Read an Excerpt
Earthdate: October 3, a.d. 2516
Location: Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas
Galactic Position: Orion Arm
I sat alone on a row of aluminum bleachers overlooking a parade field on which squads of newly recruited natural-born soldiers drilled. I paid no attention to the platoons doing jumping jacks and running. Instead, I concentrated on squads learning how to fight with pugil sticks. I had endured these same drills nine years and two wars ago. Boot camp was tougher back then, we had veteran drill instructors. The natural-born DIs drilling these boys were fresh out of diapers themselves.
Sergeant Major Lewis Herrington quietly came up and sat on the bleachers behind mine.
I would have demanded a salute from anyone else. As the highest-ranking guest of the Clonetown detention facility, I had that right; but Herrington and I were members of an exclusive club. He and I had both survived the final battle of the Avatari war, a claim only four people in the entire universe could make. He did not need to salute.
"How do they look, sir?"
"Like conquering heroes," I said.
As natural-borns, the five thousand recruits on the field came in all shapes and sizes. Many of them did not fit well into their government-issue tees and shorts. There was a time when one size fitted all enlisted men because every enlisted man came from the same helix. Some clones packed on a few extra pounds in the orphanages and some reported to boot camp looking skinny. I had five inches on everybody going through boot camp, but that's how things go when you are a one-of-a-kind clone.
Herrington, who had just turned fifty, had more white hair than brown. He was the oldest inmate in our little camp, but he was bred in a laboratory and born in a tube like the rest of us. We were all created for the same calling, to serve in the military. He had gone through boot camp thirty years before me, but he saw what I saw—substandard training.
Some of the natural-born recruits on the parade ground looked like they could fight, but most of them looked better suited for writing poetry. Unlike us, they grew up civilians, never suspecting they might one day be drafted. Many of them were clearly less than enthusiastic about their new life in the military.
Perhaps as many as a hundred soldiers had paired off for sparring with pugil sticks. In one match, a tall, lanky kid came out swinging against a short, chubby opponent. The short one looked like he wanted to drop his stick and beg for mercy.
The whole point of skirmishing with pugil sticks was to simulate long rifles and bayonets at close range—antiquated stuff, but a good discipline builder. The sticks were four feet long with padded ends, not that "padded" meant "soft." A solid blow with a pugil stick could break an opponent's ribs or leave him with a concussion.
The combatants were supposed to hold their hands a shoulder's width apart and pivot the stick back and forth while they struck with the ends; but this tall kid came out choking one end of the stick with both hands and swinging it like a baseball bat. If the shorter kid had even the slightest idea about how to fight, he could have blocked one of the other guy's crazy-ass swings and sent him down for the count; but the kid kept backing away.
I could not decide which bothered me more, the rube swinging his damn stick like a bat, the miscreant cowering in fear, or the pathetic specimen of humanity masquerading as a drill instructor. The man leading the squad was a lieutenant. The Army of the Unified Authority no longer had any actual sergeants to drill its recruits. Sergeants were noncommissioned officers. The military had not seen a natural-born below the rank of lieutenant for over two hundred years. Now that they were building their "more invested" army, they had to use officers to train the first generation of grunts. When it came to the in-your-face nastiness needed to drill new recruits, the silver-spoon boys of the officer corps just did not cut it.
Having eliminated their cloned conscripts, the natural-born officers now found themselves performing tasks formerly relegated to clones. From here on out they'd use natural-borns to rush enemy strongholds, peel potatoes, and mop latrines. The satisfying irony of the situation did not go unnoticed around Clonetown.
Down on the parade grounds, several platoons had pugil stick fights going, but Herrington spotted the fight that interested me at once. "God help them if they ever go to war," he said. "Those boys would need to improve just to qualify for shit."
"They're not all like that," I said. Just a few feet away from the brute and the wimp, two boys went toe-to-toe, really hacking at each other. Neither man showed any inclination to defend himself. With all the blows they were taking, it looked like they were pummeling each other with pillows. Their drill sergeant should have stepped in and decked them both.
It was late in the afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky. The day had cooled from miserable to unpleasant, and long shadows stretched across the desiccated ground.
Behind us, veterans with actual fighting experience headed back to camp. Clonetown was a fifteen-acre compound built to house ten thousand men and currently hosting thirty thousand. Dual barbed-wire fences surrounded the compound, and sharpshooters with rifles manned the towers along the outer fence, but we were allowed to leave the compound during the day. I came here every day to watch the high comedy of these natural-born recruits; but once the sun went down, I had to report back. We had nightly roll calls, violations would not go unnoticed. After roll call, the guards closed the gates, and we turned in for the night.
"The general population cannot possibly feel safer with these speckers protecting them," Herrington commented.
"The average citizen doesn't know and doesn't care," I said. "As far as John Citizen is concerned, the sun still rises in the east and the sky is still blue. He sleeps cozy in his bed every night safe in the knowledge that Congress has his back."
Down on the parade ground, the drill instructor finally broke up the mismatch between the tall guy and his squat victim. I actually felt sorry for these new recruits. How many hundreds of years had passed since the days when the regular Army was made up of regular men?
Herrington sat in silence watching the recruits for a couple of minutes, then asked what we were all wondering: "Sir, how long do you think they're going to keep us locked up out here?"
"You got someplace to go, Sergeant?" I asked.
I knew three answers to his question. As an officer, my job was to give the party line—a simple, We'll leave as soon as we receive our orders, would suffice. Then there was the honest answer, the answer Herrington deserved. That answer would be more along the lines of, Wherever they send us, it won't be any better than this. But there was a third train of thought, one that I even hid from myself. The new Army had approximately sixty thousand new dumb-shit recruits guarding the thirty thousand trained fighting machines now residing in this camp. They had the guns and the numbers, but we had the know-how, and the experience. If we decided to make a break, some of us would survive.
Down on the parade grounds, the drill instructor yanked the pugil stick out of the hands of his timid recruit and shook it in the air. He demonstrated the proper way to hold the stick by waving it in the man's face. I could not hear him from this distance, but it looked like he was giving the entire platoon a good drubbing. You learn how to read DI body language in boot camp. It's a lesson you never forget.
"The guys we had in our platoon back on New Copenhagen . . . I bet we could have taken every man on that field," Herrington said.
"I bet we could," I said, knowing he was both joking and speaking a truth. We couldn't really have routed five thousand men with forty-three Marines, but we would have given them a beating they would not have soon forgotten. We had a veteran force—forty-three fully trained and seasoned fighting Marines. Forty of them did not make it off that planet. "Hooha, Marine," I said. "We would've knocked them flat on their asses."
Herrington watched the raw recruits for several seconds, then said, "General Smith wasn't even on New Copenhagen. Why does Congress give a shit what that speck thinks?"
I heard what Herrington said, but a different thought ran through my mind, and I laughed.
Herrington misread my laughter. "Do you think it was our fault we lost those planets, sir? Do you think the clones ran scared?" He sounded defensive. Even though he thought of himself as natural-born, Herrington grouped himself with the synthetics. He was an enlisted man. In our world, the terms "enlisted" and "cloned" were synonymous.
"I just had this mental image of Smith leading a squad of grounded fighter pilots into the Avatari cave," I said. That was the first time I thought about the cave that the aliens had dug on New Copenhagen without an involuntary shudder. That cave . . . I took a full platoon and two civilians into that cave. Nearly fifty of us went in, but only four of us made it out. On that mission, I discovered a newfound appreciation for Dante and the hell he traveled through in the Inferno.
"General Glade said he would . . ." Herrington began.
I cut him off. "Herrington, they have us locked up in a camp in a desert. Who do you think cut the orders that put us here?"
"General Smith was the one who . . ."
"And has Glade done anything to get us out?" As commandant of the Corps and a survivor of New Copenhagen, Glade was generally seen as one of the good guys by most Marines.
"Son of a bitch," Herrington whispered.
"Yeah, son of a bitch," I repeated. "These days, it's a whole lot better to be a son of a bitch than a bastard bred in a tube."
Herrington snickered, an uncomfortable sort of snicker that hinted that his neural programming was still intact. Even now, locked up in a relocation camp in Texas, he didn't like saying bad things about superior officers.
Down on the field, the drill instructor gave the stick back to his timid recruit. He pushed the boy back out to fight. The little guy and his bigger opponent circled each other like crabs, occasionally feigning an attack but never committing themselves. After more than a minute, the drill instructor stepped in between them, cuffing them both on their helmets and probably daring them to strike him instead of each other. Neither took the bait.
"I'm glad I didn't have to babysit assholes like that on New Copenhagen," I said.
Herrington relaxed and laughed. "Yeah, that would have been bad," he said.
We watched the drills in silence. After a few minutes, Herrington gave me a nod and went back to the barracks. He was a good Marine, a tough Marine, a man ruled by duty and integrity. His hair had gone white, and some of the starch was missing from his shoulders, but I could still count on him. When the shooting started, Herrington would never cut and run.
Compared to Clonetown with its tin-and-tent architecture, Fort Bliss looked like a civilization meant to endure. It had brick buildings, tree-lined streets, and grass-covered lawns. Our car pulled up to a two-story building that could have passed for an old-fashioned schoolhouse. Lights blazed in the windows, and guards waited just inside the doors.
"What happened to the rain?" General Smith asked as he stepped out of the car.
I ignored him.
The storm might have vanished, but the air felt as humid as a wet towel. Doldrums. At least the temperature had dropped a few degrees.
Four guards held the doors open for General Smith and me to enter. They led us into a small conference room with an eight-man table, audiovisual equipment, and a screen. Smith asked me if I planned to behave myself. When I assured him I did, he told the guards to wait outside.
Now that we were in an air-conditioned office, I missed the heat. My clothes were damp from sweat and rain, and the overchilled air gave me a shiver.
I had long ago dismissed any illusions that General Smith cared for my welfare. Whatever he had up his sleeve, it would only get me far enough out of the frying pan to assure that I landed in the fire. "You served under Admiral Klyber, didn't you?" he asked. That was all I needed to hear to know that I was headed to the Scutum-Crux Fleet. The late Admiral Bryce Klyber had spent more than a quarter of a century commanding that fleet.
I said that I had.
"Did you ever visit Terraneau?" Terraneau was the capital of the Scutum-Crux Arm.
"No, sir," I said.
"I see. It's a beautiful planet. Lakes, oceans; it's a lot like Earth." He slid a folder across the table.
"It's been four years since the Avatari captured Terraneau, Harris. The first two years, we had no idea how to get through the ion layer in which the Avatari sealed the planet. After the experiments you ran on New Copenhagen, of course, we picked up a few new tricks."
The fat old man with the graying hair and the piglike eyes, watched me closely as he spoke. He was cordial, but I sensed a sharp blade inside his voice. He did not care what happened to me or the clones who had once served under his command.
"We haven't tried to reclaim any of the planets we lost during the war. As things now stand, the U.A. doesn't have enough population to restart lost colonies; and quite frankly, I doubt Congress has the stomach for it." General Smith slid into briefing mode that quickly. The conversation portion of our interview had ended, and he was giving me my next assignment.
"We have fleets orbiting fifteen of our lost colonies."
The man had a knack for putting a positive spin on a dismal situation. Our fleets were orbiting those planets because they were trapped. Without the Broadcast Network transmitting our ships across space, our fleets could not travel between solar systems.
"We have attempted to make contact with those planets," Smith continued. "Nothing big, mind you. Following your lead, we fired nuclear-tipped torpedoes into the ion curtains surrounding those planets and tried radioing in, but until last week, we've never made contact.
"Last week the Scutum-Crux Fleet picked up a signal from Terraneau. We're sending you to look for survivors and retake the planet."
"Am I going in alone?" I was being sarcastic. We'd stationed over a million men on New Copenhagen, and the Avatari damn near annihilated us.
General Smith ignored my comment. "We don't know how many survivors are on the planet. We won't know anything until you report back, but we're guessing that the Avatari have done whatever damage they were planning to do and have gone home."
The damage the Avatari planned on doing to New Copenhagen included doping the planet with poisonous chemicals, then charbroiling the place. They had bored a mine deep into the planet and saturated it with a toxic gas. I saw a man blister and die from breathing the fumes.
"What happens if I find the place crawling with Avatari?" I asked.
"Liberate it," Smith said in a matter-of-fact tone. "That's your specialty, right? If anyone can retake Terraneau, it's you."
Early in my career with the Marines, I developed a taste for philosophy. Now, listening to General Smith, I remembered a line from Nietzsche: A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.
"Just like that?" I asked. "Here's a planet, go capture it?"
Smith laughed. "You'll have the entire SC Fleet for support. Take whatever you need to get the job done."
"And once I retake the planet, then what? You said you didn't have enough people to reestablish lost colonies."
"If I were you, I'd start by establishing a base. That's your call, Harris. We're transferring our officers out of the Scutum-Crux Arm. Once they are gone, you will assume command of the fleet." He made it sound so specking magnanimous.
"You're sending me to the farthest corner of the galaxy to assume command of an abandoned fleet which you want me to use to retake an alien-held planet. Is that right? What if I say no?"
"I'll hang your ass from the nearest guard tower," Smith said without a moment's hesitation.
Another quote from Friedrich Nietzsche occurred to me: Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.