It’s the 25th century, but the Marines are still looking for a few good men. . . .
In their fiercest combat yet, the hard-charging Marines of 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team (FIST) have finally won their battle against a fullscale alien invasion of planet Kingdom. But as citizens try to return to some semblance of normalcy, the old government is replaced by a ruthless new regime.
Meanwhile, in a cave in some forgotten Kingdom backwater, several humans slowly regain consciousness. Their minds have been probed repeatedly . . . by whom and for what reason they cannot say, for they’ve been stripped of all memories of themselves and their past lives. These half-dead outcasts begin a journey into the unknown— in search of civilization, in search of themselves. And one survivor’s journey will take him to places of overwhelming danger, where his identity will be revealed—to the shock of all.
“Non-stop action . . . This is state-of-the-art military SF.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
David Sherman is a former U.S. Marine and the author of eight previously published novels about Marines in Vietnam, where he served as an infantryman and as a member of a Combined Action Platoon. He is also the author of a new military fantasy series, Demontech. He lives in Philadelphia.
Dan Cragg enlisted in the United States Army in 1958 and retired with the rank of sergeant major twenty-two years later. During his army service, Mr. Cragg served more than eleven years in overseas stations, five and a half of them in Vietnam. He is the author of Inside the VC and the NVA (with Michael Lee Lanning), Top Sergeant (with William G. Bainbridge), and a Vietnam War novel, The Soldier’s Prize. In real life, Mr. Cragg is an analyst for the Defense Department. He and his wife, Sunny, live in Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
The navigator on the Amphibious Landing Ship, Force, CNSS Grandar Bay, was very good at his job—he jumped the starship out of Beamspace barely more than two days’ travel from the world called the Kingdom of Yahweh and His Saints and Their Apostles.
Those Marines who knew anything about the mechanics of the jump reasoned that the closer they were to Kingdom when they came out of Beamspace, the sooner they’d get to somewhere they’d rather be. And after the campaign the Marines of the 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team had just fought against the Skinks, the Marines were anxious to get back to Camp Ellis, their homeport on Thorsfinni’s World—despite the fact that the Marine Corps rated Thorsfinni’s World a hardship post.
The stop at Kingdom was too brief for Marines or ship’s crew to be granted shore liberty. Brigadier Sturgeon, commander of 34th FIST, and a few members of his staff made planetfall to report to Confederation Ambassador Jayben Spears and the leadership of Kingdom’s ruling Ecumenical Council. Before lifting off again, Sturgeon took the time to share a glass of wine and a cigar with Spears.
“One more thing before I leave, Jay,” Brigadier Sturgeon said when the wine and cigars were almost gone.
“Anything in my power, Ted.”
“I need to send a backchannel. Can you handle it for me?”
“Thank you, Jay. I haven’t the words to tell you how important this message is to 34th FIST.” He handed over a crystal. “It’s for Andy again. He’ll get my official report, of course; that was dispatched via Navy drone from the Grandar Bay as soon as we reentered Space-3.” He tapped the crystal. “Go ahead and read it.”
Spears rose, went to his desk, and popped the crystal into his reader. He raised his eyebrows when he began reading. The headers on the message weren’t in normal military format, but that of a personal letter. Spears looked up at the Marine commander. “I hadn’t realized how close you are to the assistant commandant.”
“On my leave to Earth we became friends.” Sturgeon nodded for Spears to continue reading.
The ambassador read:
First off, let me thank you for sending 26th FIST so quickly. Jack Sparen and his Marines really saved the day; we couldn’t have done the job by ourselves.
That’s an understatement. If you hadn’t expedited reinforcements, there’s an excellent chance the Skinks would have wiped us out. By now I imagine you’ve seen my draft report on the Kingdom Campaign. Take my word for it, as hairy as that report reads, the reality was worse. This one was more of a meat grinder than the Diamunde Campaign, if you can imagine that.
I lost a godawful lot of men. You’ve seen the details in my report. Andy, I’ve never had such losses on one campaign, and I doubt that you have either. Now, I know that as soon as my report filters through to Personnel they’ll start sending replacements to 34th FIST. But that’ll take a lot of time since 34th FIST has been removed from normal personnel rotation. That’s time that my Marines will be spending in Barracks with a lot of empty racks.
I need bodies in those racks to distract my Marines from their losses. Andy, if it’s at all possible, please goose Personnel and get me Marines to put in those racks. My Marines aren’t the only ones who need them. I’m going to really hate it when we hold our first FIST formation back at Camp Ellis and see how much smaller we are now than we were at the last.
With many thanks in advance,
Spears looked up when he finished reading. “I’ll get this out today.” He popped the crystal and put it with the materials he was readying to send by diplomatic pouch. “Do you think they’re going to lift the quarantine on you now?”
The very existence of the Skinks Sturgeon’s Marines had just fought on two worlds was a tightly guarded secret. The only earlier contact with them had been made by the third platoon of Company L of 34th FIST’s infantry battalion. Fear of widespread panic caused the government to tightly seal everything having to do with that contact— including canceling all transfers and retirements out of 34th FIST and slapping an involuntary extension of service “for the duration” on all members of the FIST. Thorsfinni’s World itself barely escaped the strictures.
Sturgeon shrugged. “Who knows what politicians will do? They should lift the quarantine since they won’t be able to keep the secret now.”
“If they quarantine 26th FIST, the Grandar Bay, and Kingdom, they can keep it secret for a while longer. They’ll think of that, you know.”
A hard smile creased Sturgeon’s face. “The more people they quarantine, the sooner someone will notice. And what will they do to you?”
It was Spears’s turn to shrug. “They want to put me out to pasture anyway. They might see Darkside as a good grazing ground for me.”
The Grandar Bay left Kingdom’s space after less than twenty-four hours in orbit.
The Marines of 34th FIST were somber on the return voyage to Thorsfinni’s World; the Kingdom Campaign had been costly. The first phase was especially brutal. They’d been surprised to find themselves fighting Skinks instead of the peasant revolt they’d expected. They wouldn’t have suffered so severely had they just gone up against the Skinks the same way Company L’s third platoon had fought them on Waygone, the exploratory planet Society 437. Horrible as they were, the Skinks’ acid guns were short-range weapons. Under those conditions, if the Marines found the Skinks at a great enough range, they could destroy them before the aliens got close enough to use their weapons. But on Kingdom the Skinks also had rail guns. The Ma- rines’ body armor was ample protection against normal projectile weap- ons, but it was worthless against the rail guns, which had killed and wounded a lot of them before anyone found a way of putting the guns out of action.
More than two hundred Marines had been killed or too badly wounded to return to active duty, mostly from the infantry battalion. Mike Company had suffered the most—more than an entire platoon had been wiped out when the Skinks sprang their first ambush in the Swamp of Perdition.
That didn’t mean other units hadn’t suffered severely. Company L’s third platoon had lost PFCs Hayes and Gimble; Lance Corporals Dupont, Van Impe, Rodamour, and Watson; Corporal Stevenson; and Gunnery Sergeant Bass.
Gunny Bass. Damn.
Corporal Goudanis and Sergeant Bladon were wounded badly enough that they’d been evacuated off-planet. They had survived their wounds, but would they ever return to third platoon, or even to active duty? Nobody knew.
Gunny Bass. There was hardly a man in the entire company who wouldn’t have been happy to be in his platoon. And now he was gone.
PFCs Longfellow and Godenov, Lance Corporal Schultz, Corporals Linsman and Kerr, were wounded during the first phase of the campaign but returned to duty, and Linsman and Godenov were promoted to sergeant and lance corporal respectively.
Eight Marines killed and two wounded so badly they were totally gone. Ten men out of a thirty-man platoon. Third platoon hadn’t lost that many men even in the fierce antiarmor fighting in the war on Diamunde. The loss that hurt the most, though, was Gunny Bass.
Thirty-fourth FIST was reinforced by 26th FIST for the second phase of the Kingdom Campaign, and the tide of battle turned, resulting in victory for the Marines. In some ways, even more welcome than the addition of another FIST, was the new weapon they brought with them to combat the Skinks. It wasn’t an offensive weapon, it was defensive: chameleon uniforms that were impervious to the acid from the Skink short-range weapons.
Thanks to the new chameleons, and newly discovered means of defeating the rail guns, casualties dropped dramatically in the second phase.
PFCs Gray, Shoup, and Little, all replacements who came in with 26th FIST, were wounded. So were Lance Corporals MacIlargie and Kindrachuck, and Corporals Pasquin and Doyle. Sergeant Linsman must have thought the Skinks had it in for him personally when he was wounded a second time. But thanks to the impregnated uniforms, no one in third platoon was killed in the campaign’s second phase.
And at least they couldn’t lose Gunny Bass again.
Brigadier Sturgeon knew full well how his Marines felt. He knew because he felt much the same way. Never in his four decades in the Confederation Marine Corps had he commanded or been a member of a unit that had sustained such heavy casualties. He’d seen in the past how the survivors of a brutal campaign could suffer in the aftermath if they were allowed to be alone with their thoughts, how unit cohesiveness and discipline could be damaged, even destroyed.
On the second day out from Kingdom, before the Grandar Bay made the jump into Beam Space for transit to Thorsfinni’s World, he went to see Commodore Borland.
They met in the captain’s dining salon. Sturgeon gave the genuine mahogany wainscoting on the bulkheads an appraising look when he entered. He speculatively eyed the painted portraits of ships and navy officers that hung on its walls, took in the polished hardwood sideboard and chairs, and almost smiled at the sterling silver flatware on a dining table that was covered by a white linen cloth with a damasked pattern.
“Welcome, Brigadier,” Borland said as he strode the few steps from the sideboard opposite the hatch to greet the Marine commander with outstretched hand. He noticed the way Sturgeon looked the room over. Since he’d been there before, the appointments of the captain’s dining salon shouldn’t have been a surprise to him.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice, Commodore,” Sturgeon said as he gripped the proffered hand.
After shaking, Borland looked at the table, then at the steward who stood at attention after pouring coffee into fine china cups and placing slices of deep dish apple pie on plates at the table settings.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” the steward asked.
“That will be all, thank you. You may return to your station. I’ll signal if I need you for anything else.”
“Aye aye, sir.” The steward marched from the salon and quietly closed the hatch behind him.
Now that they were alone, Borland dropped all formality. “Have a seat, Ted. That’s real coffee, you know; don’t let it get cold on you.” He went to the sideboard and opened it while Sturgeon took a seat and a first sip of the coffee.
“What do you think?” he asked as he bent over to fish something out of the sideboard.
“The best I’ve had since the last cup I had with you.” Sturgeon took another sip and sighed contentedly.
Borland straightened up and displayed a clear glass bottle filled with a dark amber liquid. “Would you like to give it a bit of a sweetener?” he asked.
Sturgeon raised an eyebrow at the bottle. “Is that . . .?”
“Real Earth cognac from the region called France.”
The tip of Sturgeon’s tongue involuntarily moistened his lips. He looked from the bottle to his cup and back. “I don’t know, Ralph. When you mix two good things together, sometimes you detract from both.”
Borland grinned. “Easily enough resolved.” He reached back into the sideboard, withdrew two crystal snifters, closed the sideboard doors with a knee, and carried the bottle and snifters to the table. Borland broke the bottle’s seal and opened it with a theatrical flare, then poured an ounce of cognac into the snifters with all the dexterity of a career steward. He remained standing as he handed one to Sturgeon, who took it and rose to his feet.
“A toast,” Borland said, lifting his snifter.
Sturgeon held his own up and out.
“To fallen comrades.”
“To fallen comrades,” Sturgeon echoed solemnly.
They touched their snifters together, then inhaled the aroma and sipped.
“Please, Ted.” Borland waved a hand, and the two sat—his voice was suddenly thicker than it had been. The Marines weren’t alone in suffering severe losses in the Kingdom Campaign. The Fast Frigate Admiral J. P. Jones, the Grandar Bay’s sole escort, had been destroyed by the Skinks during their fighting evacuation of Kingdom—all but seven- teen of her two hundred officers and crew were killed when the ship exploded.
The two commanders sat for a long moment, each reflecting on the lives of their people who had died in the fighting. Almost as though on a secret signal, they shook themselves out of it and each reached for his coffee—lost lives were a part of combat that Marines and sailors had to accept, or else get out of uniform altogether; dwelling on losses could lead to insanity.
A Conversation with David Sherman and Dan Cragg, authors of the Starfist series
Del Rey: The best military science fiction is written by real combat vets. Can you tell us about your military backgrounds?
David Sherman: I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school in Omaha in 1962. Went to boot camp in San Diego and infantry training in Camp San Onofre, Camp Pendleton, California. Then served two years in Company L, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, First Marine Brigade, based at MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, where I rose from PFC rifleman to lance corporal fire team leader. Next came a tour as a military policeman at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. My last tour of duty was in Vietnam, where I was first a fire team leader in India Company, Third Battalion, First Marines and promoted to corporal, then in a Combined Action Platoon in Ky Hoa village, several miles from Chu Lai. (Mine was the first CAP in the Chu Lai area.) I was released from active duty four years, three months, and twenty-six days later from the same place I entered it, San Diego.
I qualified as an Expert Rifleman, and was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and Good Conduct Medal, along with a slew of unit citations and campaign and service medals, including three Vietnamese medals and ribbons.
Dan Cragg: I enlisted in the U. S. Army in July 1958 and after Infantry Basic Training at Ft. Dix, NJ, was trained as a combat medic at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I then went to U. S. Army, Europe, where I was stationed at a training center not far from the Czech border. I reenlisted in 1961 and was thereafter assigned to the SouthernEuropean Task Force headquarters based in Verona, Italy, but in March 1962 volunteered to go to Vietnam during the first buildup. I spent six months in Saigon and then a year with the advisory team at the 5th VN Infantry Division. Col. Nguyen Van Thieu was division commander at that time. I returned to the States in 1963. In 1964 I went back to Germany, the Landstuhl Army Medical Center, but in 1965 volunteered to go back to Vietnam, where I remained in various staff assignments at General Westmoreland's headquarters until September 1969. After some stateside service I went to Korea in 1972 and served there for 18 months. I was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon when I retired in September 1980, having decided not to make a career of the Army.
DR: Methods of warfare have changed tremendously even in the time since the two of you saw action. How is today's Marine or Army infantryman different from what he was in the '60s?
Sherman: In many ways they're very much improved. Enlistment standards are higher; many of the Marines I served with wouldn't be allowed to join today's Corps. Today's Marines are better educated and enter the Corps in generally better physical condition. They're also better motivated, as many are washed out in boot camp, which simply wasn't allowed in the 1960s. And their weaponry is generally far superior to what the Marines had when I was one. I firmly believe the Marine infantry I served in was, battalion for battalion, the most powerful foot-mobile military force in the world. Today's is so much stronger, we couldn't stand up to it.
On the other hand:
My exposure to today's Marines tells me that at heart, they're very much the same as we were, which doesn't surprise me at all. In my reading through history, I've been struck by the commonalities among soldiers of different eras. I've read letters home from Roman Legionnaires stationed at Hadrian's Wall and on the Rhine that, allowing for differences in technology and tactics, read just like the letters I wrote home from Vietnam and the letters I received from Marines in the 1991 Gulf War. It's the same with soldiers in the Civil War and World War I. When I've talked with Marine veterans of World War II and Korea, I found we speak the same language; the only real differences are those dictated by technology and tactics.
Technology drives tactics, so how wars are fought changes over time, sometimes dramatically. But the men who get down in the mud and do the actual fighting remain very much the same.
Cragg: I haven't been closely associated with active-duty people since 1980, and a lot has happened in weapons, technology, and personnel recruiting since then. When I was young in the Army we still had the draft and later, during the Vietnam War drawdown, we had a lot of dissent, generally centering around racial issues. During the draft years we had a lot of mature, well-educated men in the ranks; we also had a lot who were only marginally effective. I think today with the all-volunteer Army, higher educational requirements for recruits, higher physical standards, and a much improved enlisted educational system for soldiers of all ranks, the average soldier who makes it through Basic and advanced training is certainly more highly motivated and perhaps more educated in his job than we were in my day.
I have always been comfortable around enlisted people and most officers. The enlisted folks I deal with in my Department of Defense job are generally top-notch; some of the action officers are idiots, Marines excepted. I mean, they don't get their work done on time or in the proper manner. My job is to publish all of the Secretary of Defense's regulations and directives, and some of the action officers responsible for those publications can't think straight and I wonder how the poor things ever got a commission, much less promoted to field-grade ranks. Ironically, my closest personal contacts these days are with Marine Reservists, and those guys and gals are sharp.
As to weapons and technology, I trained and qualified on the M1 Garand rifle, the M14 7.62 rifle, the .30 caliber M1 carbine, and the M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol, except for the M14, WWII vintage weapons. In Vietnam I carried a .45 and an M2 (full-auto) carbine. Weapons more recent than those I am not at all familiar with. But the fact is, if you can hit a man at 500 yards with a bolt-action Mauser, that makes all this high-capacity, rapid-fire stuff useless in the hands of a dead man. It's good to have bombs and artillery galore and infantry weapons that fire promiscuously, but to make sure the job gets done properly you have to have someone go in and kill whoever's left up close and personal. The Colt M1A1 .45 pistol has been doing that for a hundred years, and rocks and knives also work well in a pinch.
But three things haven't changed in combat operations: fire and maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy is still key to attaining victory; the hardships of field duty in line units overcomes the barriers of race, education, background, and training; and America's men and women still, as they did during my day, answer the call to serve and are proud of that service. And that tradition is still be very much alive in the year 2450, when the Starfist novels take place.
DR: What types of research have you conducted while writing the Starfist series?
Sherman: I'm not in the prediction business, so I don't try to figure out what the technology will be four and a half centuries in the future. Look in the other direction: Four and a half centuries takes us back to the High Renaissance. Today's world runs on electricity; nobody had any idea of electricity back then, not even Leonardo da Vinci could have guessed today's technology. Dan and I write about the fighting men and their opponents. I study anthropology, evolution, and military history, and read some about current military developments to develop the people (and aliens) the Marines of 34th FIST come into contact with.
Cragg: Both of us operate on the principle that in writing these stories we've got to get our facts straight and do research to support them. For instance, we've needed to know things like how to build a rifle from scratch; how birds communicate; how to rig a demolition charge (don't try it at home), and so on. In my own research I make heavy use of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITTANICA, ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA, Jane's publications on weapons systems, military training and maintenance manuals, various encyclopedias and dictionaries on military history and biography, and of course the splendid search engines available for surfing the internet.
DR: How did you come up with the idea for the alien Skinks?
Sherman: For my part, I'm not comfortable with the idea of a galaxy-spanning war between humans and aliens. That's scenario is too limiting; either it shortly becomes repetitious, or the stories have to become progressively more outrageous in order to keep things going. Frankly, I was initially reluctant to introduce the hostile aliens. But the way we've done it, the Skinks are only physically present in some of the books, not all of them--though they've become a constant in the minds of the major characters, so they're there even in the books in which they don't appear.
Cragg: We felt the series required alien bad guys, and the idea of creatures like skinks appealed to us. But any more details about the skinks would prematurely give away the plot of a future novel in the series.
DR: What were some of your literary influences?
Sherman: By way of a lengthy digression . . .
When I was a child, we boys would get together and make up stories to entertain each other. The other boys liked mine the best, though I didn't think there was anything special about them. After a bit I put that aside and set my sights on being an artist. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the country's premier art school, after the Marines and had a career as a sculptor. But one thing led to another and one day I simply didn't have it any longer. There I was, in my late thirties, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Then two things happened. I was in a graduate seminar on Winslow Homer and wrote a paper that made me realize that I really could put words on paper and have them make sense. Then I remembered that childhood story-telling. All right, I decided to give writing a try. Typing was too much work (I had an old Olivetti portable manual), so I went out and bought a Kaypro II computer. A few months later I got my first sale, a combat reminiscence to EAGLE magazine. It took three years to get my first novel sale. In the meanwhile, I quit my job and decided I was going to succeed at writing or die trying.
I came close to dying, but now, after nineteen, soon to be twenty, published novels, I guess I'm starting to have success.
Cragg: I can remember when I couldn't read and how frustrating it was to get an adult to interpret the Sunday funnies for me. And I can remember the epiphany of the first words I ever read on my own, spoken by Petunia Pig to Porky. Ever since I have been in love with words. One summer when I was still in my early teens I read, a dictionary at my side, William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. I have never forgotten Prescott's eloquent literary style or his meticulous research methods but it was his way of telling these great adventures, more exciting than any novel, that inflamed my imagination. Later I found companions to Prescott in Francis Parkman and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I admire Lovecraft for his use of the language and the research he put into his stories to give them verisimilitude, but I hope I never aped his "first-person delirious" style, as critic Darrell Schweitzer so eloquently puts it.
In the 1950s I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on, novels and stories today that are classics of the genre but then were the literary outpourings of contemporary writers still in their prime. I sat fascinated by the radio adaptations of these tales on programs such as "2000 Plus" and "Dimension X." These stories opened doors to me in many fields because their authors were men steeped in our culture, well schooled in their literary antecedents, science, philosophy. Those were truly days of wonder for me and today I stand, awestruck, on the shoulders of those greats.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Drug on an on. The last 20 pages was all that was worth reading. The worst by far of the series so far.
Refund was the first thing I thought of after finishing this book. I am a big fan of the series and I hope the next book gets back to the men of the 34th FIST and their next mission.