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Todd McCaffrey has sold, solo or in collaboration with his mother Anne, eight novels of Pern. He has also been quite prolific elsewhere, both under his own name and as “Todd Johnson.” This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

 COWARD

by
Todd McCaffrey

Lieutenant 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.

Wind 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.

Monet raised his eyes at that moment, glancing beyond the dropship to the four heavy assault ships arrayed strategically around the edge of the landing field.

Enemy assault ships.

His government had demanded it, had insisted on the protection that it, now demilitarized, could no longer provide.

For the heroes were coming home.

The Star Ranger Division, Rhone’s finest, was finally being returned.

Monet was not there for them, however. He and his security platoon had only one purpose, one man: The Coward of Corair.

A 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.

Of all the Divisions of Rhone, only this one had been allowed to keep its colors after their defeat by the Empire.

Behind him, someone cleared his throat. “They’re turned out well.”

Monet’s 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.

The 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.

“Are they disembarking by platoons?” Monet cried; the words surprised out of him.

“By battalions,” the Imperial general behind him growled. Contempt for Monet was evident in his tone.

The 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.

“I’d 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.

“So your government said,” the general replied. Monet turned enough to meet the Imperial general’s eyes and saw the cold flint in them.

“This looks like less than a tenth survived,” Monet protested.

“That’s correct,” General von Kampf agreed, turning his eyes back toward the dropship and the next formation exiting it.

Monet copied him even as more questions presented themselves.

The 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 the Imperium.

At 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.

As 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.

The 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.

Then Premiere Algonquin spoke to the planet with terrible news: “Nous sommes trahis!” We are betrayed.

Forty-eight hours later, the Imperial battleships entered orbit and the red, white, and green of independent Rhone was ignominiously hauled down from the capital.

Shocked, 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.

Monet 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 his treachery?

He 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.

At 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.

Londonderry Air.

As 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.

They saluted as the Coward of Comair and his headquarters battalion descended the stairs.

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.

Down the ramp came seven.

In front of the other six was one man, his leg in a cast, his right arm in a sling.

He 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.

Finally! 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.

General 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!”

The 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.

General 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 their superiors.

Slowly 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.

“General Cowan, commanding, Star Ranger Division,” Cowan said even as his eyes brushed over Lieutenant Monet’s nameplate.

“Sir, 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 Space Rangers.

“The Division will stand down,” General Cowan said loudly, his eyes still on Monet.

Reluctantly, the burly soldiers moved aside, allowing the less intimidating security detachment to surround the general.

Cowan smiled slightly and raised his hands to the lieutenant. “Sir, I surrender myself into your custody pending the inquiry into my actions.”

“Court martial, sir,” Monet corrected him harshly. Behind him one of the security men murmured, “Coward.”

A movement from behind Monet distracted them at that moment. General van Kampf stepped forward, his hand outstretched.

“General Cowan,” the Imperial general said, clicking his heels together sharply as he extended his hand.

“General van Kampf,” Cowan said, his lips tight.

“I am sorry for your losses sir,” the general said. He nodded to the division beyond. “Your division fought with exceptional gallantry.”

Cowan accepted that with a sharp nod. Then he noticed something. “I see that you have the honor of commanding the Imperial’s finest.”

General 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.”

Cowan nodded. “Perhaps one day you’ll explain their history to the lieutenant.”

General van Kampf clicked his heels together once more. “It would be my honor.”

Cowan turned back to the lieutenant. “Very well. Lieutenant, I am your prisoner.”

His words flowed back to his troops and there was an immediate cry of outrage.

“Where are you taking the general?”

“Leave him here, with us!”

“They’re arresting him!”

“Arresting the general, why?”

“They’re going to court martial him!”

Quickly 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.

The 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.

General Cowan slid slowly to the ground even as the guard detachment stumbled to determine what had happened.

Monet 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!”

A 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.

As 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.

A hand clapped his shoulder, and Monet jumped before he realized it was the Imperial general.

“Well 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.”

“I lost my man,” Monet said.

General van Kampf shook his head. “You don’t fool me, lieutenant.”

Monet gave him a sharp look.

“Let 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.”

“I don’t see—”

“No, 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.”

“But—”

“Do you know how many troops fought against your Star Rangers?”

“A weak, under strength division, everyone knows that!”

“A 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?”

A look of doubt entered Monet’s eyes.

“In 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 destroyed.”

“But—he surrendered! He never fought! He didn’t try!”

“Ten divisions,” van Kampf repeated, shaking his head. “And our casualties were appalling.

“This 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.

“The 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.”

“Them?” Monet asked in surprise. “They joined the Empire?”

“Naturally,” van Kampf said. “Do you recall what happened to their commander?”

Monet shook his head.

“He 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.”

“So the Kashtreya—”

“The 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.”

“The Kashtreya were cowards.”

“No, 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.”

He 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 Rangers?”

Lieutenant Monet made an inarticulate noise, half moan, half gargle.

“Do 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?”

Copyright © 2011 by Todd McCaffrey

 

THEIR MAJESTIES' BUCKETEERS
by L. Neil Smith


A classic closed-room mystery with a murder most foul....and most alien....

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
The Bone-Runner
by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

Wiping Out

by Robert J. Sawyer
Full Skies, No Water
by Lou J Berger
The Press of the Infinite Black
by Rene Sears
Second Person Unmasked
by Janis Ian

The Little Robot's
Bedtime Prayer

by Robert T. Jeschonek

Life on the Preservation
by Jack Skillingstead
Love, Your Wolpertinger

by Dantzel Cherry
Thuindergod in Therapy

by Effie Seiberg

Coward

by Todd McCaffrey
Confidence Game (Sargasso)

by Laurie Tom

INTERVIEW
Joe Haldeman

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 1)
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Book Reviews
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 

 

 

 

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.