Just an idea that popped into my head and refused to leave.
The noise from my handcom startled me out of a sound sleep. Cursing, I rolled over and grabbed the wretched little device from where I had left it, resting on the whore’s bedside table. The message, unsurprisingly, was a recall. All officers serving in the 113th Stellar Guards – even a lowly First Lieutenant such as myself – were to report to base immediately. That meant, I knew, that we would be expected to show up within the hour.
I put the device down and sat upright. The bedroom looked rather less pleasant now that sunlight was streaming in brightly through the overhead window, but last night I’d been too drunk and horny to care. All I’d cared about was getting laid one final time before the Guards commenced their next rotation cycle, a happy event that seemed to have just begun. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, stood up and staggered towards the bathroom. At least there was hot and cold running water. I’d been in dives where you couldn’t wash after sexual congress. But then, this was a soldier’s world. I splashed cold water on my face and glared at myself in the mirror. Two weeks of leave had really taken their toll. The whore had probably thought that she was undercharging me.
Shaking my head, I finished washing and walked back into the bedroom. The whore had shifted position, exposing her naked breasts, but she hadn’t woken up. Instead, she was snoring loudly enough to wake the dead. I couldn’t help wondering if she was actually awake and making noises to hurry me out of her room, then I decided that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t as if I could afford to stay for another round.
I pulled on my basic uniform and then looked back in the mirror. Apart from the small layer of stubble, I looked reasonably presentable; I’d had my head shaved only a month ago and it hadn’t really started to grow back properly. I fiddled in my money pouch, dropped a handful of credit notes on the whore’s table and let myself out of the room. I’d given her enough money to ensure that she didn’t need to take another client today.
The bartender nodded at me as I made my way through the bar and out onto the street. Shithole – the planet was actually called Nova Strasbourg, but no one actually used that name outside of official papers – was largely inhabited by soldiers, rotating in and out of training areas and then out on deployment to trouble spots across the Empire. Unsurprisingly, a small industry had grown up around catering for soldiers on leave, offering everything from fancy food and drink to whores and enough alcohol to float a battleship. Most of the young troopers under my command would be having a spree, if they didn’t have the sense to save some of their pay for later. But then, they all knew that they could buy the farm on their next deployment.
I noticed a couple of MPs walking down the street and nodded to them, as politely as I could. They were meant to keep order, a difficult task when countless young troopers were getting smashed out of their minds on alcohol and a handful of semi-legal drugs. One of them nodded back to me, clearly recognising my officer’s bearing. Or perhaps they just couldn’t be arsed berating me this early in the morning. The makeshift town was actually pretty quiet for once. Most of the regiment were still sleeping off their handovers after last night’s fun and games.
A taxi came up in front of me and I waved to the driver. He pulled to a stop in a haze of burning hydrocarbons and yammered at me in oddly-accented Imperial Standard. I yammered back until we had come to an agreement, then climbed inside and braced myself for the drive. The drives on Shithole see it as their duty to scare hell out of the troops. I hung on for dear life as we lurched our way to Titmouse Base and stopped just outside the guardpost. As soon as I had paid, the driver flashed away, looking for his next passenger.
I held my left hand over the sensor and waited for it to blink confirmation before stepping through the armed guards, into the base. There were few wreckers or secessionists on Shithole; to my eye, the guards looked remarkably lazy. I guessed that someone with a higher rank than myself had wrangled them permanent duty on Shithole, where the worst danger was drunken troopers. There were places were a moment’s inattention could get you killed. As soon as I was through the check, I strode over to the barracks and into the briefing section. Unsurprisingly, half of the officers – and it wasn’t just men from the 113th, I realised – were late. I rolled my eyes, took a mug of coffee and a sober-up, then sat down and waited for the show to begin. The sooner it started, the sooner it would be over.
It was nearly forty minutes after the scheduled time that the briefing finally began. I sat up and did my best to look as if I was paying attention, but it wasn’t particularly easy. The only important datum in the first hour of talking from the briefing officer was that we were being deployed to Montezuma. Given that people had been talking about it for several weeks, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. They needn’t have bothered giving us orders to keep it from the troops. The troopers already knew.
The briefer droned on and on about the planet – everything from local ecological regulations to medical care – and I felt my eyelids begin to grow heavy. Instead of falling asleep, I retrieved my datapad from my belt and started to flick through the briefing notes for myself. Perhaps they would make more sense on a computer screen, rather than presented by someone who didn’t know how to separate the important information from the unimportant information. It wasn’t long before I had a rough idea of just what the hell was going on.
Montezuma had been settled during the Unification Wars, back when just about every group with a yen for some living space had bought a colony ship and headed out to settle their own world. The early settlers had been Mexican – I had to look up Mexico to discover that it had been a country on Earth, now buried under a giant megacity – and they’d wanted to set up a low-tech world for themselves. It was something to do with finding their souls in nature, I gathered after reading the notes three times to make sure I actually understood. As a farmer’s son, I couldn’t help thinking that they’d been utterly insane. Farming was hard enough with modern colony tech; why would they want to condemn their children to a lifetime of watching the back end of a mule?
As it happened, it hadn’t been more than five hundred years before the title deeds to the planet were sold onwards to another developer. In theory, the colonists should have had first right of refusal, but in practice that sort of shit happened all the time on the Rim. Besides, they hadn’t kept up with their interest payments. The new owners of the planet, a consortium of developers from China – another long-dead country on Earth – had sent a few hundred thousand more settlers. At first, they’d tried to keep their distance from the Mexicans, but it hadn’t lasted long. And then matters had become even more complex when certain vital ores had been discovered in the asteroid belt and other corporations moved in, bringing their own settlers. The net result had been civil war.
Eventually, the Empire had stepped in and ordered all sides to play nicely – or else. The trouble with that was that the various colony drops had been made relatively close to other settlements – and by then, the planet was fully-claimed – and all those groups were just jam-packed together. None of them wanted to quit and go elsewhere; none of them wanted to just live in peace with their neighbours. Why should they when it was their planet? Apart, of course, from the minor detail that everyone else thought that it was their planet too.
“Our mission is to keep the peace,” the briefing officer droned. “If the locals attempt to disrupt the peace, we are authorised to engage them and …”
I rolled my eyes. It was abundantly clear that there was no peace to keep. Indeed, there had been so many atrocities that you could force the locals to forget the origins of the conflict and they’d still have plenty of reason to loathe their neighbours. Maybe the Empire could impose a solution by separating the different groups, but I doubted that it would last for long. But if there wasn’t a solution, the conflict would just keep burning indefinitely, fuelled by endless atrocities.
The briefer went on to talk about local allied and oppositional forces, forcing me to pay attention. Montezuma was governed, at least in theory, by a largely-Chinese government. The Empire had given them that recognition because the Chinese happened to own most of the industry on the planet’s surface, making themselves important to the asteroid miners and cloudscoop workers in the system. The Planetary Government ran the Montezuma Civil Guard, which was almost completely Chinese – and very loyal to their leaders. They had to be; if they didn’t hang together, they would definitely hang separately.
Naturally, the Mexicans – and everyone else – had their own militias. They were thoroughly illegal by Imperial Law, but they didn’t let a little detail like that stop them. And why should they, when the best they could hope for from the Civil Guard was a shot in the head? There were at least seven unofficial Mexican militia groups on the planet, several of them with contacts that brought in weapons from outside the system. They had a shortage of heavy weaponry, according to the briefer, but that didn’t stop them being thoroughly unpleasant to everyone else.
We were told that we could depend on the Civil Guard. I rather suspected that the briefing officer was talking out of his arse. Some Civil Guard units were fairly capable, but most of them were barely good enough for holding ground – if that. On Montezuma, where the Civil Guard was little more than a tool of the government, they’d be liabilities to any military operation. No doubt they would head off to slaughter Mexicans at the slightest opportunity.
“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you,” the briefing officer said, “that Montezuma has actually become surprisingly important as a way-station for starships heading out towards the Rim. The planet has almost no indigenous space-based industry, but that doesn’t stop it from serving as a port of call. It would be convenient if the endless fighting was brought to an end.”
“Glass the planet and start again,” one young officer suggested.
The briefing officer gave him what was probably intended to be a quelling glance. “Genocide is banned by Imperial Law,” he said, rather stiffly. He could guess that most of us had had the same thought. “Instead, we are to teach the locals the error of their ways.”
I stuck up my hand. “Sir,” I asked in my best arse-kissing voice, “how are we meant to do that?”
The briefing officer was either too tired or too dumb to notice the sarcasm. “We will be deploying around three million troops to the planet’s surface,” he said. “That figure alone should cause them to take notice. If not, we intend to slowly expand our arena of control until the planet is completely occupied. The locals will have to fight us and die, or go underground long enough for them to learn the benefits of peace.”
I just had to ask another question.
“Of those three million troops,” I asked, “how many of them will be combat troops?”
The briefing officer scowled at me, then turned back to his maps, refusing to answer. I smiled inwardly, humourlessly. I’d be surprised if one million of those troopers were actually combat troops. Logistics alone ate up hundreds of thousands of men; human resources (uniformed bureaucrats) came a very close second. For all the expenditure the Empire was prepared to waste on Montezuma, they couldn’t hope to put in enough combat troops to keep the peace.
A planet is big. I could hold a small country with a million troopers, but not an entire planet. Montezuma wasn’t anything like as populated as some of the Core Worlds, thankfully, yet it hardly mattered. We were still going to be parcelled out in penny packets or restricted to a handful of safe zones while the rest of the planet went to hell. I watched as the briefing officer outlined the deployment plan and scowled. At least the latter idea would have made a certain kind of sense.
The briefing officer finished up with a rousing speech covering our Duty to the Empire, the Honour and Glory that We Would Win and how the Eyes of the Empire were upon us. Indeed, we would be escorted by a small army of reporters from all of the major media outlets. Someone in the Joint Chiefs had evidently decided that Montezuma was to serve as the poster child for how the Imperial Army could knock heads together and teach the savages living there to play nicely, at least while our guns were pointed at their heads. I don’t know why they bothered to send the reporters along. If they ever said anything that was actually true in their reports, it was only by accident.
Joy, I thought, as we were finally dismissed. The last thing we need are people to babysit.
My stomach growled as I walked outside, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since last night. I waved to the other Lieutenants and motioned towards the canteen, then spied Sergeant Haywood standing by the side of the building and motioned for him to join us. Unlike some Sergeants I could name – and had to deal with, sadly – he had actually earned his combat stripes. His quiet advice had saved me from quite a few blunders since I left training and joined the regiment.
“Right,” I said, as we found a table and ordered food – and coffee, lots and lots of coffee. “Does anyone have any issues they’d like to raise before we begin?”
“Captain’s not here,” Lieutenant Redwing said. She was a thin woman, so thin that I didn’t know how she managed to pass all of her physicals on time. Mind you, she was a good shot; I’d have sent her to sniper school myself, if I’d been in command. “Or should we just get started?”
I carefully kept my face blank. Captain Harkens was directly related to one of the Grand Senatorial families, which was why he’d been promoted to Captain and put in command of the company. They didn’t like him that much, which was why said company had gone from warzone to warzone without much of a break. At least he was smart enough to stay in his office and let us run the company, even though he was technically in command. I’ve had worse COs.
“We should,” I said. I dropped my terminal on the table and smiled at them, darkly. “You all heard that steaming pile of crap; how many of you would like to place money on it being as easy as that shithead suggested?”
No one bothered to disagree. Like me, they’d moved from combat zone to combat zone; few of them bothered to take official briefings seriously any longer. And none of us had any real hope of victory. All that really mattered was keeping the men alive – and ourselves, of course – and getting through the deployment without becoming too stressed. God knew we had enough stress just from dealing with the paperwork.
“All right,” I said. “Go through your records; see who we have who speaks anything they speak on the planet’s surface. If we have anyone, they’re detached to serve as interpreters. We can put them in the Civil Affairs lot until we know just what’s going on.”
“If we have anyone,” Lieutenant Patel said, glumly. “Isn’t everyone supposed to speak Imperial Standard anyway?”
It was a rhetorical question – sure, everyone was supposed to learn Imperial Standard, but I’d been on worlds where they didn’t – and so I ignored it.
“We have two days to go through the files and make our plans,” I continued. After then, the troopers would be coming back onto base, no doubt as hungover and pissed-off as we’d been this morning. I remembered being a young trooper before being offered a chance to go qualify as an officer and some of my last-night benders had been remarkable, as had the mornings after. “I want to be ready.”
There were no disagreements. We’d seen enough to know the value of pre-planning – proper pre-planning, not what passed under that name in the Department of Defence.
My handcom buzzed. I blinked in surprise and looked down at it. “It’s the Captain,” I said, out loud. Being called by him was a surprise. “He wants to meet with me, at once.”
“Better go,” Lieutenant Redwing advised. She nodded towards the plate of Army-issue baked beans and sausages. “Reckon he saved you from a course of the galloping shits.”
“Very funny,” I said, unable to hold back the sympathetic wince in my chest. Diarrhoea was never fun, particularly on active service. “Don’t forget that you have to attend an ecological impact briefing tomorrow, even if you have to bring your chamber pot with you.”
Or perhaps the wince in my chest was apprehension. The Captain never paid close attention to what we were doing.
So what the hell had gone wrong now?