Read an Excerpt
Captain Lew Conorado, the commander of Company L of the infantry battalion of Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team, settled into the chair behind the desk in his office and sighed. A thought crossed his mind: his wife, Marta. He shrugged it off. Let him finish the little bit of work he still had to do, then he could think of Marta. Better, he could go home to her.
He was at his desk, in his office. It felt like a long time since he'd last been there. And it had been a long time, as deployments go. In a normal forty-year career, a Marine might have a couple of dozen deployments, many involving combat. But only one or two of them would be actual wars. He thought back to the war on Diamunde, which had been his first war. It hadn't lasted as long as the later war on Kingdom, his second war. And now he was back from his third war, which was even longer than the one on Kingdom.
Three wars in less than ten years. He couldn't help but think that if Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team hadn't been quarantined, he would have long since been transferred to a different posting and wouldn't have gone to either Kingdom or Ravenette. Maybe. Maybe there would have been other wars he would have gone to. He was sure there had to have been other operations involving Marines and army units acting together during that time, operations that counted as wars. He might have lost as many of his Marines on those operations as he had on the ones he'd actually fought in.
That's what was bothering him, what made sitting at his desk in his office in Marine Corps Base, Camp Major Pete Ellis, on Thorsfinni's World, feel so good. For the foreseeable future, he wasn't going to lose any more Marines.
He shook himself, because that kind of thinking could turn morbid in a hurry. It was better to think of what he still had to do before he could leave his office to go home, to where Marta waited for him, and begin the five days' liberty on which he'd already released his Marines.
The Marines had been debriefed on the voyage home from Ravenette, and Brigadier Sturgeon had already had his end-of-mission commanders' call, at which the FIST commander informed his unit commanders that the Confederation Ministry of Defense was striking a medal for the just-completed mission against the rebellious Coalition-which was only to be expected. He smiled to himself; Ensign Charlie Bass hadn't been informed yet, but the brigadier had told Conorado privately that at the awards ceremony following the liberty, Bass was going to be promoted to lieutenant. Nothing morbid in that thought. And Conorado liked the idea of not notifying Bass in advance.
The only thing he saw that couldn't wait a few days was Lance Corporal Francisco Ymenez, who had come in from Whiskey Company as a replacement when Lance Corporal MacIlargie was wounded on Ravenette and was still with the platoon as a temporary replacement. Ymenez wanted to stay with the platoon when MacIlargie returned to duty, and Bass wanted to keep him. But when MacIlargie and Lance Corporal Longfellow, the two men still recovering from wounds, returned there wouldn't be any open slots in the platoon for Ymenez to fill. It would be unconscionable for Conorado to leave the lance corporal dangling. He looked at the company roster.
And found he couldn't think straight. Marta was too much on his mind to allow him cogent thought. Anyway, personnel shuffling was the first sergeant's job. Figuring out how to shuffle people to allow Bass to keep Ymenez could wait a few days.
On the off chance that Ymenez was still on base, Conorado checked the location of his men. Ymenez was still in the barracks, almost the only one who hadn't yet taken off on liberty. Conorado told Corporal Palmer, the company chief clerk, who also hadn't yet left on liberty, to summon Ymenez.
Ymenez must have run from third platoon's squadbay, because less than a minute later Palmer announced him.
"Enter," Conorado commanded.
"Sir, Lance Corporal Ymenez reporting as ordered!" Ymenez said, as he stepped up to Conorado's desk and stood at rigid attention.
"At ease, Lance Corporal."
Ymenez shifted to parade rest.
"Ensign Bass tells me you want to stay in his platoon, that you'd rather not go back to Whiskey Company. Is that so?"
"Yes, sir. I'd like to stay with third platoon, sir."
"Sir? B-because third platoon is a damn fine platoon. And Ensign Bass is just about the best officer I've ever served under. Sir."
Conorado nodded. "Ensign Bass thinks you're an asset to the platoon. No promises, but I'll see what I can do. If possible, you'll get your wish. Now, Lance Corporal, liberty call has been sounded. Why are you still in the barracks?" He gave Ymenez a quick once-over. "Your garrison utilities are clean and your insignia is on right, head for Bronnys and enjoy yourself with the rest of the platoon." And let me get home to Marta.
A grin splashed across Ymenez's face as he snapped back to attention. "Aye aye, sir! Thank you, sir!" He executed a sharp about-face and marched out of the company commander's office. He was running by the time he hit the corridor outside the company office.
"Palmer, what are you still doing here?" Conorado demanded, leaving his office.
"Waiting to make sure there's nothing I have to do before I head for liberty, sir."
"Everything's done. Now get out of here so I can leave; my wife is waiting for me."
"Aye aye, sir." Palmer grinned. He locked his comp and preceded Conorado out of the office.
Most of the enlisted men of Company L, like the Marines of the rest of Thirty-fourth FIST, had headed just outside Camp Ellis's main gate, to Bronnoysund, for their five-day liberty. Most of the Marines of third platoon headed straight for Big Barb's, the combination ship's chandlery, hotel, bar, and bordello where every one of them could be found at one hour or another on any given day (or night) of shore liberty.
They were, as usual, greeted with boisterous enthusiasm when they entered Big Barb's. And a lot of joyful squeals from Big Barb's girls.
"Te-em!" The synchronized squeal wasn't the first, but it certainly cut through the others. Two lovely young women, one as dark as the other was fair, burst through the others crowding the Marines and hurtled onto Sergeant Tim Kerr, the second squad leader.
Unlike the last time Thirty-fourth FIST had returned from a deployment, when Frida and Gotta had almost knocked him off his feet with their greeting, Kerr was ready for them and braced himself for the onslaught.
Other young women threw themselves at the Marines:
The one called Erika cried, "Raoul!" and jumped off the lap of the farmer she'd been sweet-talking and encouraging to drink up; she ran to Corporal Raoul Pasquin, abandoning her farmer.
Carlala, long-haired and almost painfully thin, was coming down the stairs from the private rooms when the Marines came through the door. She nearly jumped over the banister in her haste to reach Corporal Joe Dean.
Corporal Dornhofer was blindsided when a voluptuous young woman named Klauda darted up behind and jumped on his back without crying out his name.
Corporal Chan saw statuesque Sigfreid barreling through the room, and ran to meet her head-on, acting on the theory that if he had enough momentum going when they collided, she wouldn't knock him to the floor. Considering how much bigger she was than he, that could be a serious issue.
Svelte Hildegard hadn't paired off with any particular one of the Marines in the past. She sashayed into the crowd and pressed herself against Lance Corporal Isadore Godenov. "Come here often?" she purred into his ear, then laughed so hard she almost doubled over. When she was able to stand straight, she managed so say, "That's such a dumb line, but I can't help it; I've wanted to say it for so long." Then she was laughing hard again. When she regained control she asked, "Seriously, Izzy, would you like some companionship?" Godenov looked at Hildegard's still-red face with tears on her cheeks. He was straining to hold back his own laughter, so he merely nodded. She took his hand and led him to a large table where some of the other third platoon Marines were already congregating with their girls.
Sergeant Ratliff, first squad leader, turned with a sharp retort on his tongue when a voice said into his ear, "Buy a girl a drink, sailor?" He swallowed the retort; it was Kona. Kona wasn't one of Big Barb's girls, she was a young widow from the village of Hryggurandlit who had come to the big party thrown for the Marines on their return from the war on Kingdom. She hadn't gone to the party looking to do anything in particular, and certainly she hadn't been looking for a man. But during the course of events she had found herself paired off with Sergeant Lupo Ratliff. And subsequently found that she actually liked him. She said, "I heard the FIST was back. Thought I'd like to see you again." She cocked her head. "And I hoped you'd like to see me again."
Ratliff gave her an exaggerated stern look. "I ain't no squid, lady. You take that back, and yes, I'd love to buy you a drink."
She reached out a hand and caressed his cheek. "I'd love to have a drink with you, Marine."
"Vat's goink on here!" All eyes turned to the booming voice. It was Big Barb Banak herself, the owner of Big Barb's, plowing her way through the crowded common room like an icebreaker through pack ice, heading unerringly toward the men of third platoon.
"Timmy," she roared when she reached the table, "you still beink greedy, you godda hab two girls?"
Before Kerr could answer, Gotta stuck her tongue out at Big Barb, and Frida shouted, "You gave him to us, and we are keeping him. So there!"
Big Barb snorted. Then she saw the sergeant's stripes on Kerr's shirt collars. "Who got kilt?" she gasped, searching the faces of the Marines of third platoon, looking for who wasn't there. "Vhere's Rat?"
Kerr shook his head. "Sergeant Linsman was killed."
"Ant you vas bromoted to tage his blace?"
Big Barb continued searching the faces. "Vot aboud Billy?"
Corporal Orest Kindrachuck thumbed the chevrons on his collars. "I was promoted to replace him," he said in a thick voice.
"Glaypoole, Volfman, Longfeller, dey det too?"
Ratliff, as senior man present, answered her. "Claypoole's fine, he went off on his own. MacIlargie and Longfellow are in the hospital, but they'll be back with us soon." He paused, then continued, "They were too new. I don't think you had a chance to get to know them. PFC Smedley and PFC Delagarza were also killed."
"Ach min Gud," Big Barb muttered. She vaguely remembered Smedley, but the name Delagarza meant nothing to her. "Too many, too many det young men. Alla time, too many." She shook herself-and when Big Barb shook her hundreds of kilos it was something to see-and stood erect. "Vell, you're back. Enchoy yourselfs." She gave the Marines another look, and blinked. "Vat you doink here?" she squawked at a pretty young girl called Stulka, who was sitting on the lap of PFC John Three McGinty.
Stulka jumped, and whipped her arms from around McGinty's neck to her lap. "I'm, I'm just, I'm helping the other girls." Stulka was the youngest of Big Barb's girls, and mostly waited tables and helped out in the kitchen.
"You don' godda do dat, you know."
"But the other girls are always saying how much fun they have with third platoon. I just want to have fun."
Big Barb gave Stulka a penetrating look. "Hokay," she finally agreed. Vhy nod, she thought as she waddled away. Da girl mags more money for me dat vay.
Einna Orafem spun about to snap at her staff when the normal clatter of the kitchen at Big Barb's suddenly went silent. But whatever she'd been about to say was forgotten the instant she saw the reason her staff had abruptly gone still and quiet; she stood gaping open- mouthed at Lance Corporal Dave "Hammer" Schultz, who stood just inside the kitchen doors, looking at her. To everyone in the kitchen except her, Schultz's expression was a glower that promised sudden, violent death. To Einna Orafem, Schultz's look was one of tender passion and love.
She slowly closed her mouth, and her lips moved in the shape of his name, though she didn't have the breath to speak it.
The big Marine lifted a hand and pointed a crooked finger at her. That broke her paralysis, and she screamed and ran to him, flinging herself into his arms and throwing her legs around his waist with enough force to stagger even the big man.
The Big Barb's kitchen staff ogled their tyrannical boss and exchanged disbelieving glances at the way she rained wet kisses all over Schultz's face, emitting squeaks and squeals as she did. Schultz did the manly thing, stoically accepting the kisses and clasping his hands under her buttocks to hold her up. There was no way of telling how long Einna Orafem would have continued blubbering over Schultz if she hadn't been interrupted when Big Barb herself burst through the door.
"Vat's goink on in here?" Big Barb bellowed in a voice that could stampede a herd of kwangduks, and did rattle crockery. "Dis is a vorkblace! I don' hear no sounts of vork! You!"-she smacked Schultz on the seat of his pants with a crack that echoed off the kitchen walls-"Unhant dat voman! She's my cook, she's got vork to do!"
Einna Orafem wrapped her arms tightly around Schultz's neck and pressed her cheek into his, glaring at her employer. She snarled at Big Barb in the same tone she'd been about to use on her staff before she lost her voice, "My Hammer's back from war. I'm off duty!"
"Sez who?" Big Barb demanded, stepping close to shove her face at her chief cook. "You tink you can get anodder chob easy?"
"Go ahead, fire me! I'll get a job cooking in the mess hall at Camp Ellis. Then see what happens to your business when the Marines decide to eat there instead of here!"
The two women glared at each other for a long moment before Big Barb reared back and roared out a laugh that would have stampeded a distant herd of kwangduks, and did knock a few pots off stoves.
She beamed at Einna Orafem and patted her on the cheek. "You got spirit, girl. I like dat in a voman." She stepped around to face Schultz and wagged a sausagelike finger in his face. "Don' you hurd her. An I vant her back in time for domorrow's dinner. You unnerstan?"
Schultz rumbled something that Big Barb took to mean, "I promise not to hurt her, and I'll have her back in time for tomorrow's dinner."
"Gut. Now da two a' you gid outta here, you distracting da res' a' da peoples." She spun about, glaring at the kitchen staff. "Who tol' you ta stop vorkink? You god meals ta cook, hungry peoples ta feed. Gid back to vork!"