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.
From the Hardcover edition.