Read Side Show Online

Authors: Rick Shelley

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #War Stories

Side Show

13th SPACEBORNE 02
SIDE SHOW
Rick Shelley

PROLOGUE

By the start of the thirty-first century SA (Stellar Age), mankind had spread to more than 230 worlds. Apart from a few isolated planets, those worlds were divided into three primary blocs. The Accord of Free Worlds in the Terran Cluster was the newest alliance, even though the seventy-five member worlds were among the first settled by humans. Earth was also a member; the term "Terran Cluster" simply referred to those extraterrestrial worlds nearest Earth. The Accord was founded as a direct result of military and diplomatic pressure generated by a generations-long war between the other two groups of worlds.

The Schlinal Hegemony consisted of some fifty worlds, densely populated and heavily industrialized, with an average distance of little more than three light-years between inhabited worlds. The Hegemony was a tight dictatorship run from the world of Schline, fairly close to the border between the Hegemony and the Terran Cluster.

The Dogel Worlds were more feudal in nature. In theory, they were a loose confederation of about a hundred worlds, but in actuality they were controlled by a half dozen extended families who worked in close concert. The leaders of these aristocratic clans, the Doges, owned everything on their planets. Those worlds were, on average, less industrialized and less heavily populated than the worlds of the Schlinal Hegemony, but there were twice as many worlds, giving the two empires a rough parity.

Beginning in the middle of the thirtieth century SA, both the Doges and the Hegemons had started trying to upset that parity. Diplomacy and economic pressures had proved insufficient, so war had been the inevitable next step.

Stalemate on the frontier between the Hegemony and the Dogel Worlds eventually involved the independent worlds of the Terran Cluster in the fighting. Both sides looked for allies, or additional subjects, among the free worlds of the Terran Cluster, which bordered both empires. Most of the worlds of the Terran Cluster were heavily populated and nearly as industrialized as the core worlds of the Schlinal Hegemony. And the easiest routes for either Hegemons or Doges to outflank their enemy ran through the Terran Cluster.

Over the next several decades, the Doges and Hegemons expended as much effort on the worlds of the Terran Cluster as they did on each other. A dozen worlds fell to one side or the other, to military force if not to diplomatic suasion.

The threat drove the remaining independent worlds of the Terran Cluster to unite in the Accord of Free Worlds, a military and economic alliance that deliberately stopped short of full political union. For twenty years, the power of the Accord was enough to keep the Hegemony and the Dogel Worlds away. But in 3002 SA, the Hegemons started a military drive into Accord space. Two lightly populated Accord worlds, Jordan and Porter, were conquered and occupied. There were several other skirmishes, and Accord forces repelled invasions on three other worlds.

Six months later, the Accord was ready to start liberating the worlds taken by the Hegemons, both in the latest push and in the earlier expansion. Devon and Porter were liberated in the first campaigns. Now it was Jordan's turn.

...At least, that was the plan.

CHAPTER ONE

War is a noisy business, producing sound levels that can damage, or even destroy, human hearing. Yet men sleep in that noise—not well, or deeply, perhaps, but they
do
sleep. The stresses of battlefield noise and insufficient sleep combine to drain soldiers, to decrease their effectiveness until they become zombies. If they are not given a break from the noise and the stress, those soldiers become useless, malfunctioning automata who can be destroyed as easily as a child might stomp a sand castle into oblivion.

The men of the 13th Spaceborne Assault Team had been in combat on Jordan for two weeks, with no more than six hours at a time away from the front, where they might grab a few hours of sleep in relative security. Fourteen days. Few of the men would have believed that it had been no longer than that. For some, any span less than eternity would have seemed too short by half.

For others, eternity had already come. The 13th had buried more than fifty men on Jordan. Another half dozen were missing, presumed dead, their bodies somewhere out beyond the front lines, on ground that the 13th had contested and lost. Hegemony troops held that land now.

"Ezra, get those new men down and tell them to ease off on the wire!" Even though he was talking over his helmet radio, Platoon Sergeant Joe Baerclau of the 2nd platoon, Echo Company, shouted. Down the line, Ezra Frain turned to look at him. Ezra was the first squad's leader. A quick glance was all Ezra spared before he passed the Bear's orders on to the three new men in his squad.
New men
—all had been in the squad for at least five months, but they had joined after the last campaign, so they were still
new men
.

"If they were down any more, they'd be underground," Ezra said when he returned to the platoon noncom's circuit.

"That's what we're trying to prevent," Joe said, more tight-lipped than usual. Sergeant Baerclau was still short of his twenty-fifth birthday. He had been a soldier for nearly six of those years, first in a defense regiment on his homeworld of Bancroft, then in the Accord Defense Force, the last thirty-three months in the 13th SAT. Jordan was his fourth campaign in eighteen months. He was, physically, one of the smallest men in the company, but there was no one who could feel confident of besting him in any combat sport.

Joe turned his attention to the space in front of the platoon again. It was nearly dawn. For the last several hours there had been no more than intermittent rifle fire along this stretch of the front. What had been an unspoiled forest showed the effects of two weeks of combat. Trees had been uprooted, toppled, split, or burned. Leaves that had been starting to change to autumn colors had fallen. Several small wildfires had burned most of them and charred the trunks and underbrush. Three days of rain had churned the area into a foul-smelling sludge. There was one benefit to that. Mud covered everyone, splotched over the camo pattern that had been tailored especially for this region of Jordan—but tailored for a spring or summer campaign, not for an autumn, when the colors were all wrong.

"Baerclau."

"Yes, Lieutenant?" Joe replied, flicking his helmet radio to the channel that linked him with Lieutenant Hilo Keye, Echo Company commander. The 2nd platoon did not have a platoon leader at the moment. The 13th had come to Jordan short a dozen junior officers.

"Get your men alert," Keye said. "We've got relief coming up. Soon as they're in place, we pull out."

"Which direction?" Joe asked.

"Believe it or not, back," Keye said. "It looks as if we're due for another breather."

"Aye, sir, I'll pass the word." Joe was too tired even to make a bad joke about the prospect of relief. There was an acid aftertaste in his mouth from the stimtabs he had been using to stay alert for the last several days. It would be good to get away from the stimulants for a time.

If everything had been timed properly, the transfer would have taken place in the last thirty minutes before first light. But the sky was already starting to brighten in the east before the first of the relief soldiers, men from the 27th Light Infantry Regiment, moved up to the lines, and the black of night was fading into the gray of morning dusk before the 13th started to pull back. Under fire.

Even in the dead of night, there would have been
some
infantry fire. Night was not a cloak of invisibility. The helmet visors of both armies incorporated sophisticated night-vision systems. At best, those gave only 70 percent of daylight visibility, but even that slight advantage was not one to be squandered.

Withdrawing under fire took time. The 27th provided heavy covering fire, as did the units on either flank, but they could not suppress all of the incoming Heggie fire. It took nearly an hour to get all of the 13th out of range of Heggie small arms. A few mortar rounds chased them even farther back.

—|—

Two hours later, Colonel Van Stossen relaxed in the unaccustomed luxury of a staff car. He was trying very hard not to think. After two weeks of combat on Jordan, he was so far short of sleep that he scarcely trusted his mind. A fanciful notion kept nagging at the edges of his attention, telling him that the skimmer was a dream, or a hallucination, that he was still in his command post at the front, with his men being pounded by enemy fire.

Stossen had been commander of the 13th SAT since its creation.
His
men,
his
team. For fourteen days, they had all been suffering. The campaign to liberate Jordan was not going well. That made the order to pull the 13th out of the lines puzzling. Then Major General Dacik, commander in chief of the invasion force, had sent his own skimmer to pick up Van. The colonel had barely had time to get his men settled, to issue all of the necessary orders. He hadn't even had time to wash and shave.

It can't be anything good,
Stossen reasoned. He tried not to dwell on possibilities.
I'll know soon enough,
he told himself.

"We're here, sir."

Stossen lifted his head and blinked several times. He looked around as if he had no idea where he was or what he was doing there, which was very nearly the case. Finally, he focused on the driver.

"Thanks, Sergeant. I guess I dozed off."

The driver grinned. "Yes, sir. About a hundred and ten decibels."

"I was snoring that badly?"

"Don't worry, sir. I won't tell. General's office is right through that door, bottom of the stairs, then to the left."

Stossen laughed. "If I could only get another eighteen hours of sleep." He picked his combat helmet up from the seat next to him and got out of the skimmer. While he stretched, the car pulled away quickly, moving into a garage rigged from a thermal tarp.

The colonel stood out in the open for a minute, continuing to stretch, bending to one side and then the other, trying to force some alertness back to his mind by working his body. Just over 180 centimeters tall, his frame was well-muscled. Although he was nearing the middle of his fifth decade, he kept active, holding himself to the same high standards that his men had to meet. His dark brown hair was cut short, almost to the scalp, whenever the 13th went into combat.

"Better not keep him waiting," he mumbled. With a quick brush at the dirt on his combat fatigues, he went inside the headquarters building.

The building wasn't much. It had been the home of one of the leading Accord families on Jordan before the Schlinal invasion nearly two years back. An old structure of pseudo-adobe, the house was, at least, dry and comfortably warm inside. One wing had been destroyed by the fighting during the Accord landing. The roof was partially down on the opposite wing, across the inevitable courtyard. On the outside, there was no obvious reason to suspect that the hacienda was currently inhabited.

Stossen found the stairs and went down into the cellar. Two guards at the bottom nodded him through a heavy door. The first room beyond was filled with a dozen staff people, officers and enlisted men. General Dacik's aide came over and saluted.

"You're to go straight in, sir." He pointed to the appropriate door.

"Thanks, Captain. Any hints?"

The captain shook his head. "Sorry, sir."

"I guess I'll find out soon enough."

Major General Kleffer Dacik didn't bother to stand when Stossen came in, and he quickly waved off the colonel's salute.

"Sit down, Van. Join me in a stimulant?" He pointed at the keg-shaped portable bar open on his desk.

"Thank you, sir," Van said. "There's an ugly rumor in the 13th that I once turned down a drink, but I assure you there's no basis to it."

Dacik's laugh was more of a grunt, short and quickly disposed of. The glasses he set up were real crystal, though nanofactured. The general filled both glasses and slid one across toward Stossen. The two men raised their glasses toward each other and drank. Stossen took merely the lightest sip, but Dacik nearly emptied his. The liquor was brandy, potent but smooth.

"Things that bad?" Stossen asked.

Dacik blinked. "They could be better."

"You must have a real bitch to drop on us. From what I've heard, the last man you offered a drink to in the morning never saw the next night."

"Don't let that booze evaporate," Dacik said. "It costs too much."

Obediently, Stossen took another drink, longer, almost enough to start him coughing. It had been two months since his last taste of alcohol.

"The 13th rear guard ready for an evacuation?" Stossen asked.

"No, it's not that bad—not yet, at any rate."

Dacik didn't seem inclined to continue. After a minute or so, Stossen emptied his glass. The liquor warmed him all of the way to his stomach.

"Things aren't going as well as we'd like." Dacik shook his head. "Hell, that's the understatement of the year. You've seen the situation." He waited for Stossen's nod before he continued. "We've committed all of the forces we could for this operation, and it might not be enough. We won't get reinforcements anytime soon. Intelligence underestimated Heggie strength here. There's nothing unusual about that, but they went to extremes this time. Instead of forty to fifty thousand garrison troops, we found nearly eighty thousand
assault
troops. The Heggies were building up a strike force here. Hard telling where they were planning to strike."

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