Read an Excerpt
Captain Conorado, just returned from his court-martial on Earth, nodded when his officers and senior noncommissioned officers finished bringing him up to date. "All right. Mac," he said, addressing Lieutenant Rokmonov, the assault platoon commander, "you take over third platoon. Wang," to Staff Sergeant Hyakowa, acting platoon commander of third platoon, "you're back to platoon sergeant again. Top," First Sergeant Myer, the company's top kick, "you've got the roster of replacements. Let me know how you assign them. Some of your Marines are going to move into billets above their rank. As soon as I have your new rosters, I'll pass the names up to Battalion for promotion. And make sure Souavi gets those new uniforms issued.
"In the meanwhile, 26th FIST is relieving us on the line. Tomorrow we begin kicking some serious Skink ass!"
The officers aye aye'd and headed to their platoons. The platoon sergeants followed the first sergeant to get their replacements and find out what the "new uniforms" were about.
"Siddown," Myer growled when he and the platoon sergeants reached his desk. They pulled up chairs and sat close. "Wang, remember that sample of acid third platoon brought back from Society 437?"
Hyakowa nodded. "Yeah. That doctor we had with us thought it had a phosphoric base with some sort of organic solvent."
"Well, someone at Headquarters, Marine Corps, came up with a good idea for a change. They figured sooner or later Marines would run into the Skinks again and we'd need some defense against that acid. They analyzed the hell out of that sample until they knew what it was. Then they sent it to Aberdeen to develop an antidote and a retardant." He shook his head. "They haven't managed to come up with an antidote, so we're stuck with the old ways of dealing with the acid on flesh: small doses are to be cut out of the flesh before they eat all the way through; larger amounts will eat flesh and bone until they kill, unless you immediately amputate the limb. If it's a trunk or deep head wound . . ." he paused, and shook his head again. "Aberdeen did manage to develop a retardant, an impregnator for the chameleons. It won't protect flesh, but it will stop the acid from eating its way through the chameleons so a Marine wearing an impregnated uniform is protected."
"Does it really work?" Hyakowa asked. The other platoon sergeants had the same question. Almost anyone with combat experience knew that more than half of the "technological advances" or "improvements" in weapons or equipment didn't work the way they were supposed to when they were subjected to the harsh realities of combat.
Myer shrugged. "Who the hell knows? The retardant was tested against acid the chemists at Aberdeen cooked up, but nobody knows if that acid is the exact same as the Skinks'. We aren't going to know until a Marine wearing impregnated chameleons gets hit by the real thing."
"What effect does it have on the chameleon effect?" one of the other platoon sergeants asked.
Myer glared at him. He didn't like being asked questions he didn't have answers for. "What'd I just say? The damn things haven't seen combat yet. But they claim it has no effect, the chameleon effect still works." He shook his head. "Not that chameleons seem to give a hell of a lot of protection against the Skinks. Maybe they can see in the infrared like those bird-creatures on Avionia. Maybe they have some other sense that allows them to sense us some other way."
"Whatever." Myer sat back and slapped a palm on his desktop to end the discussion. "Twenty-sixth FIST brought an extra thousand sets of chameleons, enough for everybody left in 34th FIST to get one, with some extras." He shook his head sadly; he hated losing Marines. "We had more casualties than they realized. Anyway, send people to Supply this afternoon, Sergeant Souavi will have them in stock. Your people can pick up one for each of your Marines. The new men already have theirs. Speaking of which--" He picked up a few slips of paper from his desktop and handed them out. "--these are your new men. Don't spend them all in one place, it's liable to be a long time before we get any more."
He took them outside to where the new men waited and called them out to join their new platoon sergeants. Rokmonov was waiting for Hyakowa. As long as he'd been with Company L, he was a new man too, with third platoon now.
The general mood in 34th FIST was, if not jubilant, at least relieved. After months of combating an implacable enemy who was hellishly difficult to find, and suffering the heaviest casualties most of them had ever experienced, they were finally reinforced and had replacements for their losses. Not that the new men could fully replace their dead. Close friendships had ended with the lost lives. Although new friendships can grow just as close as old ones, the new friends can never truly replace those lost.
The mood in Company L of 34th FIST's infantry battalion was perhaps higher than anywhere else. Captain Conorado was back. Lieutenant Humphrey, the company's executive officer, was well-liked and had filled in admirably during Conorado's absence, but nearly everyone in the company had been through multiple operations and deployments with Conorado. Nearly every man in Company L trusted their company commander to a degree they trusted no other officer.
So it was a jocular third platoon that greeted its newcomers when they assembled in the shell of a building that had been nearly demolished by the Skinks' antiarmor weapon. The shell was a couple hundred meters inside the perimeter. Even though they were surrounded by evidence of how far the Skink weapons could reach, just being off the defensive line made them feel they were out of danger, at least for the moment.
The men of third platoon took the assignment of Lieutenant Rokmonov as their new commander with equanimity. If lost friends could never be fully replaced, neither could their late platoon commander, Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass. But they all knew Rokmonov. The grizzled officer had been a gunnery sergeant before he was commissioned. If they didn't think he was going to be as good a platoon commander as Charlie Bass had been, well, nobody was that good, but Rokmonov was probably as good as they came. Like Charlie Bass, he'd been filling a platoon commander's billet on a semipermanent basis. Rokmonov finally broke down and accepted an ensign's silver orbs when 411th FIST, which he was then in, had a sudden influx of company grade officers, one of whom got his platoon. He didn't want to ever again lose his job to a man who had probably recently been junior to him in rank--most Marine officers were sergeants or staff sergeants when they got commissioned.
Third platoon didn't get enough replacements to fill all of its eight vacancies so maybe Sergeant Bladon and Corporal Goudanis would return. For some men of third platoon, the arrival of the new men was cause for celebration.
"Rat," Rokmonov said to Corporal Linsman, the acting second squad leader since Sergeant Bladon was evacuated, "the paperwork goes in today to get you your sergeant's stripes."
"Welcome aboard, Rat," Sergeant Ratliff said. He slapped Linsman's shoulder with his left hand while flexing his right fist.
"Thanks, Rabbit." Linsman grinned, but cast a wary eye at Ratliff's fist. The Confederation Marines still "pinned on the stripes," so every newly promoted man was punched in the shoulder once for each chevron by any enlisted man who held the same or higher rank.
"Way to go, Rat!" Corporal Dornhofer called out.
"Ya mean I got to call you 'Sergeant' now?" Corporal Pasquin cried.
The others added congratulations, even Corporal Kerr. Linsman was the second corporal in the platoon to make sergeant who had been junior to Kerr when Kerr was almost killed and had to spend nearly two years in recuperation.
"We need a new gun team leader," Rokmonov said when he thought the congratulations had gone on long enough. "Taylor, you don't have to hump the gun anymore, your new corporal's chevrons will be enough weight."
Lance Corporal Taylor grinned widely and happily accepted congratulations for his promotion to gun team leader.
Rokmonov looked at Hyakowa and nodded for him to take over.
Hyakowa stepped forward and studied the platoon roster for a moment. "This is a sad day for third platoon," he finally said. "We need two fire team leaders, but nobody thought to give us experienced corporals." He shook his head morosely. "What I'd really like to do is make Schultz a fire team leader, but we all know how he'd react to that." Schultz was a career lance corporal; if anyone tried to promote him, he'd turn it down--angrily and, some feared, violently. "As hard as it is to believe, the only other lance corporals we have in the blaster squads are Claypoole and Dean." He looked apologetically at Ratliff and Linsman. "I'm really sorry to have to do this to you, but do you think you can manage if I give each of you one of them as a fire team leader?"
Ratliff grinned wolfishly as he waited for the hooting and laughter to ebb slightly, then said in a parade-ground voice, "Gimme Dean. I'll break him in or break him."
Dean's face was a flickering mix of joy and indignancy.
"What?" Linsman squawked. "You mean you're going to stick me with Clay-- Wait a minute. If Rabbit gets Claypoole, that means I get stuck with Dean." He worked his face into a grandly overacted fury and shouted at Hyakowa, "Are you trying to ruin my promotion?"
Claypoole first beamed, then shot a furiously offended look at Linsman, which set off fresh gales of hoots and laughter.
Hyakowa looked at the second squad leader blandly and said in a calm voice, "Corporal, soon to be Sergeant, Linsman, may I remind you that you are a Marine noncommissioned officer? As such, you are supposed to do more with less than anybody else in Human Space. And make it look easy. I fully expect you to take Claypoole and turn him into just as good a fire team leader as . . . as . . ." He shook his head again. "What am I saying? No, it's not possible to turn him into as good a fire team leader as Kerr, or even Chan." He nodded sagely. "But you can turn him into a reasonable facsimile."
Claypoole glared at Hyakowa; he didn't think that was funny.
"Rabbit," Hyakowa returned to Ratliff, "I have full confidence in your ability to turn Dean into . . ." His eyes went distant and he shook his head again. "I'll talk to the Top. Maybe I can get him to give us a corporal from one of the other platoons."
It was Dean's turn to glare and endure the hoots and laughs.
"As you were!" Rokmonov shouted after a moment. "We have some new people." He nodded toward six Marines who stood slightly apart from the platoon and hadn't joined in the laughter. "I'll let Staff Sergeant Hyakowa introduce them to you while I give the promotion recommendations to the Skipper. Staff Sergeant, the platoon is yours."
"Sir, the platoon is mine. Aye aye." Nobody bothered to call the platoon to attention; they weren't even standing in formation. Not when at any instant they might have to bolt back to fighting positions on the defensive perimeter. Hyakowa watched Rokmonov head for the company command post, then turned back to the men.
"We have one new lance corporal, name of Zumwald." He gestured for the gangly, redheaded new man to identify himself. "Lance Corporal Zumwald was in the security company at Headquarters, Marine Corps, when he got pulled for this assignment." He glanced at the roster. "So were PFCs Gray and Shoup." He looked back at the platoon. "Don't let their ranks and latest assignments fool you. All of these Marines have a couple of combat deployments with FISTs under their belts. No cherries here. Rabbit, you've got those three. Put one in each fire team."
"Roger," Ratliff said, nodding. He crooked a finger at his three new men.
"I'm giving you Longfellow as well. Sorry about that," he added to Linsman.
"Good," Ratliff said. Longfellow hadn't been with the platoon long, but Ratliff had seen enough to know he was a good Marine. Linsman merely shrugged at losing Longfellow.
"Linsman, you get Little and Fisher."
"Right." Linsman waved his two new men over.
"Hound," Hyakowa said to Sergeant Kelly, the gun squad leader, "move your a-gunners up. Sorry I only have one humper for you, but that's all they gave us. His name's Tischler.
"One more piece of business," Hyakowa said when Tischler moved to the gun squad. "We've got new uniforms coming. I want one man from each squad to go to Supply to pick them up. They're chameleons that are supposed to be impervious to the acid in the Skinks' shooters. From now on you will wear them." He looked at the men to see if anyone had a pressing question. None seemed to.
"That is all," he finished. "Squad leaders, let me know how you reorganize your squads."
The squad leaders took their men aside.
"Now I've got all my troublemakers together where I can keep an eye on you," Sergeant Ratliff said when he gave Godenov to Dean.
Linsman said the same thing when he assigned MacIlargie to Claypoole.
Claypoole's expression showed he was a bit put out. Not because he had MacIlargie, whom he liked, but because he only had MacIlargie in his fire team.
Corporal Kerr didn't show it, but he wondered why he retained Schultz and Corporal Doyle instead of getting a new man. Did Hyakowa and Rokmonov really think Chan could do a better job of integrating two new men into the squad than he could?
Nobody but the new men wondered why Corporal Doyle wasn't given a fire team.
Both as the more senior brigadier and as the man with the local experience, Theodosius Sturgeon, commander of 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team, was in overall command of planetside operations on the Kingdom of Yahweh and His Saints and Their Apostles, more commonly called "Kingdom." As such, he wanted to get 26th FIST involved as quickly as possible and gave it patrol duty its second day planetside. Brigadier Johannes Sparen, commander of 26th FIST, was relieved he didn't have to ask Sturgeon to give his FIST a mission beyond the defensive perimeter they were fed into as soon as they debarked from the Dragons that had ferried them from the orbital shuttles.
"Jack, the Skinks may have an innocent sounding name," Sturgeon said, "but they're exceptionally dangerous. They have horrible weapons, and they're unpredictable. I want you to put out patrols in force tomorrow, platoon size. And I want them in constant radio contact with Battalion. My staff is very familiar with the situation here." The situation here on Kingdom was unlike any he'd been in before. "Until you're familiar enough, I'll instruct my Infantry Two and Three shops to give any assistance yours request. Just until your people are familiarized with the situation. My infantrymen will relieve your platoons on the line before dawn tomorrow so your people can get an early start."
From the Paperback edition.