. "Why are they running?" She slammed her fist against the console before her. "Why the hell are they running?"

"I dunno. Let's ask again." Stark pulled up the ID on one of the Sergeants involved in the growing rout. "Srijata. What's going on? Why did you abandon your bunker?"

The wild disorder of combat only dimly echoed in Srijata's reply. "I don't know! Everybody just jumped up and started running!"

"Why'd you run?"

"I can't hold a bunker by myself! I could see the bunkers on either side going, too!"

Stark shifted comms. "Private Shanahan. Hold your position."

"Negative. Negative. Too hot. Can't hold."

"You're not under pressure right now. Take a stand."

"Why? I'm not gonna die for nothing!"

Vic stared directly into Stark's eyes for a moment, then called a soldier herself. "Corporal Delgado. Report in." Silence. "I know you've got comms, Delgado."

"Go to hell!" Delgado panted back.

"Hold your position, Delgado. There's soldiers depending on you."

"Nobody's risking their ass to save me, are they? They're all running, too."

Stark focused back on the commander center, suddenly aware of every eye on him. Yeah. Like being a squad leader, but with one helluva big squad. He keyed the general circuit, linking it to every soldier in the threatened sector. "Everybody listen up. This is Stark. Hold your positions. There's nothing coming at you we can't handle. I've got reserves moving up. Hold your positions," he repeated. Some of the symbology seemed to hesitate, but the breach in the front kept widening as more positions were abandoned and more units began running. The dam had broken, its individual pieces falling away under pressure, the enemy flood shoving at the ragged edges of the break to sheer away more defenses in an ever-widening rout.

Stark became aware of Sergeant Jill Tanaka, in charge of the headquarters staff, standing near. "How far will this spread?" she wondered, voice despairing. "Is the whole front going to go?"

"I'll tell you as soon as I know." Odd. To have so much power at his fingertips, yet to have so little ability to influence events.

"Dammit," Vic swore, punching another circuit to life. "Where the hell's my brain. Artillery. Grace? We got problems. We need you to stop a penetration."

Far from the main headquarters complex, ensconced in a room where rested control of the big cannons which infantry had feared for centuries, Sergeant Grace spoke carefully, spacing his words. "I see it. I can lay down barrages to slow the enemy a bit, but I can't stop them without ground troops forming a line."

"We'll form a line. We got reserves moving up. Start dropping shells on those enemy troops."

"Okay. I'll slow of them down, like I said, but I can't hit the ones furthest forward without risking our own people. They're too intermingled."

Vic stared at the display, then at Stark. He nodded slowly. "Do your best, Grace. You're the expert."

"You don't wanna see my firing plan and sign off on it first?"

"Hell, no. What're you talking about?"

"Standard procedure," Grace explained, speaking rapidly now. "I develop a plan, then send it up the chain of command so every officer along the line can sign off on it and fiddle with exactly what target which cannon shoots at when. Then I get it back."

"After the damn battle's over?"

"Hey, I didn't make the system. You want to see my plan?"

"No," Stark declared forcefully. "Grace, you'll forget more about employment of heavy artillery than I'll never know. You do your job and if I see a problem from here, I'll talk to you about it."

"Command by negation?" Grace questioned. "Stark, you're my kind of wild-eyed radical. There'll be shells going out in a few minutes."

"Thanks." Stark glanced at Vic. "What the hell is 'command by negation'?"

Reynolds grinned, the expression rendered slightly unnerving by her tension. "That means you tell somebody to do a job, then just watch them do it. You don't interfere unless you see something you think needs done differently."

"Common sense," Stark muttered. "How the hell else can you -?" He stiffened, staring at the left flank of the collapse. "It's stopped on that side. There. Look, they're holding. Tanaka, get on with that bunker and hold their hands personal. Make sure they stay."

"Why there?" Vic wondered as Tanaka rushed to a terminal to link in. "Oh, hell, look at the terrain. They're on an elevation with a steep depression in front and rocks in front of that."

"Yeah." Stark smiled crookedly in recognition. "The Castle. We never got stationed there. Best bunker assignment on the perimeter. The enemy's being channeled away from them by the terrain so they're under no pressure at all." He shifted to gaze to the other side of the penetration, where a cluster of friendly symbols stood fixed on a piece of terrain shaped like a lopsided oval. "Vic, somebody's holding on this side, too. Thank God."

"Yes," she confirmed. "Mango Hill's holding."

"But that's just a low elevation. The enemy's gotta be pushing them."

"Ethan, look at the unit ID." Vic snapped the suggestion as if she knew he wouldn't like the information it provided.

He didn't. "Oh, Christ." Third Squad. First Platoon. Bravo Company. Second Battalion. First Brigade. His old Squad. The twelve soldiers he'd personally trained and led for years. His Squad until decades of poor leadership by their officers, culminating in the unthinking slaughter ordered during General Meecham's ill-considered offensive, had led the senior enlisted to finally mutiny; until those senior enlisted elected Sergeant Ethan Stark to command them, so that he had to leave the Squad where his heart still lay. That same Squad, those same soldiers, had rotated back onto the line in the last few days and were now holding a position which had become the linchpin of the American line. Holding where the enemy was certain to hurl full force in an attempt to continue the unraveling of the American front. "Anita," he called.

"Si, Sargento." Corporal Gomez sounded absurdly cheerful.

Scanning her display, Stark could see the bunker combat systems shifting in a rapid blur to slam rounds at enemy targets as fast as they winked into existence on the local sensor net. A lot of targets probing, pushing, trying to work their way close enough to the bunker to pinpoint its sensors and weapon hard points. In one corner of the view from Gomez's command seat, Stark could see Private Mendoza, hunched forward at his control station, an occasional quick gesture changing the bunker system priorities to concentrate on different targets or sectors. "You've gotta hold," Stark stated. "Right there. I can't trust anybody else to stand and fight right now."

"We gonna fight, Sargento. No problema."

"They're gonna hit you, hit you bad, but you gotta hold," Stark repeated.

"Si. Nobody's leaving this hill. They're pushing us now, but we're pushing back plenty hard. You see? We ain't gonna run like those Earthworms." Stark called up a different direct vid feed, seeing through the eyes of another one of his old Squad members, as Private Chen fired from a pit outside the bunker. Shadowy shapes moved among the scattered rocks, flickers of motion amid the solid black shadows and glaring white light overlying the dead gray of the lunar landscape. Chen fired coolly, steadily, as his Tac pinpointed target kill-points. His Heads-Up-Display jittered as enemy jamming tried to confuse aiming and detection of targets, the symbology altering in a constant wild jig as combat systems tried to sort out real targets from false. Minor vibrations jarred the Tac display as a nearby chain-gun mount pumped out staccato streams of shells. So easy to be there, focusing on the moment, on one target at a time in the familiar routine of a leader responsible for one small group of soldiers. So hard to be back here, instead, worrying about thousands.

"Let me know if it gets too hot," Stark ordered, breaking the link to resurface in the command center.

Vic was watching him, eyes hard. "Ethan, they're going to catch hell."

"I know that. They're gonna catch hell because I can count on them to stand there and take it. That's the way it works, right? The ones who can take it and do the job, no matter how rough, always end up getting handed that job." He ran one hand through his hair, staring at the sector display once again where enemy forces were pushing deeper inside the American lines. "That's a big flippin' hole." New symbols appeared, heavy shells arcing in from the American rear to burst within the area where enemy forces were thrusting forward. "Grace is right. The artillery's not gonna stop them."

"That's not Grace's fault. He has to guess where the enemy will be and where our own troops will be. He's always going to be behind the curve unless you tell him to drop his stuff on our own people."

"Which we ain't gonna do. So how we gonna plug that damn hole, Vic?"

"I've got the two on-call companies." She waved at the display. "At least I don't have to wonder where to deploy them, anymore. Delta's off to the left a long ways. I'm sending them in behind the Castle to hit the enemy flank," Vic advised, her fingers flying over the command console to transmit orders straight to Delta Company's Tactical systems. "The other Company is almost dead behind the hole in the line. Maybe they can stop the enemy advance." She paused. "Okay?"

"What?" Stark questioned irritably. Oh, right. I'm the boss. "Yeah. Good moves. Do it."

"They won't be good enough, Ethan. Damn fine thing you ordered those extra battalions activated." Vic bit her lower lip so hard that a bright bead of ruby blood appeared. "Charlie Company. I need you in place fast." Even as she spoke, Vic rapidly updated positions to feed Charlie Company's Tacs. "Establish a defensive line."

"You want us to hold that alone?" Charlie Company's acting commander questioned incredulously. Another Sergeant with a lot more soldiers and a lot more responsibility than a few days before. "There's a lot of crap coming down that way." The enemy, caution evaporating, had begun chasing the retreating American forces, hurling more and more troops into the hole in the American line despite the artillery falling in their path.

"Negative," Vic soothed. "Delaying action. Don't try to hold firm until we get more people there. We've got two battalions on the way. Understand? You're not alone."

"Okay." The doubt behind the acknowledgement rang clear even through the distance of the comm circuit.

Stark fidgeted, unable to act for the moment, his available forces committed. The line of symbols representing Charlie Company seemed far too small compared with the mass of friendly and enemy soldiers rushing down at it.

The thin line of Charlie Company had barely taken up position when the first scattered symbols representing fleeing Americans began to stream past and through them. More symbols came, moving rapidly toward the rear in singles and small clusters, like debris in a river rushing against the small dam that was Charlie Company. "Ethan…" Vic began.

"I see it." Some of the Charlie Company soldiers had begun falling back as well, swept up in the retreat as another wave of panic-stricken troops hit their line. First the edges of the company line began peeling away, then segments of the center eroded, then the rest simply collapsed, joining in the rout. "We got big problems, Vic. Holding the flanks won't help if the center ain't there." There's too much going on all at once. How do you decide anything with all this data in front of you and stuff happening faster than you can think? Indecision ate at him, allied with a growing fear. What do we do? Tell people what to shoot at like the officers did? That won't accomplish anything. Maybe there's nothing I can do. Nothing but watch and hope something happens to salvage this mess.

A vision of bloodied grass suddenly mocked him, jeering at his inaction. Just like Stark's commanders had once waited indecisively at Patterson's Knoll as their troops died around them, until their options were all foreclosed. Good Lord. Am I becoming my own worst enemy?

Memories tumbled out, as if thinking of the hopeless battle on the Knoll had been a key to a locked door. One steadied, forming a vision of soldiers sitting around a glowing heat lamp somewhere near a nameless battlefield, the veterans swapping war stories while newer personnel watched and listened in something approaching awe. One of those inexperienced soldiers, then-Private Ethan Stark, venting his frustration. It can't be done. There ain't no damned way to accomplish this mission.

Corporal Kate Stein, his self-appointed "big sister," had grinned back. Lemme tell you somethin', kid. When you've tried everything you can think of, and nothing's worked, try something else.

What? Stark complained. You just said I'd already tried everything.

No, I didn't. I said you'd tried everything you could think of. Think of something else.

Stark rapped his faceshield with an armored fist, drawing a surprised look from Vic. "What was that for?" she wondered.

"Me. Trying to shake a few brain cells loose."

"I hope it helps." Vic hung her head for a moment, both hands supporting her above the command console, then raised again to look at Stark. "Ethan, I don't know how to stop this. I don't even know why it's happening."

"I think I do." He knew it, now, somewhere down deep. Some people fight for God, some for glory, some for country. Which of those are left for these guys, right now, right here? But that's a long range problem. Gotta save everybody's asses first. Too much happening, too big a disaster in the making, and too many responsibilities on his shoulders, yet Stark felt oddly calm. Think of something else. He stood directly before the map display, pointing toward it. "We've been trying to deal with this penetration by throwing stuff straight at the enemy."

"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 any place 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, any more 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 is coming apart..."



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