Monet eyed his security detail as they fanned out, ensuring that they took
exactly the positions he’d prescribed. Overhead, the roar of the dropship grew louder, but neither he nor the rest of his
platoon paid it the slightest attention.
rose and roared as the dropship hovered for a moment,
extending its wide legs and landed. The cement pad seemed to lurch slightly
under its weight. The roar of the jets ceased, and their sound was replaced by
the mechanical noise of the ramp being extended and lowered to the ground.
raised his eyes at that moment, glancing beyond the dropship
to the four heavy assault ships arrayed strategically around the edge of the
Enemy assault ships.
government had demanded it, had insisted on the protection that it, now
demilitarized, could no longer provide.
For the heroes were coming home.
Star Ranger Division, Rhone’s finest, was finally being returned.
was not there for them, however. He and his security platoon had only one
purpose, one man: The Coward of Corair.
noise from inside the dropship caused him to look
toward it. The skirl of bagpipes, an honor guard, formed and marched down the
ramp, colors flying.
all the Divisions of Rhone, only this one had been allowed to keep its colors
after their defeat by the Empire.
him, someone cleared his throat. “They’re turned out well.”
shoulders stiffened involuntarily. No matter how hard he’d tried, he couldn’t
prevent the reaction. It was one thing to know that the field was guarded by
Imperial assault ships, quite another to have to remember that their commander
was standing right behind him.
honor guard marched clear of the ramp, executed a textbook rear-march and
halted, bagpipes still skirling, colors raised high as another troop formed up
and marched out of the dropship.
they disembarking by platoons?” Monet
cried; the words surprised out of him.
battalions,” the Imperial general behind him growled. Contempt for Monet was
evident in his tone.
Star Ranger division consisted of three independent brigades, each composed of
three battalions. A spaceforce battalion numbered
between six hundred and seven hundred and fifty combatants.
heard they’d been decimated,” Monet said, as he picked out the colors of the
first battalion, the 1st of the 1st—the famous Iron
Battalion of the equally famous Iron Brigade.
your government said,” the general replied. Monet turned enough to meet the
Imperial general’s eyes and saw the cold flint in them.
looks like less than a tenth survived,” Monet protested.
correct,” General von Kampf agreed, turning his eyes
back toward the dropship and the next formation
copied him even as more questions presented themselves.
government of Rhone had made it clear that it had been the arrant cowardice of
the Star Ranger’s commander which had caused the surrender of the wormhole to
first, the news reports had been full of praise for the gallant Star Rangers
and General Cowan. This was the premiere division of the Star Army of Rhone,
the front-line defense against any aggressor. The Star Rangers had the best
men, training, equipment, and positions.
the Imperial attack continued, however, the news changed. Fort Clarion had been
lost, one of the three largest of the three dozen forts guarding the precious
wormhole transit point. Then Fort Alphonse, Fort Beauregard,
all of the front-line fortresses.
Star Rangers, according to the reports, clung bitterly to the remaining forts
and even set up special fortifications in the asteroid fields surrounding the
wormhole. For two weeks the news was good. The government announced that the
Star Division, well-supplied, at full strength, was able to hold the enemy up
for a month or more, certainly long enough for Rhone to convince the nearby
star systems to bring aid.
Premiere Algonquin spoke to the planet with terrible news: “Nous sommes trahis!” We are betrayed.
hours later, the Imperial battleships entered orbit and the red, white, and
green of independent Rhone was ignominiously hauled down from the capital.
betrayed, and desperate, the government lost no time in assigning blame for
this terrible defeat. Clearly, the loss rested in the hands of the one man who
commanded the most powerful force in the arsenal of Rhone—General Cowan, the
Coward of Corair, the last remaining fortress of the
wormhole. The fortress from which he had negotiated the
surrender of the Star Rangers.
looked impassively at the ranks of that famous division. If they only knew!
Would they turn on their commander? Would they tear him from limb to limb for
made a hand signal to his men as the ninth battalion—another remnant little
larger than a platoon—stood to attention and the tone of the bagpipes changed.
first he did not recognize the tune, he was no favorite of Celtic music,
preferring the rich tones of Rhone and the distant symphonies of France, but it
was one that was familiar and haunting.
one, the Star Rangers removed their classic black berets adorned with the three
stars of their division, raised their hands to their brows, and saluted.
saluted as the Coward of Comair and his headquarters battalion descended the
color drained from Monet’s face as he saw their numbers. Headquarters battalion
for a division numbered no fewer than eight hundred. Eight
hundred of the toughest soldiers to have donned a spacesuit.
the ramp came seven.
front of the other six was one man, his leg in a cast, his right arm in a
paused at the top of the ramp and removed his beret. He stood as best his could
and saluted, left-handed, holding his salute with a trembling arm until at last,
he eyes running with tears, he lowered it again.
Monet thought to himself. Now we can finish this farce. He nodded toward Chevarre, his trusted adjutant. Chevarre’s
jaw tightened; his one eyelid lowered fractionally to show that he understood his
orders. Good man, Monet thought to himself.
Cowan spotted Monet and nodded. One of the men behind him rushed forward,
pointing toward Monet and spoke quickly in Cowan’s ear. Cowan seemed to listen
politely, then shook his head, emphasizing it with a hand gesture. The man
seemed ready to argue, but Cowan shook his head once more. The aide, or whoever
he was, raised his head and called out in a loud voice that carried throughout
the field, “Division! Present Arms!”
twelve hundred and twenty-seven survivors of Rhone’s finest division moved as
one. Even the wounded shifted, raising themselves where possible to sit and
salute, while those more wounded raised their arms—those that still had them—to
honor their commander.
Cowan, visibly moved, returned the salute and held it for a long moment before
walking down the ramp toward the waiting detachment. He didn’t get far, as the
troops broke ranks and surrounded him, heedless of the calls to order from
then, General Cowan moved through the mass of his troops toward Monet and his
detachment. When he reached them, Monet stood still, not raising his arm in
salute. Behind the general, the troops of the Star Rangers murmured ominously
at the dishonor.
Cowan, commanding, Star Ranger Division,” Cowan said even as his eyes brushed
over Lieutenant Monet’s nameplate.
I am requested and required to inform you that you are under arrest pending a
court martial on your handling of your division,” Monet told him crisply,
signaling to his men, who did not get far, finding themselves blocked by burly
Division will stand down,” General Cowan said loudly, his eyes still on Monet.
the burly soldiers moved aside, allowing the less intimidating security
detachment to surround the general.
smiled slightly and raised his hands to the lieutenant. “Sir, I surrender
myself into your custody pending the inquiry into my actions.”
martial, sir,” Monet corrected him harshly. Behind him one of the security men
movement from behind Monet distracted them at that moment. General van Kampf stepped forward, his hand outstretched.
Cowan,” the Imperial general said, clicking his heels together sharply as he
extended his hand.
van Kampf,” Cowan said, his
am sorry for your losses sir,” the general said. He nodded to the division
beyond. “Your division fought with exceptional gallantry.”
accepted that with a sharp nod. Then he noticed something. “I see that you have
the honor of commanding the Imperial’s finest.”
van Kampf turned his head to survey the colors of the
guard behind him. “Yes, I have the honor to command the Emperor’s Own Kashtreya.”
nodded. “Perhaps one day you’ll explain their history to the lieutenant.”
van Kampf clicked his heels together once more. “It
would be my honor.”
turned back to the lieutenant. “Very well. Lieutenant,
I am your prisoner.”
words flowed back to his troops and there was an immediate cry of outrage.
are you taking the general?”
him here, with us!”
the general, why?”
going to court martial him!”
the mood turned ugly, then uglier, and Monet motioned for his detachment to
form close around the general as they tried to shuffle the way toward the
waiting ground transport.
discipline of the Star Rangers shattered and they started pummeling the guard
detachment. The guards grew scared and drew their weapons. There was a sudden,
loud crack!—a single shot.
Cowan slid slowly to the ground even as the guard detachment stumbled to
determine what had happened.
looked over toward the sound only to see Chevarre,
his pistol drawn, with a look of triumph on his face. Without thinking, even
before the troops of the Star Rangers could react, Monet drew his own pistol
and shot his trooper—a head shot, direct, deadly, final.
Chevarre’s body crumpled to the
ground beside Cowan’s, and Monet raised his pistol at the same time as he
shouted, “It was an accident! Stand down! Star Division, stand down!”
wave of shocked silence swept across the field. Slowly, the men of the Star
Rangers drew close to their commander. A group of men gently raised the body,
raised it high and carried it back toward the dropship
ramp and the remaining staff.
he regained control, Monet gestured to his men to gather up Chevarre’s
body, grabbed his comm, and tersely relayed the news
to his superior.
hand clapped his shoulder, and Monet jumped before he realized it was the
done,” General van Kampf said. “That was a difficult
situation and you handled it well.” He gave the lieutenant a very bitter smile.
“Your superiors will doubtless be pleased.”
lost my man,” Monet said.
van Kampf shook his head. “You don’t fool me,
gave him a sharp look.
me tell you about the Emperor’s Own Kashtreyas,”
General van Kampf said. “After all, I’d promised
General Cowan, and I’d like to keep my honor.”
of course not,” van Kampf interrupted. “You follow
orders, do your duty and hope for promotion.”
He pursed his lips sourly. “Your superiors tell you that Cowan is a
traitor and you believe them.”
you know how many troops fought against your Star Rangers?”
weak, under strength division, everyone knows that!”
full corps,” van Kampf corrected. “And that was to
start. A full, battle-hardened, assault-trained Imperial Guard Corps.” He shook
his head. “We wanted a quick victory, do you think
we’d commit inferior troops or numbers?”
look of doubt entered Monet’s eyes.
the end, we had to commit ten full divisions to the assault,” van Kampf said. “In the end, it was the Emperor’s Own Kashtreyas who broke through the command center, who took
the general and his six surviving staff—all the headquarters company had been
surrendered! He never fought! He didn’t try!”
divisions,” van Kampf repeated, shaking his head.
“And our casualties were appalling.
was the worst battle in the history of the Empire,” van Kampf
said. Monet shook his head, refusing to believe. “It was. This was worse than
the Battle of the Forlorn.”
“The Forlorn?” Monet repeated, surprised.
The Battle of the Forlorn was legendary, more famous even than the ancient
battle of Thermopylae.
Forlorn, where one battalion held up the emperor’s best for two weeks,” van Kampf said in agreement. He waved his hand back at the
troops behind him. “The Kashtreya
battalion, to be precise.”
Monet asked in surprise. “They joined the Empire?”
van Kampf said. “Do you recall what happened to their
shook his head.
survived the battle, you know,” van Kampf said. “Very
much like your General Cowan.” He nodded
as he saw the growing alarm in the lieutenant’s eyes. “He survived, was charged
with cowardice, was shot by someone, and died in dishonor.”
Kashtreya accused their government of assassinating
the commander,” van Kampf cut across him. “Within
three months, members of the Kashtreya had proof, the
government collapsed and—naturally, the emperor moved in to restore order.”
Kashtreya were cowards.”
their government was,” van Kampf said. “And the Kashtreya proved it.” He smiled. “The emperor makes many of
his acquisitions in this manner, you know. Just letting corrupt governments
prove their unworthiness, their willingness to sacrifice not only lives but honor for their own ends.”
turned back toward the grieving men of the Star Rangers. “How long, lieutenant,
do you think it will be before I can welcome them as the emperor’s own Star
Monet made an inarticulate noise, half moan, half gargle.
you think these men will stand by, these men who fought ten divisions to a
standstill, do you think these men won’t demand
justice? And do you honestly think that a government that can coerce a mere
lieutenant into murdering their best general will long survive?”