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After the strike, I led the counterattack with what was left from First battalion plus most of Weapons battalion. The Alliance Army forces had been cored, and we mopped them up with light losses. Even after employing tactical antimatter, I still lost Marines to the enemy. Five hours later, we received word from General Beck that the Alliance had offered a ceasefire pending a complete surrender of the planet. Operation Homecoming was a success.
Operation Starfall was also a success. 7th Marines accomplished all of its objectives. That we had taken significant losses to do so was acceptable. We had taken Sassael; we had retaken our homeworld. The losses all ground forces had taken on the invasion were well under what the high command was willing to pay.
Of the three thousand, one hundred and twenty-two Marines that dropped into Feinler City with 7th Marines, seven hundred and four had been killed in action. A further four hundred and fifteen had been so injured as to require medical attention.
Colonel Stern survived the battle. As soon as we were able, he was on a transport to the Navy hospital in the Bayon system. He eventually received cybernetic legs and returned to duty.
As the senior surviving officer of 7th Marines, I was left in command of the regiment with orders to garrison the city while the powers that be figured out what to do with it. Eventually there would be a Sassaeler civilian police force and administration put in place, but until then, it was the military’s responsibility.
We took over the Alliance base to the south. It was a little ill-placed to stage our security and stability patrols from, but there was nowhere else that had the infrastructure to support a Marine regiment. We had gone from being elite Marines to an urban assault force to police, but had no choice; we’d killed all the Gendarmes.
There was not much for us to police. The population was very happy to see us and cheered my Marines wherever they patrolled. There were some reprisals, though.
The power company employee that warned us of the Gendarmerie being reinforced had not been killed. However, the CEO of Frish HydroPower Limited was found hanged with a note: “I collaborated with the Alliance.” No suspects were ever found despite the man hanging from a powerline pole in one of the more crowded sections of the city.
General Beck came by a couple of days after the battle and gave me a medal. He also frocked me a full colonel, too. I got to wear the rank, received all the authority and responsibility of the rank, but was still paid at my old rank. It was supposed to be an award for a job well done.
When I finally had time, I looked up a holo of Lieutenant Kreiger and wrote him up for the Silver Cross with Swords. He had blue eyes, with short black hair, and a strong chin. He had two sisters, both younger than him. His father placed the Silver Cross with Swords on the wall of the family home.
I relieved Captain Schumann of his command with cause. His hesitation and unwillingness to attack cost our regiment dearly. He would never command Marines in battle again. If he made major, it would be because of his outstanding skills as a supply officer.
Mako Nizumi was named a Hero of the Sassael Union, the first Fakiman to receive such an honor. Months later, I personally gave Mako’s mother the Gold Cross of the Sassael Cross. There is a monument in Feinler City to the Marines that died in Operation Starfall. The bronze statue is of Mako Nizumi. I visit it every year.
After two days, I was finally able to get a solid six hours of sleep.
After five days, 7th Marines had settled into a routine that actually allowed me to spend a couple of hours unwinding. At the moment, I was watching the news in the officers’ wardroom. The United Systems was on its third day of session debating our invasion or liberation of Sassael, depending on who was talking. At the moment, the Sippians were speaking, asserting that we had every right to return to our homeworld. Then they were shouted down by the Luteans who insisted it was an unprovoked attack on an Apinan Stars Alliance protectorate. I didn’t give a flying flip what the Luteans thought. I was perfectly happy to go drop a moon on their planet at that point.
In the end, it didn’t matter what the general session said. The Valen Republic were members of the United Systems Security Council and had promised to support the Union. They couldn’t force the United Sytems to accept our control of Sassael, but they could prevent the United Systems from acting to the contrary.
“In any other place in the universe, they call that amount of hot gas a star,” Lieutenant Colonel Ebner said.
“Chucking them into a star could only improve the universe,” I answered.
A pilot made his way into the wardroom. I could tell he was a pilot because he was wearing a flight suit. Unfortunately, he was not the pilot I was looking for. Captain Drassler—the pilot that saved us from the enemy fighter on the drop—was female. Which made me wonder what this pilot was doing here.
“Colonel Voss,” he said, coming to attention a few paces away from the chair I was sitting in.
I dragged myself up. “Yes, Lieutenant Commander Adler?” I asked, reading his name tape.
“I was Dragon Six-Six, ma’am.”
Ebner looked over, interested. So did the smattering of lieutenants and captains that were also present.
“At ease, lieutenant commander. I guess then I should thank you. You really saved our stew,” I said. He didn’t relax. “We’ve actually liberated some beer; I’d be happy to get you a bottle.”
“How many Sassaelers did I kill?” he asked, his voice agate hard.
I took a moment to close my eyes and take a breath. I saw the bright flash of a matter-antimatter annihilation.
“You don’t want to ask that question, lieutenant commander,” I replied with a sigh.
“Yes, I do. I found out after that you had Marines in the area of effect. You even had them switch off their beacons so I wouldn’t know, ma’am. You should have told me.”
“Let’s take this outside,” I said.
The wardroom had an outside door that lead to the smoke pit: a sandbox with a few picnic tables in the middle. Lieutenant Katz was smoking while doing some paperwork on his tablet.
“Katz,” I said, giving him a gesture with my head for him to move out.
He scrambled to get up.
“Aye, ma’am. Afternoon ma’am, sir,” Katz said before vacating the area.
“Take a seat, lieutenant commander,” I told the pilot, gesturing to a bench on the picnic table opposite of me. I didn’t smoke, but after Starfall, I was considering taking it up. “You think I should have told you that there were friendly Marines in the weapons area of effect?”
“Yes, ma’am, so I could have known. I might have been able to adjust my targeting to keep them alive.”
“Lieutenant Commander Adler, you don’t get to adjust—” I had to stop for a moment. I kept my eyes open. I didn’t want to see Mako. “There’s not a spot on the nine line to explain that I have friendly units cut off with no hope for escape. There’s not a spot on the nine line to tell you I am about to be overrun.”
“Line eight: all friendly units are north of Phase Line Nocturne. You told me that, ma’am. I didn’t join the Navy to kill Sassaelers.”
“And you think I did?” I asked him. “Those were my Marines. My Marines! I tried everything to get her-them out.”
I had to stop talking before I lost it. Colonels don’t get to cry in front of lieutenant commanders, or any rank. We do that later, alone in our quarters.
“No, ma’am. I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.
“I know. It was a crappy situation we were in. I wasn’t exaggerating when I told you that you saved our stew. If you hadn’t dropped right when you did, my Marines would have been taking on tanks with their bare hands. I was out of options.
“It was Captain Nizumi that requested it. She was cut off with what was left of her company, fourteen Marines. She was surrounded, cut off, and had no hope of escape. It was her last act to give me the targeting data I needed to defeat the enemy threat.”
Lieutenant Commander Adler pulled a pack of cigarettes out and lit one up. I considered asking him for one.
“It just sucks, ma’am,” he said, taking a drag. “I go to sleep at night knowing I killed Sassaeler Marines. I eat breakfast knowing I killed Sassaeler Marines.”
I closed my eyes and saw a flash.
“You saw the lieutenant that was here when we first came outside? That’s Lieutenant Katz. He’s twenty-three years old. He was with his platoon, right at the front line. Once the Allies had killed Captain Nizumi, they were going to turn to him next. If your strike hadn’t eliminated the armor threat, he’d probably be dead. Captain Perika was there with her anti-air battery. She had eight 25mm railguns to defend against nine enemy tanks. I am sure she would have fought to the last in the attempt. There are hundreds of Marines in my regiment still alive because they didn’t have to go up against tanks with hand grenades.
“Listen to me, lieutenant commander. It’s not your fault. I ordered the strike and you dropped it right where you were supposed to. I’m the one that sent Captain Nizumi to hold the line against an overwhelming force. I’m the one that was in command. You want to blame someone, blame me. Your strike killed my Marines. It killed my friend, but it saved my regiment. It was my order and my responsibility. I will have to live with it.”
“I will have to live with it, too, ma’am,” Lieutenant Commander Adler said, looking at his cigarette.
“Yes, you probably will. It was war; people died. But, why don’t you go back into the wardroom and get a beer and have a drink with the people who lived because you did your job,” I said. I stood and so did he. “I need to get back to work.”
“Aye, ma’am. Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said.
I retreated back to my office.
“It was my order and my responsibility. I will have to live with it.”
And I do live with it. Most of the time I try to rationalize it away: we were dropped in a bad situation. It’s not really my fault; it was war. The enemy gets a say too. Sometimes it’s enough to keep the nightmares away. But there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t remember Mako Nizumi.
There were a few people that gave me much assistance when I was writing and editing this novella. My friends Anthony, Audrey, and Iain were all instrumental for providing feedback that made this work as good as it was. I’d also like to thank Bill, my editor, for all the slavish hours he put into this.
The art for Winter Three was done by I. M. Gallagher.