Copyright 1987 by Jefferson P. Swycaffer
The world of Carpus had for some time tried to sever its politics ties with the Third Imperium in order to seek its own destiny. To achieve this goal, the government hired a renowned mercenary heavy tank unit which was completely able to defeat a larger enemy. Shortly after the Clearwater Regiment signed a contract with the revolutionary leaders of Carpus, feuding broke out between the leaders and opposing factions began to emerge. Soon after, three Imperial warships arrived and quickly acted to end the rebellion. Colonel Clearwater, however, dated not surrender, and knew her Regiment was able to fight, despite the fall of the rebellion…
Grav-tanks bulked low behind spaceport barricades, hatches open to the breeze. Troops in shrapnel armor stood about, keeping low, yet helmetless and nearly at ease.
Negotiations concerning the demobilization of the Clearwater Regiment broke down on the third day.
"The Third Imperium does not recognize the right of an individual to own or control a military formation," Commodore Steinmetz had said. He stood by this line.
"The world of Carpus was not a member of the Third Imperium when our Regiment was hired. Our contract was with the revolutionary government. Having been paid, all we require is passage off the planet." Irwin Gomel, the Regimental Law Officer, let this argument be his mainstay of his half of the negotiation.
Carpus' ill-conceived rebellion had collapsed. The world's regular armies now stood interned and its space fleet dispersed. The situation also left the mercenary Clearwater Regiment bereft of its employers. With the revolution over and failed and the Regiment's own coffers filled from the looted treasuries of the world they were hired to free, only a small matter of legal import stood between the Regiment at its freedom to seek new markets for its services.
The talks could not alter the fact that a well-armed regiment of formidable reputation currently sat atop the main spaceport of the planet, ringed by the Imperial Marines. Swift tanks and infantry within; infantry surrounding them; and a wide, flat kill- zone between, avoided by both sides.
Was the Regiment awaiting transport to freedom or demobilization, internment, and prison?
Neither side referred to the tank Regiment as occupying the Port; rather, they were in situ. Their positions could plausibly be called defensive. The Marines holding the inward-facing ring about Pamela Clearwater's combined-arms force could be thought of as merely a cordoning force.
And above the Port orbited an Imperial heavy cruiser of the obsolescent Mearic class, complete with a drop-capable Marine Battalion. Offense or defense? Pamela Clearwater, with her tactical staff, kept their council.
Across the ill-defined front lines of a situation that none called a potential battle, the two forces faced each other, and the troops were ready for what the negotiators hope to avoid.
"We are willing to be reasonable, you know," Gomel said expansively to Steinmetz as the two sat to an informal after-dinner discussion in the drinks lounge of a restaurant near the Port.
"And I'm sure it seems to you that we aren't," Steinmetz glumly agreed. Although this was ostensibly a private meeting held for a further acquaintance between the two, the reality was that where these two were, the talks were.
Gomel regarded Steinmetz, and saw in him a man who should be commanding armies, not shepherding lawyers and diplomats. Steinmetz was a tall man who spoke like a philosopher and bargained like a mercenary born and bred. A waste, leaving that man in the service of a state.
Steinmetz's summation of Gomel was more concise, and less flattering: leaner, taller, tougher, and unwilling to accept defeat. He wore jet-black hair long, and ravished the world with the gaze of his sky-blue eyes.
"You've been claiming for three days that your hands are tied," Gomel said gruffly to Steinmetz. "You consistently point out that your vaunted Imperial law allows only one solution to our impasse: forced demobilization of our Regiment." He rubbed at the back of his neck, frustrated evidence across his face. "Can't you break the hold that those idiot laws have upon you, and negotiate in anything like good faith?"
"I'm stuck with the official line. Our offer stands as I've proposed it. We'll not press charges – although you were participants in an illegal rebellion – and we'll pay a fair price for your equipment, which we must impound." It was already evident what this offer cost him; it virtually legitimized Clearwater's actions. Yet Steinmetz was no ideological immoderate. He knew that it was lives with which he bargained.
"Fair price?" Gomel barked. "This isn't military surplus trash. We have got a hundred and forty good grav tanks, as any combat cars, a heavy artillery battalion – all in peak of prime condition. I won't hear of these being worth less than eighty percent of their value.
Steinmetz appreciated the man's anger. What he'd said, however, was true. Navy Commodore or not, his hands were tied. "The hardware is out of date. Not by much, perhaps, but as war material, it's of limited value to us."
"Krat!" cursed Gomel, the vulgarity dropping involuntary from his lips. "Look, we can't accept less than one hundred and twenty percent of value – "
"—Which would mean that we'd still take a loss." Gomel held his hand to forestall Steinmetz's next words. "I know. If you were free to make the decision, you'd eventually agree. You would have to. But you can't. When you were sent out here, you had orders stating exactly how much you would be allowed to offer us. You started out by offering us less, hoping to meet us halfway – exactly where your government wanted to start in the first place. But their idea of halfway and ours is vastly different." He sipped from his drink, a minty abomination local to the world.
"So," he continued, "we've made a decision."
What is that?" Steinmetz asked, somewhat alarmed.
Gomel's answer came indirectly – from the direction of the Spaceport resounded the heavy rumble of artillery casters opening up with sighting shots.
"Exactly on time," Gomel said calmly. When Steinmetz returned his startled gaze to the trim lawyer, the latter held a small, flat pistol in his right fist.
"What..?" Steinmetz blurted. More steadily, he began again. "It won't work. It can't."
"Without your authorization, the Marines will waste desperately needed minutes to respond effectively. One of the drawbacks of your rigid and authoritarian state."
"Rigidity," Steinmetz said, slumping back in his seat, "sacrifices flexibility willingly, in order to gain strength."
"I don't think so. By the time…" Gomel's observation was interrupted by a heavy-fisted blow from behind him, which sent his head slap-tilted to one side. Simultaneously, Steinmetz reached out and pushed the gun out of line. The shot that Gomel belatedly squeezed off was stopped by the heavy wooden panel of the private booth where the two sat.
Steinmetz gave Gomel no more of his attention, leaving the enormously surprised lawyer in the hands of the Marine Sergeant who had been Steinmetz's plainclothes bodyguard.
Does he think his holy terror of a Mercenary Colonel is the only who can plan ahead? Does he think I didn't see this coming two days ago?
Across the deserted lounge – which had been privately reserved by Steinmetz with exactly this event in mind – two other Marine NCOs rose from behind the bar, putting up their assault rifles. Steinmetz's life had never been in much danger.
"Command post all set up, sir."
"Everything start off as we planned?"
"Yes. General McBaen is on-channel."
Over the voice link that had one terminus in the lounge and its other in the field headquarters of General John Stuart McBaen, the crack of artillery fire could be heard, and the unnerving roar of heavy machinery. Steinmetz also heard McBaen's breathless delivery of orders – he less gave orders than he orated them – coordinating the simultaneous assault and defense that had as its aim the prevention of the Clearwater Regiment's breakout. His pre-dawn plans seemed to be under stress, and his personal attention was needed to keep his maneuver elements in their proper positions. In a spare moment he deigned to reply to Commodore Steinmetz' inquiries.
"They're tough, I'll give 'em that. Penning them in is like juggling rope or sweeping water. Now, I believe I heart you say something about a Battalion of Drop Troops…"
"I've given command of that Battalion to your headquarters. The can drop anywhere you want them, in twenty minutes."
"That long? Just what the hell is the delay? Never mind; I'll take 'em. Now get off this line."
Steinmetz looked for a moment with blank surprise at the radio, marveling at the General's abruptness. The delay, he thought to himself, is due to orbital physics, over which neither you nor I have too much control. Marine officers, he eventually concluded, must be trained to a different etiquette.
Gomel had been right, of course. He had been sent here with his orders already predetermined. Now a full, pitched battle was the price of his mandated inflexibility.
May it buy us strength, he sighed.
Pamela Clearwater, short, scrappy, foul-mouthed, rode in a prowling grav tank just behind the spearhead of her first Battalion. Her tousled brown-blonde hair whipped in the air-stream as she sat erect, her head emerging from the small gun-cupola of the tank's number two seat. The driver's hatch was hidden behind the swell of the turret, but Clearwater knew that the driver, too, had his head out for better vision, as did the commander atop the turret. Good vision makes for won battles: so she strongly believed, and so the Regimental Standing Orders made mandatory.
The bulky headphones she wore kept the howling din of the moving battle to a muted roar. The radioed code, abbreviated to near-meaninglessness to any not endowed the hypno-trained radioman's skill, kept her smartly abreast of the shifting nature of the action.
"First one, into Assault." She was not aware that she shrieked; the radio circuits channeled the orders to the correct recipient. The lead Company of the first Battalion moved swiftly from its concealment and into the firefight that was developing off to Clearwater's right flank.
Then it was her turn, as the Company she was attached to shifted position and moved in a frictionless glide over to undamaged Spaceport lawn. The monster grav tank slid across the open ground, drawing no fire, and after bashing down a section of security fence, swept through the streets of the city. A babble of radio traffic informed her of the target zones of her artillery impact. She smiled cruelly, knowing the Marines who ringed her in had no artillery of their own.
Back in the scattered outbuildings near the Spaceport Terminal, the crews of her self-propelled artillery casters shoveled the bulky packages of disintegrant explosives into the voracious mouths of their transmitters. With a wrenching gust of sudden vacuum, the packages were teleported through any intervening obstacles – including the Port Terminal, the thin armor of the caster vehicles, and the crews themselves – to materialize in the air above their target zones. The explosives, every molecule strained to the uttermost from the passage, burst into flattening, concussive fireballs, which pushed in windows for miles around, and which had the effect all artillery fire was intended to have: the defenders hit the floor, and dug in wherever cover was to be found.
A shame we can't send people through those machines and use them for combat teleportals, she thought. Experimental animals sent through them, however, always rematerialized as so much dead meat, dead to the very last cell, and roasted hot in addition.
Dismissing the fancy, she spoke – shouted – into her mouthpiece. "First two, three, into Assault." She gave an expert eye to the battlefield conditions that she was swept through as the heavy tank slid over the clean streets. A ridge off to the right seemed to be well-defended and was certainly a natural obstacle. "First, sweep left; bypass A-10." Her own Company moved also to the left, leaving the First Battalion room to push past the obstruction and to put some needed distance between itself and the hilltop defenders.
Tank warfare is, and always has been, like the assault of water against sand. Clearwater laughed aloud as she remembered the maxim, and as she now watched it being applied. Bypass resistance, and move through weakened areas. Never go head-to- head with fortified zones.
Her company led the Battalion as it hit the defending Imperial Marines where they were the weakest: at the 'hinge' where two Marine battalions had tried to swing a trap closed. The trap snapped – the mercenaries blew through. Clearwater's Second Battalion was now outside the ring.
"That's one-third of our strength, boys!" she shouted, letting the cheering news go over the all-units radio band. Businesslike, she added, "First into Mobile Defense." If the First Battalion, now in the teeth of the Marines' trap, could hold the corridor open, then the rest of the Regiment would be free, with an entire city to hold for ransom.
The main target swung, training the heavy pulse laser upon some target that Clearwater couldn't see. To the controlling hands of the tank commander, the gun depressed itself, and fired. A flicker of bright blue light snapped on and off again almost too fast for Clearwater or the driver to see it, but the over-blast of cooked air in its path blew back upon them hotly. The one-shot canister of photo-reactant chemicals kicked back out of the breach and over the side of the turret, fuming a luminous blue and noxious vapor.
The tank, bodily, whirled, and then settled again, while the turret remained locked upon whatever target the commander had selected. The gun discharged twice more.
And that idiot Navy Commodore could have bought us out, for a price that's a hell of a lot less than this is going to cost them. Before she was through, she intended that they be damned glad to pay her price. She couldn't hold any grudge against Steinmetz; she wouldn't have him shot. He never had any free will in the matter, she knew that. He'd been sent along with strict orders: 'Offer so much, and no more.'
That is the way the Imperium likes to work. Well, choice or no, this is what he's got: a ripping good battle. It may be a hell of a waste, but this is what his orders from on high have made necessary.
Now if we can just keep that corridor open…
The Marines were just as determined to close it. From behind cover, a fire-team of foot-soldiers opened fire with single-shot laser projectors. Clearwater had only a momentary glimpse of the visored face-plate of the Marine who thrust the stubby black cylinder up over an artillery shattered wall. The searing green line of the laser discharge was brilliantly visible for a small fraction of a second. That it was visible as a line meant that it wasn't aimed at her. That it was visible at all was an affront to her and her Regiment. Couldn't they see that she was going to win?
The Marine ducked again behind the wall, which itself only a moment later burst to the discharge of two tanks' main guns. Superheated concrete vaporized, incandescing up into the air and splashing liquidly onto the ruined pavement.
There were more than on of them, however, and soon the air was spider-webbed with flickering green lines. "Second, button up," Clearwater said, and pulled her head down through the hatch. She was just in time: the ceramic-sandwich of the tank's armor rang, gonglike, to the impact of two direct hits.
"Turret's jammed," said the commander from his seat above and behind her.
"The driver'll turn to aim," she said automatically, uselessly. The commander knew that already. The viewscreen inside was a poor substitute for real eyeballing. Clearwater made the best she could of it. Eighteen tanks dead! Under her breath, she swore, and although the base, coarse, graphic and explicit syllables relieved her anger, they accomplished little else.
"Artillery-All: fire two direct on this location."
"All; two; on the way." The laconic reply was followed, after a necessary moment of recalibration of the casters, by a rippling thunder of overhead detonation, which would, hopefully, clear the crawling infantrymen from their coverts. Three seconds later, the second salvo crashed over the tanks. Unhurt, the gliding monsters slid along, a bare meter above the ground, valiantly trying to keep the corridor open so that the remaining two battalions and artillery support could make good their own escape.
What's holding them up?
The radio began to hum ominously, until with a sudden eruption it sang a shrill, shrieking whine that tore at Clearwater's ears. Cursing, she wrenched the headset loose and hurled it into the viewscreen before her, which likewise had become useless.
The Imperium is mighty damned proud of their electronic warfare capability. Well, to three hells with them! My Regiment can win without communication!
It was possible that it could have, against what it already faced. But the Heavy Cruiser Eupatoria had other modes of warfare than electronic interference. Under the protective screen of the bulking ship's thirty fast and sleek fighters, a full, reinforced battalion of Drop Troops descended to apply itself with dynamic precision. The fighters, relieved of their charge, devoted themselves to tank-busting, and the heavy laser beams from the overshadowing cruiser stabbed lance-like to obliterate the helpless artillery battalion.
Leaderless, the tanks pulled together, making the more and more frequent infantry ambushes all the easier. Soon, the attempted breakout turned into an attempted break-in, with the divided Regiment trying to reunite. That effort also failed.
Soon, the two separate portions of the battered mercenary Regiment were both isolated, beleaguered, assaulted from all sides. The perimeter of the positional defenses shrank, bent inward and finally gave.
A ruthless surrender was demanded; after twenty minutes more of one-sided battle, it was accepted.
In a fit of retributive pique, Clearwater set the main gun of her tank to backfire two minutes after she'd left it. The imploding detonation of the vehicle as it wrecked itself, and the startled reaction of her captors, were scant reward for the first, and last, default her Regiment has ever sustained.
"Commodore Steinmetz," she greeted him, as the Marine guard presented her to him in his headquarters.
"Colonel Clearwater," he said, rising.
"I'd been told by Mr. Gomel that you were nearing an agreement. Indeed, he even told me that you'd begun bargaining about the exact price we would have been paid for our equipment."
"That is correct." The two remained standing, gazing at each other as the victor and defeated have always gazed at each other. "Indeed," Steinmetz said, somewhat gently, "that turned out not to be a profitable avenue of negotiation."
"Profitable!" Clearwater laughed aloud. "The Spaceport is ruined, the city is damaged, and the cost of the restoration will run into the billions. Why wouldn't you settle with us?"
"You asked too much."
"Oh, yes, your secret orders. Your instructions from the distant Imperial homeworld. What was it that you were authorized to offer us.?"
"Nothing. Not a cent. I was instructed to deny you the use of a dangerous and illegal private army, and to put all of your personnel under arrest. The Third Imperium does not recognize the right of a private individual to own or control military formations. That was all that mattered."
"But you were operating under secret instructions?"
"What were they?"
Steinmetz looked at her, and thinly smiled. "I was asked to try to keep the damage down."
"I never could have negotiated in good faith. I needed to buy time, to reinforce the Marines who surrounded you. I was willing to dicker and chaffer until you finally made your move. I was totally inflexible."
He knew that that was what buys strength.
A heavy tank in this technological period can generate roughly 60 million watts of energy output, sustainable for indefinite periods. In comparison, a hand-held anti-tank projector can put out 5 million watts of energy for half a second or so.
Jeff Swycaffer has four books now in print, all inspired by Traveller. He is a lifelong resident of San Diego, CA, and belongs to the Flat Earth Society of the People's Covenant Church.