December 15, 2183

The motion of the waves ceased the moment the transport lifted off from the surface. Warren Armstrong leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes briefly. Six weeks of planning were finally at an end. His newborn Offworld Force was now on its way.

Six weeks was not long enough to add an entirely new unit to the Terran military hierarchy. The bureaucracy alone could take longer than that. But President Monroe, and the Born-to-the-Earth fanatic he’d appointed as Secretary of Military Affairs, wanted it in the air before the January first deadline he’d imposed for evacuating the Colonies.

The Commander of Military Operations could have brushed off the assignment by just diverting a ship and its crew from Admiral Gali’s Anti-piracy Task Force. No Earther, the CMO had to know how ridiculous the obsession with the Offworld Colonies really was. But he was also a forty-year veteran and determined to accomplish any mission he was given. He’d known that a single ship wandering from Colony to Colony couldn’t do the job the President wanted done. It was going to need a force organized more on land-based lines, companies that could disperse across the Colonies, troops trained to act as infantry once there.

If it actually came to a fight.

Most of the paperwork creating the new Offworld Force was done by the CMO’s staff before they ever offered the command to Warren Armstrong. But when he took the command, it was still largely a theoretical construct. He had to recruit his own staff officers, supervise the practical logistics of creating the unit, and at least supervise the recruitment of troops to bring the force up to strength.

He’d spent much of the last six weeks poring over personnel files, trying to read between the lines of official service records. His nightmare was some young hothead, aflame with anti-Offworld sentiment, opening fire on some crowd of civilians the moment things got tense. If that happened, if any shooting started, for any reason, Armstrong knew what the orders from Earth would be. President Monroe had made that very clear to him in a personal communication just after he’d assumed his post. Monroe had ranted on in exactly the same way as his public speeches— the Colonies had stolen Earth’s air and food, had ruined its environment, had hoarded its wealth. They were dragging their feet on the evacuation, because of their greed and arrogance. The referendum at Star City had proved they were already enemy rebels.

And then he’d said history would not only blame them for it, but would also blame them for the war. Monroe’s absolute certainty that a war would come was chilling. Until then, Armstrong had shared Admiral Gali’s certainly that it would never come to that. His orders acknowledged that his mission was a huge bluff— even if the Colonies wouldn’t back down, his Offworld Force wasn’t to fire a single shot, unless fired upon, or unless new orders came from the CMO.

Now, he knew those orders would come, if it came to it— and maybe even if it didn’t. The slightest pretext would force him to choose between launching the massacre of civilians who only wanted to stay in their homes, or else being branded a mutineer and traitor.

He’d spend the last six weeks making as sure as he could that no soldier under his command would supply that pretext. But could he guarantee it? Emotions all over the planet were running in Monroe’s direction, and if he’d tried to recruit a force comprised entirely of offworld-born troops, it would never have flown.

His intentions were to persuade the Colonies to see reason. Monroe’s order was madness but nothing could be done about it now. If he had to act the fanatic to make them see that, he would. But if they called his bluff…

He opened his eyes and looked out the window to his left. The second transport wasn’t in view, it was to starboard of his ship. But Admiral Gali’s carrier was lifting off at the same moment, the downblast of its engines churning the waters below. How long after accepting his change of assignment had Armstrong regretted it? It was the meeting with Monroe that changed sentiment to serious regret; but by then it was too late to back out.

The Admiral was returning to patrol the shipping lanes across the Earth’s oceans. Armstrong’s transport continued upward. Up, and up, toward the cities in the sky that had been Warren Armstrong’s childhood home.


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