In the Phezzan Land Dominion, the interests of the Galactic Empire were represented by the imperial high commissioner. Count Jochen von Remscheid was the holder of that office.
This white-haired aristocrat with near-colorless eyes had been sent there from Odin around the same time that Rubinsky had been sworn in as landesherr and was spoken of as the “White Fox” behind his back. It went without saying that this name was playing off of Rubinsky’s “Black Fox.”
That night, the site to which Rubinsky had unofficially invited him was neither the landesherr’s office nor his official residence, nor was it even his private residence. It was a place that until four and a half centuries prior had been a bowl-shaped dip in a mountainous region with heavy salt deposits, but was now an artificial lake. On its shore, there stood a mountain cottage that had no legal connection to Rubinsky. Its owner was one of Rubinsky’s many mistresses.
When someone had once asked him, “Landesherr, Your Excellency, just how many mistresses do you have?” Rubinsky, not answering right away, had thought about it with a serious expression on his face, until at last with a cheerful smile bordering on audacity he had said, “I can only count them by the dozen.”
Although there was certainly exaggeration there, he was not entirely telling tall tales. His vitality of mind and body did not in the slightest belie the impression given by his outward appearance.
Rubinsky’s philosophy was that life should be enjoyed grandly. Full-bodied spirits, foods that melted on the tongue, renowned melodies to make the heartstrings tremble, and graceful, supple beauties: he was a lover of them all.
These, however, were mere entertainments. His greatest amusement lay elsewhere—for games of political and military intrigue were played with the fates of men and of nations as the intangible chips, and neither wine nor women could compare to the thrill they delivered.
Even Machiavellian trickery, sufficiently refined, can be an art, Rubinsky reflected. Only the lowest of the low resort to threats of armed force. The words on their placards may differ, but on that point there’s little difference between the empire and alliance. Both are twin children born of a monster named Rudolf, he thought with malice, and share a mutual hatred for one another.
“Well then, since Your Excellency the Landesherr has gone to such trouble inviting me out here tonight, there must be something you wish to discuss,” Count von Remscheid prompted as he set his wine glass down on a marble table.
Enjoying himself as he looked back at the man’s guarded expression, Rubinsky replied, “Indeed I do, and I believe the topic will interest you … The Free Planets Alliance is planning an all-out military offensive against the empire.”
The imperial aristocrat needed several seconds to digest the meaning of that reply.
“Your Excellency means to say that the alliance—” was what the count started to say, but then his own words registered on him, and he corrected himself: “That the rebels are plotting lawless outrages against our empire?”
“It seems that after capturing the empire’s proud fortress of Iserlohn, the alliance is boiling over with a lust for war.”
The count narrowed his eyes slightly. “By occupying Iserlohn, the rebels now hold a bridgehead in imperial territory. That is a fact. But it does not perforce follow that they will launch an all-out invasion right away.”
“Be that as it may, it’s clear the alliance is drawing up plans for a large-scale attack.”
“What does ‘large-scale’ mean?”
“A force over twenty million strong. Which might actually exceed thirty million.”
The imperial aristocrat’s near-colorless eyes shone white in the illumination.
Even the imperial military had never mobilized that large a force all at once. The difficulty in doing so was not merely a problem of numbers; it also involved organization, management, and the ability to run it all. Did the alliance have that kind of capability? Whether they did or not, this was certainly vital intelligence, but …
“But, Landesherr, Your Excellency, why are you sharing this information with me? What are your aims?”
“I’m a bit surprised Your Excellency the High Commissioner would ask me such a thing. Has our dominion ever once done anything that would put the empire at a disadvantage?”
“No, I’ve no recollection of such a thing. Naturally, our empire has the utmost confidence in Phezzan’s loyalty and faithfulness.”
It was an exchange with an emptiness and insincerity of which both sides were well aware.
At last, Count von Remscheid left. Watching his landcar as it hurriedly raced away on his monitor screen, a cruel smile appeared on Rubinsky’s face.
The high commissioner would run to his office and send an emergency message to Odin. The intelligence Rubinsky had just fed him could not be ignored.
Having lost Iserlohn, the imperial military would blanch at this news and begin preparations to intercept the attack. Reinhard von Lohengramm would almost certainly be the one sent out to meet them, but this time Rubinsky wanted him to win for the empire without winning too much.
If Reinhard didn’t show, that would be a problem, actually.
Rubinsky had not informed the empire when he had received word that Yang was to attack Iserlohn with only half a fleet. For one thing, he’d never dreamed the attempt would succeed, and for another, he had felt like watching to see what kind of clever scheme Yang would come up with.
The conclusion had been such as could even surprise Rubinsky. To think he had a trick like that up his sleeve! he had thought, genuinely impressed.
He was not in a position, however, to simply be impressed and leave it at that. The balance of military power had tilted toward the alliance, and now he needed to nudge it back slightly toward the empire.
He needed them fighting each other—hurting each other—more and more.
Marquis Lichtenlade, the minister of state and acting imperial prime minister, received a visit one night at the estate where he lived from Viscount Gerlach, the minister of finance.
The occasion for the minister of finance’s visit was to report that one stage of the Kastropf Uprising’s mop-up had been completed. Having a subordinate send a report by visiphone from one’s own home was not a tradition that existed in the empire.
“The disposition of Duke von Kastropf’s lands and fortune is for the most part accomplished. After liquidation, the estate’s value comes to roughly five hundred billion imperial marks.”
“He certainly had been saving, hadn’t he?”
“Most certainly. Although I do feel a slight twinge of pity for the man when I think of how diligently he’d saved just to pay it all into the national treasury …”
After enjoying sufficiently the full-bodied aroma of the red wine set before him, the minister of finance touched it to his lips. The minister of state set down his glass and changed his expression.
“By the way, there’s a little matter I’d like to discuss with you.”
“And what might that be?”
“A short while ago, I received an urgent communiqué from Count von Remscheid on Phezzan. He says that the rebel forces will stage a massive invasion of imperial territory.”
“The rebel forces—!” The minister of state nodded at him. The minister of finance set his half-filled glass on the table, causing the remaining wine to churn violently. “This is a serious problem.”
“It is. Yet at the same time, I can’t say it doesn’t present an opportunity.” The minister of state crossed his arms. “We have a need right now to fight a battle and win. According to the minister of the interior’s report, there’s some sort of revolutionary mood being fomented yet again amongst the commoners. They seem to have some vague idea of our losing Iserlohn. In order to blow all that away, we have to destroy the rebels and restore the dignity of the imperial household. In conjunction with that, we need to let the commoners suck on a bit of candy as well. A special pardon for thought criminals, an easing up on taxation, a decrease in liquor prices—something like that.”
“Indulge them too much and the commoners will take advantage of you. I’ve seen the radicals’ underground writings—they’re full of outrageous declarations. ‘Humans have rights before duties,’ and the like. Don’t you think a special pardon would only spoil them?”
“It’s as you say, but we can’t govern exclusively by the stick,” the minister of state said reprovingly.
“That’s true, but pandering to the people more than necessary is … But no, let’s leave that for another time. This report of the rebels invading our empire, was the source of it Rubinsky?”
The minister of state nodded.
“The Black Fox of Phezzan,” said the minister of finance, clucking his tongue loudly. “Lately, I get the feeling the misers of Phezzan might be a much greater danger to the empire than the rebels are. There’s no telling what they might be plotting.”
“I agree,” said Lichtenlade. “But for now, it’s the rebel threat we need to deal with. Who should we assign to the defense … ?”
“The golden brat will probably want to do it,” said Gerlach. “Why not let him?”
“It’s best not to make an emotional decision. Suppose we let him: If he were to succeed, his reputation would rise to a whole other level, and the room we have to impede him would evaporate. If, on the other hand, he were to fail, it would mean a fight against rebel forces under extremely unfavorable conditions—within the core of the empire, most likely, against a huge horde of thirty million whose morale would be soaring because of their victory.”
“Your Excellency is too pessimistic,” said the minister of finance, who leaned forward and began to explain his own position.
“Even if the rebels are victorious, they won’t come out of battle with Count von Lohengramm’s force unscathed. The count is certainly no incompetent and will doubtless inflict considerable casualties on the enemy. Furthermore, the rebel force will be on a campaign very far from their home base, unable to resupply at will. On top of that, they will be lacking the geographical advantage.
“For these reasons, imperial forces will be able to head off a battle-weary enemy at their leisure. Given the circumstances, in fact, it may not even be necessary to go out and fight them at all. If we simply wage a battle of attrition, the enemy will suffer supply shortages and psychological strain, and in the end they’ll have no choice but to withdraw. If the imperial forces wait for that moment to pursue and attack, victory will come with little difficulty.”
“I see,” said Minister of State Lichtenlade. “That settles that in the event the brat is defeated. But what if he wins? Between his military accomplishments and his exploitation of His Highness’s favor, he’s more than we can manage, even now. I can only imagine how much more spoiled he’d become if he were victorious.”
“I think we should let him get spoiled. One man who’s risen beyond his station? We can fry him up at our leisure. It’s not as if he’s with his troops twenty-four hours a day.”
“Once the rebel fleet has been wiped out, the golden brat will fall as well,” the minister of finance said coldly. “Shall we not make the most of his talents while we have need of them?”
It was August 12 of the standard calendar, SE 796. On the Free Planets Alliance’s capital of Heinessen, an operations planning session was being held for the invasion of the Galactic Empire.
Gathered in an underground meeting room at Joint Operational Headquarters were the director, Marshal Sitolet, and thirty-six admirals, which meant that the commanding officer of the Thirteenth Fleet, newly minted Vice Admiral Yang Wen-li, was among them as well.
Yang didn’t look well. As he had once told Captain von Schönkopf, he had believed the threat of war would recede if Iserlohn fell. The reality, however, had taken exactly the opposite shape—one that for Yang’s part reminded him of the fact that he was young—or rather, naive.
Even so, Yang was naturally in no mood to acknowledge the logical soundness of arguments for this mobilization and expansion of the war.
The victory at Iserlohn had been nothing more than Yang’s solo gambit paying off. It didn’t mean that the Alliance Armed Forces were actually capable of defeating the empire. The true state of affairs was that the troops were worn out to the point of exhaustion, and the wealth and power of the nation supporting them was riding a downward curve.
However, this fact, which Yang himself acknowledged was one the political and military leadership just didn’t seem to understand. Military victories were like narcotics, and a sweet drug called “occupied Iserlohn” seemed to have caused a sudden blooming of warlike hallucinations lurking in the hearts of the people. Even in the national assembly, where cooler heads should have prevailed, they were calling with one voice for “invasion of imperial territory.” The government’s manipulation of information was skillful, too, but …
Did we pay too little in taking Iserlohn? Yang wondered. If it had come at the cost of a bloodbath that climbed into the tens of thousands, would the people have said, “Enough, already!” instead?
Would they have thought, “We’ve won, but we’re dead tired. Shouldn’t we rest for a while, reexamine the past, think about our future, and then ask ourselves, is there really something out there that would make fighting on worth it?”
That hadn’t happened. “Who would have imagined that victory could be this easy?” the people had thought. “Who would have imagined that the fruits of victory could be this delectable?” It was an irony that the one who had put those thoughts in their heads had been Yang himself. This was the last thing the young admiral had wanted, and these days the brandy content of his tea was only increasing.
The expeditionary force’s order of battle had not yet been announced to the public, though it was decided already.
Marshal Lasalle Lobos, the Alliance Armed Forces Space Armada’s commander in chief himself, was personally taking the post of supreme fleet commander. As the number two man in uniform after Joint Operational Headquarters director Sitolet, his competitive relationship with Sitolet was one that stretched back over a quarter of a century.
The job of vice commander in chief had been left vacant, and taking the seat of joint chief of staff was Senior Admiral Dwight Greenhill—Frederica Greenhill’s father. Under his command had been placed Vice Admiral Konev, the operations chief of staff; Rear Admiral Birolinen, the intelligence chief of staff, and Rear Admiral Caselnes, the rear service chief of staff. This was the first duty on the front in quite some time for Alex Caselnes, who was known for his outstanding knack for getting things done in the office.
Under the operations chief of staff, there were five operations staff officers. One of these was Rear Admiral Andrew Fork, a brilliant man who had graduated top of his class from Officers’ Academy six years ago; this young officer was the original architect of the plan for the upcoming expedition.
The intelligence staff and the rear service staff consisted of three officers each.
To these sixteen were added high-level aides and essential communications, security, and other personnel, and together they formed the supreme command center.
To begin with, eight space fleets were to be mobilized as combat units:
The Third Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Lefêbres.
The Fifth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Bucock.
The Seventh Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Hawood.
The Eighth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Appleton.
The Ninth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Al Salem.
The Tenth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Urannf.
The Twelfth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Borodin.
The Thirteenth Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Yang.
The Fourth and Sixth Fleets, having been dealt severe blows at the Battle of Astarte, had been recently joined with the remaining forces from the Second to form Yang’s Thirteenth Fleet, so only two of the ten fleets that made up the Alliance Armed Forces Space Armada—the First and Eleventh—were being left behind in the homeland.
To these forces were added armored mobile troops known collectively as ground combat units, intra-atmosphere airborne combat squadrons, amphibious squadrons, naval units, ranger units, and all manner of other independently operating units. Heavy weapons specialists from the Domestic Security Corps were also going to participate.
As for noncombat personnel, the maximum number possible were to be mobilized from technological, engineering, supply, communications, space traffic control, maintenance, electronic data, medical, lifestyle, and other fields.
The total number mobilized came to 30,227,400 people. This meant that 60 percent of the Free Planets Alliance’s entire military was to be mobilized all at once. That number also accounted for 0.23 percent of the alliance’s full population of thirteen billion.
With an operational plan before them whose gargantuan scope knew no precedent, even admirals who had fought bravely in many prior battles were, here and there, conspicuously unable to clear their heads. They wiped nonexistent sweat from their foreheads, downed glass after glass of the ice water prepared for them, or whispered to colleagues in the seats next to them.
At 0945, Marshal Sitolet, director of Joint Operational Headquarters, entered the room with his top aide, Rear Admiral Marinesk, and the meeting got under way immediately.
There was no sense of grand exaltation in the expression or voice of Marshal Sitolet when he opened his mouth to speak: “The plan we’re discussing today for a campaign into imperial territory has already been approved by the High Council, but …”
All of the admirals in attendance knew that he had been against this deployment.
“Detailed plans for the expeditionary force’s actions are not yet established. The purpose of today’s meeting is to decide on these. I need not remind you at this point that the Alliance Armed Forces is the free military of a free nation. I’m hoping that in that spirit, you’ll carry out a vigorous exchange of ideas and discussion today.”
There may have been some present who from the lack of enthusiasm in the director’s remarks understood his anguish, and there may have been some as well who could perceive in his professorial intonation a passive-aggressive resistance. The director closed his mouth, and for a moment no one said anything. It was as if all present were simmering in their own thoughts.
In the back of his mind, Yang was replaying something he’d heard from Caselnes the other day:
“At any rate, there are unified regional elections coming up soon. On the domestic front, there’s been a string of internal scandals going on for a while now, so if they want to win, they’ll have to divert the public’s attention to the outside. That’s what this military campaign is all about.”
That’s an old trick rulers use to distract the people from their own bad governance, Yang thought. How the founding father Heinessen would have been grieved to know about this! His wish had never been to have a statue fifty meters tall erected in his honor; surely his hope had been for the construction of a governmental system that posed no danger to its people, where the rights and freedoms of citizens would not be infringed upon by the arbitrary whims of rulers.
But just as humans must eventually grow old and infirm, perhaps so, too, their nations must eventually grow corrupt and decadent. Even so, the notion of sending thirty million troops to the battlefield in order to win an election and retain power for another four years transcended Yang’s comprehension. Thirty million human beings, thirty million lives, thirty million destinies, thirty million possibilities, thirty million joys and furies and sorrows and pleasures—by sending them into the jaws of death, by swelling the ranks of the sacrificed with them, those in safe places monopolized all the profit.
Though the ages turned, this outrageous correlation between those who made war and those who were made to make war had not improved in the slightest since the dawn of civilization. If anything, the kings and champions of the ancient world may have been slightly better—if only on the point of having stood themselves at the heads of their armies, exposing their own skins to the threat of physical harm. It could also be argued that the ethics of those forced to wage wars had only degenerated as well …
“I believe this campaign is the most daring feat attempted since the founding of our alliance. There is no greater honor for me as a soldier than to be able to participate in it as a staff officer.”
Those were the first words that were spoken.
The flat, monotonous voice, like that of someone reading off a script, belonged to Rear Admiral Andrew Fork.
He was only twenty-six, but he looked a good deal older than that, and next to him it was Yang who seemed boyish. The flesh on his pallid cheeks was too thin, although he was not bad looking around the eyes and brows. However, his way of looking down at people and then sweeping his gaze upward conspired with the crook of his mouth to give him a rather gloomy impression. Though of course Yang—to whose experience the word “honor student” was nil—was perhaps given to regarding genius through lenses of prejudice.
The next to speak after Fork’s long, flowery trumpeting of the military’s grand design—that is to say, the operation he had drafted himself—was Vice Admiral Uranff, commander of the Tenth Fleet.
Uranff was a well-built man in the prime of his life, descended from a nomadic tribe said to have once conquered half the world of ancient Earth. He had a dark complexion and eyes that glinted with a sharp light. His courageous leadership made him stand out even among the admirals of the alliance and had brought him popularity among the citizenry.
“We’re soldiers and as such will go anywhere if ordered. If that means striking the very seat of the Goldenbaum Dynasty’s tyranny, we will go, and gladly. However, it should go without saying that there’s a difference between a daring plan and a reckless one. Thorough preparation is essential, but first I’d like to ask what the strategic goal of this campaign is. Do we plunge into imperial territory, fight one battle, and then call it a day? Are we to occupy a part of the empire’s territory militarily, and if so will the occupation be temporary or permanent? And if the answer is ‘permanent,’ will the occupied territory be turned into a military stronghold? Or are we to deal a destructive blow to the imperial military and not turn back until we’ve made the emperor swear an oath of peace? And before all that, is this operation itself considered short-term or long-term? It’s a long-winded list of questions, but I’d like to hear the answers.”
Uranff sat down, and Marshals Sitolet and Lobos both directed their gazes toward Rear Admiral Fork, prompting him to reply.
“We will penetrate deep into the empire’s territory with a large force. That alone will be enough to strike terror into the hearts of the imperials.”
That was Fork’s answer.
“So, we withdraw without fighting?”
“I’m thinking we should maintain a high level of flexibility and deal with each situation as it comes our way.”
Uranff’s brows drew together, showing his dissatisfaction. “Can you not give us a few more specifics? This is far too abstract.”
“What he means is, we just bumble around haphazardly, correct?”
The crook in Fork’s lip grew more pronounced at that sarcasm-spiced comment. Vice Admiral Bucock, commander of the Fifth Fleet, was the one who had spoken it. He was a true veteran of the Alliance Armed Forces, several notches more so than Marshal Sitolet, Marshal Lobos, Senior Admiral Greenhill, and the like. He was not a graduate of Officers’ Academy but had instead worked his way up from a raw recruit, and so although he was lower than they were in terms of rank, he exceeded them in age and experience. As a tactician, his reputation placed him in the bounds of “proficient.”
Fork didn’t reply; although he naturally felt some reserve toward the man, there was also the fact that Bucock had not been formally recognized to speak. On those grounds, Fork had apparently decided to politely ignore him.
“Does anyone else have anything … ?” he said somewhat forcedly.
After a moment’s hesitation, Yang asked to be recognized.
“I’d like to hear the reason the invasion has been set for this point in time.”
Of course Fork wasn’t going to say, “Because of the election.” But how would he answer?
“For every battle, there exists something called the moment of opportunity,” said Rear Admiral Fork, haughtily beginning an explanation of the matter to Yang. “Letting it pass, ultimately, would be to stand in defiance of destiny itself. Someday we might regretfully look back and say, ‘If only we’d taken action then!’ But by then it will be too late.”
“So in other words, our best chance to go on offense against the empire is right now. Is that what you want to say, Commodore?”
Yang had a feeling it was ridiculous to ask for confirmation, but he asked anyway.
“On major offense,” Fork corrected.
He sure does like his adjectives, Yang thought.
“The imperial military is in a panic over the loss of Iserlohn—they have no idea what to do. At this precise moment in history, what but victory could lie ahead for an alliance force of unprecedented magnitude, formed up into long, stately columns, forging ahead with the flag of freedom and justice raised high?”
There was a shade of self-intoxication in his voice as he spoke, pointing at the 3-D display.
“But this operation takes us too deep into the enemy camp. Our formation will get too long, and there’ll be difficulties with resupply and communications. Also, by striking us on those long, thin flanks, the enemy will be able to divide our forces easily.”
Yang’s voice grew heated as he argued, though this was not necessarily in sync with what he was really thinking. After all, how much did the details of execution-level issues matter when the tactical plan itself wasn’t even sound? Yet still he couldn’t bear to not try telling him.
“Why is it just the danger of being divided that you’re emphasizing? An enemy that plowed into the center of our fleet would be caught fore and aft in a pincer attack, and would no doubt be soundly defeated. The risk is insignificant.”
Fork’s optimistic arguments exhausted Yang. Fighting back the desire to say, “Go ahead, then—do whatever you want,” Yang continued to counter him.
“The commander of the imperial force is most likely going to be Count von Lohengramm. There’s something about his military expertise that’s beyond imagining. Don’t you think you should take that into account and come up with a plan that’s just a little more cautious?”
After he finished speaking, Senior Admiral Greenhill answered before Fork was able to.
“Vice Admiral, I’m aware you have a high opinion of Count von Lohengramm. He’s still young, however, and even he must make errors and mistakes.”
Senior Admiral Greenhill’s words didn’t make much of an impression on Yang.
“That’s true. However, the factors that result in victory and defeat are ultimately relative to one another … so if we make a bigger mistake than he does, it only stands to reason that he’ll win and we’ll lose.”
And the main point, Yang wanted to say, is that the plan itself is wrongheaded.
“In any case, that’s nothing more than a prediction,” Fork concluded. “Overestimating the enemy, fearing him more than necessary … that’s the most shameful thing of all for a warrior. Considering how that saps our troops’ morale and how their decision making and their actions can be dulled by it, the result is ultimately beneficial to the enemy, regardless of your intent. I do hope you’ll be more cautious about that.”
There was a loud noise from the surface of the meeting room table. Vice Admiral Bucock had struck it with the palm of his hand.
“Rear Admiral Fork, don’t you think what you said just now was disrespectful?”
“How so?” As the elderly admiral skewered him with a sharp glare, Fork puffed out his chest.
“Just because he didn’t agree with you and advised caution, you think it’s acceptable to go around saying he’s abetting the enemy?”
“I was merely making a general statement. I find it highly irritating to have that interpreted as the defamation of an individual.”
The thin flesh on Fork’s cheeks was twitching. Yang could see it clearly. He didn’t even feel like getting upset.
“From the beginning, the purpose of this campaign is to realize our grand and noble purpose of liberating the twenty-five billion people in the Galactic Empire who are suffering under the crushing weight of despotism. And I have to say that anyone who opposes that is effectively taking the side of the empire. Am I mistaken?”
Those in their seats were growing quieter in inverse proportion to his increasingly shrill voice. It wasn’t that they had been moved by his words; rather, the mood had been thoroughly spoiled.
“Even if the enemy had the geographical advantage, the greater troop strength, or even new weapons of unimaginable power, we could not use that as an excuse for being daunted. If we act based on our great mission—as a liberation force, as a force that’s there to defend the people—then the people of the empire will greet us with cheers and cooperate willingly …”
As Fork’s speech dragged on and on, Yang sank into silent reflection.
“New weapons of unimaginable power” were basically nonexistent. Weapons invented and put to practical use by one of two opposing camps had almost always been at least conceptually realized in the other camp as well. Tanks, submarines, nuclear-fission weapons, beam weapons, and so on had all entered the battlefield in this fashion, and the feeling of defeat experienced by the side that had lagged behind was verbalized not so much in the form of “How can this be?” as “I was afraid that might happen.” Between individuals, there were great inequalities in human powers of imagination, but those gaps shrunk markedly when viewed as totals within groups. In particular, new weapons were only made possible through the accumulation of technological and economic power, which was why there had been no air raids during the Paleolithic.
Also, looking at history, new weapons had almost never been the deciding factor in war—the exception being the Spanish invasion of the Incan empire, but even that had been colored deeply by their having fraudulently exploited an ancient Incan legend. Archimedes, who had lived in the ancient Greek city-state of Siracusa, had devised all sorts of scientific weapons, but they hadn’t been able to stop the Roman invasion.
“Unimaginable” was rather a word more likely to be uttered when a sea change took place in tactical thought. Certainly, there were times when these changes were triggered by the invention and introduction of a new weapon. Mass use of firearms, the use of air power to rule the sea, high-speed mobile warfare using combinations of tanks and aircraft—all of them were examples of this. But Hannibal’s envelopment tactics, Napoléon’s mounted charges against enemy infantry, Mao Tse-tung’s guerilla warfare, Genghis Khan’s use of his cavalry units, Sun Tzu’s psychological and informational warfare, Epaminondas’s deep hoplite echelons … all these had been devised and implemented without any relationship to new weaponry.
Yang was not afraid of any new weapon of the empire. What he did fear was the military genius of Reinhard von Lohengramm and the alliance’s own faulty assumption that the people of the empire were seeking freedom and equality more than they were peace and stability in their lives. That could neither be counted on nor forecast. There was no way that a factor like that should be included in the calculation of battle plans.
With a hint of gloom, Yang made a prediction: considering how unfathomably irresponsible the motivations behind this campaign were, that irresponsibility was going to extend to its planning and execution as well.
The distribution of the expeditionary force was decided. On point were Admiral Uranff’s Tenth Fleet, and in the second column, Yang’s Thirteenth.
General headquarters for the expeditionary force would be set up at Iserlohn Fortress, and for the duration of the operation, the supreme commander of the expeditionary force would also double as commanding officer of Iserlohn.
The meeting drew to a close having borne no fruit as far as Yang was concerned. Just as he was about to head back home, though, Yang was stopped by Marshal Sitolet, director of Joint Operational Headquarters, and stayed behind. Without a sound, the dregs of wasted energy drifted like a convection current through the air.
“So, you must be dying to say I should’ve let you retire,” said Sitolet. His voice had become corroded by a sense of labors come to naught.
“I was naive, too. I was thinking if we captured Iserlohn, the flames of war would recede afterward. Yet here we are.”
Yang fell silent, having lost sight of the words he should say. Of course there was little doubt that in Marshal Sitolet’s calculus, the arrival of peace would have secured his position and strengthened his influence, yet compared to the reckless adventurism and political maneuvering of the prowar faction, he was far easier to sympathize with.
“Ultimately, I guess I got tripped up by my own calculations. If Iserlohn hadn’t fallen, the hawks might not be making a gamble this dangerous. At any rate, you could call this just deserts as far as it concerns me, but for you I’ve made a real mess.”
“… Are you planning to retire?”
“Right now, I can’t. Once this campaign is finished, though, I’ll have no choice but to resign. Regardless of whether it fails or succeeds.”
If the expedition failed, Marshal Sitolet, as the highest-ranking man in uniform, would of course be driven to take responsibility with his resignation. On the other hand, if it succeeded, there was only one higher post with which to reward Marshal Lobos, supreme fleet commander of expeditionary force, for his accomplishment: that of director of Joint Operational Headquarters. The fact that Marshal Sitolet had been against this campaign would also work against him; his expulsion would take the form of a graceful bow out to make way for Marshal Lobos. No matter which way the die rolled, his future was already decided. All that was left for Sitolet was to prepare himself for it gracefully.
“I’m only telling you this because the circumstances are what they are, but what I am hoping for is that this expedition fails with the smallest possible number of casualties.”
Yang didn’t say a word.
“If it’s a rout, there’ll of course be a lot of blood spilt over nothing. But what happens if we win? It’s clear as day the hawks will pounce on the opportunity, and neither reason nor political calculation will be enough to make them accept subservience to civil governance any longer. Then they will stampede and eventually fall into a gorge. The history books are full of nations that were driven to ultimate defeat because they won a battle when they shouldn’t have. You should know all about that.”
“The reason I turned down your resignation was because I figured I could count on you to understand if things came to this. It’s not like I foresaw our present circumstances, but as a result of them, your presence in the military has become even more vital.”
Yang continued to listen in silence.
“You know a lot about history, and that’s given you a certain contempt for authority and military power. I can’t say I blame you, but no organized nation can exist free of those things. That being the case, political and military power should be placed in the hands of competent and honest people—not those who are the polar opposite—so the state can be reined in by reason and conscience. Being a soldier, I won’t venture to speak of politics, but speaking strictly of his role in the military, Rear Admiral Fork is unfit.”
The intensity with which he spoke those words surprised Yang.
For a moment, Sitolet looked like he was struggling to control his own emotions.
“He carried this operations plan directly to the chairman of the High Council’s secretary by way of a private route. That he sold them on it as a strategy for staying in power is enough to tell me that he’s motivated by a lust for personal advancement. He’s aiming for the top seat in the military, but at present he has a rival who’s just too strong, and he’s chomping at the bit to mark an achievement that will put him ahead of that person. He graduated top of his class from Officers’ Academy and has a funny thing about not losing to regular Joes.”
Yang murmured a casual “I see” to show he was listening, and a smile appeared on Marshal Sitolet’s face for the first time.
“You sure can be dense sometimes. His rival isn’t somebody else—it’s you.”
“But, Director, I—”
“This has nothing to do with however you may evaluate yourself. The problem is in what Fork is thinking and the method he’s taken for achieving his goals. I have to say, it’s too political, in the negative sense of the word. Even if it weren’t for that”—here the marshal sighed—“you must have grasped something of his character from today’s meeting. He displays his talents not in actual achievements but in eloquent speech, and what’s worse, he looks down on others while trying to make himself look distinguished. He doesn’t really have the talent he thinks he does, though … Entrusting anyone’s fate to him other than his own is just too dangerous.”
“Just now, you were saying the importance of my being here had increased …” Yang said pensively. “By that are you telling me to oppose Rear Admiral Fork?”
“Fork isn’t exactly the only one. When you reach the highest position in the service, you’ll be able to hamper and weed out people like him by yourself. That’s what I’m hoping you’ll do. Though I know it’s nothing but aggravation as far as you’re concerned.”
Silence clung to the pair like a heavy wet robe. Yang had to physically shake his head in order to shrug it off.
“Your Excellency the Director is always assigning me tasks that are too big for me. Telling me to take Iserlohn was one of those, too, but—”
“But you did it, didn’t you?”
“That time, I succeeded, yes, but …” Yang broke off and almost fell silent again, but he pushed on, saying, “It’s not that I hold authority and military power in contempt—no, the truth is, those things terrify me. Most people who gain authority and military power turn ugly—I could give a ton of examples. And I don’t have the confidence to say I wouldn’t change as well.”
“You said most people. Which is exactly right. Not everybody changes.”
“In any case, I intend to be a man of discretion and stay the greater part away from valor. I want to do some kind of work within the range that I’m able and then live a relaxed, easygoing life—is that what they call lazy by nature?”
“That’s right. Lazy by nature.”
As he stared at Yang, who was at a loss for words, Director Sitolet broke into an amused smile.
“I’ve long struggled with this myself. It’s not a lot of fun to work hard all alone and see other people living relaxed lives of ease. But first of all, if I can’t get you to do the hard work suited to your talent, that’s what I’d call unfair.”
“… Unfair, sir?”
Aside from grimacing, Yang knew of no other way of expressing his emotions. In Sitolet’s case, the director had probably decided to work hard willingly and of his own accord, but Yang didn’t think he was like that. At any rate, the one certain thing was that he had lost his chance to resign.
Before Reinhard were arrayed the young admirals attached to the Lohengramm admiralität: Kircheis, Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, Wittenfeld, Lutz, Wahlen, and Kempf, followed by von Oberstein. Reinhard considered them the best of the best from the imperial military’s human resource pool. However, he needed to assemble still more, of both quality and quantity. He needed it said of this admiralität that an appointment here meant recognition as a talented and capable individual. The admiralität’s reputation was already significant, but Reinhard wanted the superiority of his admiralität to be universally apprehended.
“I’ve received the following report from imperial military intelligence,” Reinhard said, looking around the assembly, and the admirals straightened their posture just slightly. “Recently, the frontier rebels of the so-called Free Planets Alliance have succeeded in stealing the empire’s frontline base of Iserlohn. This much you know already, but since then, the rebels have been massing their forces at Iserlohn in vast numbers. According to our estimates, there are two hundred thousand vessels and thirty million troops—moreover, these are bare minimum estimates.”
Murmurs of surprise and even admiration wended their way among the admirals. To command a giant fleet was a warrior’s greatest ambition, and despite this one belonging to the enemy, they still couldn’t help feeling impressed by its scale.
“What this means is as clear as day, nor can there be an iota of doubt: the rebels intend to launch an all-out assault directed at the core of our empire.” Reinhard’s eyes seemed to burn. “I have secret orders from the minister of state: the duty of intercepting and defending against this military threat is to be mine. Orders from the emperor will come down in the next couple of days. As a warrior, there is no greater honor I could hope for. I expect a good hard fight out of you all.”
Up to this point, he had been speaking in a hard, formal tone, but here he smiled unexpectedly. It was a smile filled with energy and spirit, although it was not the purehearted, transparent smile that he showed only to Annerose and Kircheis.
“In other words, this means all the other corps are ornamental dolls decorating the imperial palace, and not to be counted upon. This is an excellent chance for promotions and medals.”
The admirals smiled as well. Like Reinhard, they shared a common enmity toward highborn nobles who did nothing but gorge themselves on position and privilege; it had not been for their talents alone that Reinhard had selected these men.
“And now I’d like to talk with you about where we should intercept the enemy …”
Mittermeier and Wittenfeld expressed a shared opinion: The rebel attack would come by way of the Iserlohn Corridor, so why not hit them the moment they emerged from it into imperial territory? “We can ascertain the point where the enemy will appear, so it will be possible to strike their vanguard and create a half-envelopment formation, which will give us the advantage and make fighting them easy—”
“No …” Reinhard said, shaking his head. He then proceeded to explain that the enemy would be expecting an attack at the point where they exited the corridor and poured into the empire’s core. Their elite forces would be positioned in the vanguard, and if the remaining force didn’t emerge from the corridor when they were attacked, his force would be left with no means of attacking them further.
“We should lure the enemy in deeper,” Reinhard argued, and after a brief discussion, the other admirals agreed. “We lure the enemy deep into imperial territory, and then when their ranks and supply lines are stretched to the breaking point, we hit them with everything we have. I’d say that with such a strategy, victory for the defending side is assured.”
“But that will take a lot of time,” said Mittermeier. He had a firm, if smallish, build and certainly looked like a sharp young officer. He had unruly, honey-colored hair and gray eyes. “As this is, in rebels of the alliance’s own words, the most daring feat since their founding, it’s sure they’ll cut no corners when it comes to the preparation of their ranks, equipment, and supply lines. It will take a considerable amount of time for their matériel to be exhausted and for their fighting spirit to wane.” Mittermeier’s rather concerned opinion was only natural, but Reinhard swept his gaze across his admirals, and then with a gleam of utmost confidence in his eyes, said, “No, it won’t take very long at all. I’d give it less than fifty days. Von Oberstein, explain the basics of the operation.”
When called upon, the staff officer with the half-silvered hair stepped forward and began to explain. As he was doing so, an air of shocked disbelief spread out among the admirals without a sound.