chapter thirteen
Part Ten

"Decisiveness," he'd said to Tass when she'd asked her friend and mentor, Ibrahim Ismail - Admiral of the Third Fleet, what made a great leader, "Decisiveness".

In theory that meant choosing a deadline and when it passed acting as planned, but three times her internal deadlines had passed and all three times Tass held off giving the order to charge in.

Beneath them, on the blue green orb that was home, the Armies of East America continued their mobilization toward their western border and their four target bases near Buffalo Commons.

Despite her desire, the need to act hadn't occurred yet. Even if all four centres at Fargo, Pierre, Omaha, and Oklahoma City were set to go; even if the battalions of tanks and support vehicles moved out en-masse; even if those four Armies crossed over the border into the vast expanse of Buffalo Commons, Tass knew she could bring a matching force to the ground in a matter of hours.

Her tension grew because she didn't want it to escalate that far, she sure as anything didn't want to launch her Troopers into the middle of a shooting war. There's never been an incident in history where two conflicting and opposing forces were rushing into the same neutral territory like some sort of homesteading land-grab.

That sort of scramble held great risk to it, and Tass knew in her gut that if the Network would give the order for her to begin dropping teams that they'd secure the ground long before the East Americans were even ready to march.

Surely they'd blink then. Surely their commanders would see the grav-assist armoured vehicles of the Network as insurmountable opposition to their metal tracked dirt craft. Surely the President of East America would care enough about his people that he wouldn't willing risk tossing them against a force superior in mobility and firepower? They couldn't be that blind to reality, could they?

She looked at the threat board again. The Pierre, South Dakota base was going to be the biggest headache. Pierre was near the tip of an isthmus of American territory jutting deep into Buffalo Commons and although Oklahoma City was deeper put, Pierre was within striking distance of Rapid City, the main base for Network operations in the Commons.

"Why haven't they blinked yet?" She muttered out loud. It had been four days since she'd called her contact in Australia. Four days of waiting that seemed like weeks. Had they gotten the message through their channels? What were their channels? Were they in direct contact with East America or did they go through another group? Who could that other group be?

Hopefully it wasn't the League. The message would've been intercepted immediately and the back tracking wouldn't take long before the Network Intel branch retraced it back to her, she was sure of that.

What would she do then, Tass thought? Would she give the order to advance if she were found out? End her career with a history making order to invade? Invade what? Earth? It seemed impossible to consider.

She shook that thought from her head. She could defend exercising her power to negotiate through back channels, it technically fell under the purview of her command. If things got ugly, she decided, she'd wait it out the proper way and hope that the Court Martial had at least two members who'd had field commands.

Still, the question of what was taking so long continued to weigh on her.

* * *

John Victor Warez watched his Status Board as the each of the five staging centres came to life along the Buffalo Commons border. A third of the troops were in place now, half would arrive by the end of the week. If he could just delay the Network long enough his forces would be well positioned for the advance.

The Network had better mobility and firepower, but neither side wanted a shooting war, a fact he was more counting on than sure of. Where his side had the advantage was in numbers. Their estimates put Network forces currently in ground just shy of 18 thousand Troops. Inadequate for even a tenth of the Commons.

When the order went for the Astral Carriers to begin unloading was given that number would rapidly swell to 45 or maybe 50 thousand Troops, but most of them would be trained combat troopers, in unfamiliar territory and unsure of their mission and suspicious of those around them.

It was, in the President's mind a recipe for disaster. So very early in the planning for their push, President Warez began pouring over the details that the Pentagon was providing him on the make up of his new Army.

More than sixty percent were going to be Reservists, people who had jobs and families and lives outside the military, people who did the odd weekend of training each month, and two weeks each year, usually in order to pay off student loans. Not professional soldiers like their Network counterparts, but real people like the long-lost brothers they were being sent for.

To the Network's 50 thousand Warez would have nearly 300 thousand troops, gathering at four staging centres. Four Armies that would begin to move into nearly virgin territory, but as he reviewed the backgrounds on his Soldiers it occurred to him that a large chunk of his Army had key to their strategy in the Commons, forty five percent of their Reservists were in Sales.

That realization reminded the President of a time in history, when the greatest military nation on the planet tamed nearly half a Continent with the greatest tool in history, a tool that had won the north without firing a shot.

Six hundred years ago the Hudson's Bay Company invaded the north with nothing more sophisticated than consumer goods. They corrupted the locals through barter and created a dependency that remained in most parts to this day.

And the first delivery would be free because if the War on Drugs had taught them anything, it was that the first hit had to be free in order to create dependency. Warez knew that inside the Commons were Americans, long cut off from the convenience of civilization, and even though the Network had more sophisticated and advanced consumer goods they hadn't, in the three months of head start in their occupation of the Commons, "brought the goods".

America wasn't going to make that mistake, so Warez had ensured that behind each tank were three transports, filled not with personnel or armament, but supplies, free supplies, free consumer goods and free food.

"Win the hearts of the populace," went the old saying, "the minds will follow".

* * *

Fiche came out of his office and bee-lined for Topper with such directness that the younger analyst thought he was in trouble. "Stop what you're doing."

"Sir?" Topper wondered why suddenly they weren't interested in tracing the source of the offer to East America.

"Network Leadership has decided to put the offer officially on the table with the East Americans." The unspoken part of the sentence was that Fiche needed him on other things.

And while the order negated any need for tracking how the original request was made, the nagging question of who and how Network communications were making it to the New Soviet through Australia still gnawed at Topper. Hopefully he'd have the time in the next few weeks to continue his research.

"We're giving Warez a deadline of twelve hours to respond. If he doesn't accept then we start moving in full force. I need you filtering their information for any sudden changes in policy or timetables."

Topper was about to ask if they'd be pulling Coombs from her assignment but stopped. Her Selectric dispatches would be their number one source of information right now, if anything he'd be spending more time on her stuff.

Still, a question begged, "Do we think they won't change their timetable?"

It seemed straightforward to Topper. The moment the offer became official the East American's would rush to get themselves in place quicker, might even have their Soldier's cross into the Commons the moment they arrive.

Fiche, apparently, didn't see things that way, he turned to Topper showing annoyance, "If they don't increase their timetable it's because they were liked the offer but were stalling for more time. If they increase it's because they were planning to reject the offer but..."

Topper finished the line for him, "...but were stalling for more time."

Fiche turned and departed, then stopped. "You'll see a lot of activity on our side, ignore it. Command is going to mix up the teams, spread out the experienced among the incoming troops. It's a new tour now."

PKF-31 Alpha was coming to a close, thought Topper absent-mindedly. It was time for Beta to begin.

* * *