Chapter 17

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THE TERRAN MANDATE

General Lane sat at his desk – a cheap looking assembly of lightweight resin that was supposed to look like wood – and rearranged, again, the assortment of writing instruments and photographs of his troops in action. The truth was he didn’t have much to work with in terms of making a good impression, but he hoped to appear vaguely intimidating somehow. His steward had swept out the dust that seemed to invade every interior space on Shoahn’tu with a mind of its own. Most of it was gone, but a fresh coat was already gathering in the corner. Other than the desk, the only other furniture in his austere workspace was a plastic bookshelf that held a few hardbound copies of military manuals and a small frame for his medals. A small round porthole looked out over the Shoahn’tu dessert, barely letting in enough light to notice. Flimsy fluorescent fixtures that hung from the low ceiling provided the rest of the meager light that he had to work by.

Three loud knocks sounded on the door. He suddenly felt embarrassed. He decided to stand up and smoothed the front of his formal dress uniform, which suddenly seemed out of place. “Come,” he finally said.

Two Marines in worn field fatigues opened the door and escorted General Godfrey into his office. Catching the impertinent look on her face at having her movement subject to the whim of enlisted enemy combatants, he nodded at the Marines and said, “dismissed.”

“Sir, if I may,” one of them said.

“And give her back her side arm,” General Lane said.

“Very well sir.” The Marine retrieved her pistol from a cargo pocket in his trousers and handed it to her with a curt nod. She grabbed the weapon and hastily shoved it into its holster and snapped the black fabric strap that held it in place.

As the two Marines hustled out the door, she came to attention and saluted smartly. “General Godfrey, Terran Guard, Commanding,” she said

General Lane hesitated and then decided to return the salute.

Snapping her hand back to her side, she said, “I forgot, you people don’t salute indoors, do you?”

“Typically, no,” he said. “Thank you for the courtesy, though.”

Both officers looked each other over, trying to size the other up. General Lane had tried for the better part of a day to remember when the commanding generals of their two forces had met to parley in person. As far as he could tell, this was a first.

“Please General,” he said, pointing to a thin plastic chair in front of his desk, “have a seat.”

“I’ll stand for now,” she said in a curt voice.

“As you wish, General.” Lane decided he would rather sit down even though it meant having to look up at this woman who had somehow come to command the troops that his own couldn’t contend with in the field. The fact that she was actually a good general just made it that much more difficult. After taking his seat, he propped his elbows on his desk and asked her, “What can I do for you then?”

“I’m here to propose a ceasefire, General.” She had said it as if she were reporting the morning muster – as if what she had just said wasn’t the most profound utterance between two human beings on the Planet of Shoahn’Tu since the Garon Ultimatum.

He stared at her blankly as her eyes continued to flit around his office, taking inventory of everything as if conducting some kind of reconnaissance. When he didn’t respond, she finally stopped and looked at him. “Didn’t your people tell you?” she asked.

“Just that you wanted a parley.” Based on what he had seen of the vaunted Terran Guard commander thus far, he began to wonder if this was some kind of joke by his staff. It would have been in poor taste if it was.

“Good officers are in short supply these days for both of us then,” she said.

Thinking back to the fiasco of the aborted battle for the Highlands, he said, “Indeed.”

She opened her mouth to say something and then stopped. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve never seen an office -” she paused and knitted her brow. “-like this.”

“Ah,” he said. “Yes, everything is about function for us. Something about delta V and the mass ratio cost of hauling a gram light years from Earth. I guess we figured we’d better come with everything we needed right up front.”

“That was good thinking, actually,” she said.

“After all these years,” he mused. “We’re still using pretty much what we landed with.”

General Godfrey pressed her palms together and then pulled the chair out and sat down.

General Lane decided it was time to get to the point. “You have two full brigades of mechanized infantry, a tank battalion and, if I remember correctly, a reserve company of artillery somewhere. Me, I have three battalions of Marine infantry, with attached armor companies and a single squadron of some very old aircraft with no ordnance.” He figured these were all things she already knew. “Beyond that, I have a few thousand starving colonists who all need the Highlands, which you have ably defended.” He leaned back and held up his hands. “Why would you want a ceasefire?  Why now?” In effect, he was all but admitting that she was winning and there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Godfrey nodded and frowned. “All true, General,” she said. “But I think we’re both running out of just about everything we need to carry on this fight.”

“I have colonists that keep me going, General. Because of them, I’ll carry on with sticks and rocks if I have to.” It sounded clumsy, even to him, but she had to know that surrender was not on the table. “I also have the Paladin.”

“I know,” she said. “But our mandate has changed.”

“Especially since there aren’t any Shoahn’ left,” he said.

She glanced at the ceiling and said, “True enough. But that doesn’t really call for a group hug.”

Lane raised a brow and said, “General,” a dull edge of caution in his voice.

“What I mean is that I think we know best how to run things around here. There’s more to Shoahn’Tu than scrub desert and sunshine. There are serious issues that need to be taken into consideration. Issues that we understand best.”

“Have you come here with some kind of moral mandate?” he scoffed.

“In a way, yes,” she said. “A way for everyone to move forward.” She leaned forward and fixed her eyes on his. “Under our guidance.”

“I think we’re just about done talking here, General,” he said.

Godfrey rolled her eyes and retrieved a tablet from her breast pocket. “It’s all right here.” She gently laid the tablet on his desk. Lane didn’t respond, his eyes descending into a dark scowl. “Beginning with access to plots in the Highlands – more than enough to feed your people.”

General Lane looked away and leaned back, hoping she wouldn’t notice the flash of shock on his face. This was a real proposal that could save the colony. But he knew better than to take anything at face value, especially from the enemy. There was always a price.

“And in return?” he asked.

“You will retain your rank and your command. You will govern the colony. My personal guarantee,” she said, tapping the tablet. “It’s all right here, signed and sealed.”

She was offering a lot. Lane had to admit to himself that it was appealing, but he recognized a bribe when he heard one. He decided to change the subject.

“It’s a shame what happened to the Shoahn'”, he said.

“It’s exactly what we said would happen if you came.”

“We had nowhere else to go and no more time to look. What did you expect?”

“To be honest, we expected this to be over long before now,” she said, dismissing the subject out of hand. It was history, dead and past and he could see she wasn’t going to waste time debating the merits of any of it. He would have to bring it up again someday, if there was a someday.

“There’s more, General,” he said. This was a military parley and he knew there was something she hadn’t brought up yet, something he would have brought up already.

“Your Paladin,” she said.

“I wish I had more of him,” he said.

“He’s the one thing that can keep this from happening.”

They paused, each taking measure of the situation like boxers between rounds. The Paladin was his one best advantage, but all the Cats had done was ensure a perpetual stalemate. What she didn’t know was that Major Walker’s Special Combat Armor Team was burning through its resources at a horrific rate. The dwindling weld compound that repaired their armor, the highly refined fluids, the precision-machined parts made from materials they had brought with them but could never manufacture in situ – these were all things that had cost an enormous amount of delta V and could never be replaced. Soon enough, the Paladin and his Cataphracts would be nothing more than museum pieces. They had some fight left, but their real value came from being a deterrent. And that was something he was not willing to give up just yet.

“What about him?” he asked.

“The Paladin will be transferred to my command,” she said.

“Good luck with that,” he scoffed. “Major Walker and his men are fanatics, more than you. He would never submit to your command. Honestly, he barely submits to mine.” Godfrey seemed genuinely surprised by this. Had he gone too far?

“Then you need to decommission him,” she said, as if it were a simple matter of arresting the commander of the most powerful combat unit on the planet.

“I can’t do that,” he said.

General Godfrey stood up and planted both fists on his desk. She leaned forward and looked down at him, her eyes focused to narrow slits. “I will dispatch a full brigade to Dirt Hill, turn every single one of its plots into a smoking hole and put your colonists in chains to farm the Highlands for food that you’ll never see. I’ll make sure you can watch them doing it, too. If you’re lucky, one in ten of your Marines will get a meal a day. The rest I’ll burn for fertilizer.”

General Lane shot to his feet. “And what happens when the Paladin tears into your remaining troops?  He would kill you to a man and take every single one of his own with him doing it. You do NOT understand this man.”

General Godfrey lifted one hand and tapped the tablet. “Or it can be this, General. There is a way out of all this that can work for everyone. I’m handing it to you. All you have to do is say yes.”

General Lane realized then that he was dealing with the most dangerous kind of enemy: one that believed they were right in a world where everybody was wrong. There were no more moves left. All he had left was yes or no. And he would have to decide soon. He picked up the tablet and tucked it under his arm. “I’ll take it under advisement, General.”

Godfrey waited a moment longer before standing back up and stepped back from his desk. “I look forward to your response in the next 30 hours,” she said.

“Thank you for your visit,” he said. She nodded and saluted. This time, he did not salute back. With that, she turned and marched out the door where the two Marines were waiting to escort her back to wherever she came from.

General Lane let out a long sigh and shook his head. He didn’t like being scared. They had come here with everything they needed to win. They had a full Marine Expeditionary Force – three divisions – made up of the finest fighting troops ever assembled in human history. They came with a company of 12 monstrous war machines that had survived every battle they had fought and still gave his enemy something to be afraid of. What happened?  Even as he asked himself the question, General Lane put it out of his mind. There wasn’t time for that now.

He reached down and punched the keys of a floor safe next to his desk, one of the few things in his office actually made of metal. He yanked the door open and pulled out a boxy blue controller with a molded pistol grip at its base. He tapped the small screen on top and it flickered to life. He waited until it acquired a signal and a small green dot popped up along an orbital track. The satellite was still there. And she hadn’t mentioned it.

A thin laugh escaped his lips as he watched the dot crawl along the track.  The satellite tracked miles upon miles of nowhere important. He could destroy a full square kilometer of anything that lay beneath it. If it had come anywhere near the corner of Shoahn’Tu they had been backed into, it might have mattered. It might have made trusting her unnecessary. It might have even won the war. Instead, the last Strategic Target Interdiction charge belonging to the MEF floated uselessly in space, taunting him with a power that could have ensured Godfrey kept her promise. He laid the device on his desk and stared at the com panel embedded in his desk. He had been given nothing less than a mandate from the commanding general of the Terran Guard. And he had no choice but to concede.

He tapped a button on the com panel and said, “Sergeant, a word if you please.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence