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Thorsfinni's World is a water world studded with islands small and large. High in its northern hemisphere floats Niflheim, an island approximately the size and shape of the Scandinavian peninsula on Old Earth. Niflheim is the center of Thorsfinni's World's Viking-based civilization and home to better than three-quarters of its population. In northern Niflheim the summer temperature rarely broaches 25 degrees on the Celsius scale, its winter temperatures often reaching that degree on the minus side of the scale. Niflheim is a wet place, rainy when the temperature is warm enough for liquid precipitation, snowy the rest of the year. And all of Thorsfinni's World smells of fish.
Niflheim. Outpost of Human Space. Home of the 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team, Confederation Marine Corps. When the Marines of 34th FIST weren't off on a campaign on some other world, they spent most of their time in the field, either on Niflheim or one of the other islands, training for operations they might not ever be called upon to execute. Even if they trained for something they would never have to do, their commanders felt the most important thing was that they trained.
"So that's what we're going to be doing for the next two or three days," Ensign vanden Hoyt said at the conclusion of his briefing to the men of the third platoon, Company L, 34th FIST. A wry smile crossed his lips and he added, "Or what you'll be doing, I should say. Any questions? Problems?" He peered carefully through the steady rain in the direction of the men--his men, his first command. All he could make out were their indistinct faces through what looked like undulating sheets of water. Their heads seemed to hover in the air. Ten years in the Corps and he was still sometimes startled by the illusions created by chameleon field uniforms.
There were no questions and only one problem, but it wasn't voiced. Lance Corporal "Hammer" Schultz caught the eye of the platoon sergeant, Charlie Bass, and shook his head slightly. Bass replied with an almost imperceptible head bob. The problem was dealt with.
"All right, then," vanden Hoyt said when nobody spoke up, "Staff Sergeant Bass will make the assignments. Then you can get back under shelter until it's time for you to go back into the rain." He stepped aside to let Bass take front and center.
"First squad," Bass said without preamble, wanting to get out of the rain as badly as anyone else in the platoon, maybe more so. Twenty-odd years as a Marine had taught him when being uncomfortable was good, and when it wasn't. "Chan, I'm sticking you with MacIlargie and Godenov, so you also get Schultz. Go someplace and dry off," he said, glancing at the low, dark sky, which showed no sign of breaking, and shook his head. "Or at least get out from underwater until you get your assignment. Van Impe, you have Lonsdorf. You also get Neru and Clarke from guns..."
Chan and his three men didn't hear the rest of the assignments. As soon as their names were called, Chan gathered his men and they slogged through churning mud for shelter.
"You should be in charge here," Chan said to Lance Corporal Schultz. "You're senior to me, and you've got a lot more experience."
Schultz grunted. He didn't want to be in charge. He was exactly what he wanted to be, a lance corporal, a man not in command in any way. His function in life, as he saw it, was to be a fighter, not a leader. The Confederation Marine Corps was filled with men well-qualified to be officers and noncommissioned officers, more than there were slots to fill. Schultz was an excellent fighter; so far as the Corps was concerned, he could remain a lance corporal until he retired, if that's what he wanted.
Shelter was a low tent made from three polymer sheets stretched over a framework of strong synthetic rods. The four Marines had to crouch to get inside, and almost had to huddle together for all of them to fit. Chan turned on the radiant heating unit that sat in the center of the tent while Schultz secured the entrance. Wind buffeted the tent and the rain drummed on it, making conversation difficult--but at least they had a chance to dry out. The four sat cross-legged around the heater and in minutes their fronts were dried. Then they turned around. Their backs weren't quite dry when the flap opened and Charlie Bass crowded in, extending his open arms toward the heater as he moaned with pleasure.
"There used to be a disease called rheumatoid arthritis," he said. "Cold and wet made your joints swell up and hurt. If bioengineering hadn't eradicated it, I'd probably have it and be aching in every joint in my body," he twisted his back to ease rain- and wind-stiffened muscles,
"instead of just feeling like I've been turned into a piece of soggy wood." The others chuckled at his joke.
"All right," Bass said, abruptly all business. "Mike Company's making a sweep. Third platoon's going to stop them. Here's your part of it ..."
This phase of the two-week exercise was a three-way force-on-force for the three companies of the FIST's infantry battalion, with the other units of the FIST in support of all three companies. Kilo and Mike Companies were acting as complete units in opposition to each other. Company L was playing an irregular force, broken down into four-man teams that would act in opposition to Kilo and Mike. Commander Van Winkle, the battalion's commanding officer, wanted to test the junior men, so the officers and NCOs of Company L were acting as umpires, and each four-man team was headed by a lance corporal.
A Dragon, the Marines' ubiquitous amphibious armored vehicle, dropped off Chan and his team twenty-five kilometers northeast of the company's bivouac area. In addition to their weapons and simulators, they carried light packs with little more than two days of rations. Due to vagaries of local weather conditions, the sun was shining brightly where the Dragon dropped them off and the rocky ground underfoot was dry; it hadn't even rained overnight there. The team was in a clearing in the midst of sparse vegetation that grew to twice the height of a man. The main plants in the area resembled Earth scrub-pine trees.
Chan checked the time. "We don't know how long it'll be before somebody gets here," he said, "or if it's going to be a platoon or a whole company or anything else. We need to find a position where we can watch all approaches from under cover." He scanned the area as he spoke, orienting himself, looking for recognizable landmarks, building a mental map of the unfamiliar scene.
Nothing that resembled grass grew on the rocks under the pine tree look-alikes, just a spotty coating of pale green, lichenlike stuff. Spindly plants whose stems didn't look strong enough to hold themselves upright grew from cracks in the forest floor. Flitterers that could have been butterflylike birds, or birdlike butterflies, flew from tree to tree. Smaller buzzers that could easily have been mistaken for Earth insects by anyone but an entomologist zigged and zagged their way among the lower flora of the forest, stopping here and there to absorb whatever passed for nectar on Thorsfinni's World.
Chan looked to Schultz for help.
Schultz merely shrugged and said, "You're in charge," which was no help at all.
This wasn't realistic, Chan thought. Irregulars should know the area they were in, and he'd never been there before. Maps didn't tell you what was really there. After a moment, he said, "That tor over there," pointing toward a low hill barely visible through the trees to the northwest. "That seems to be the highest ground around. That's probably our best starting place. If nothing else, we can take a look around from there." He looked at his men as he talked. Schultz was walking slowly--almost invisibly--about, examining the terrain with the eye of an experienced infantryman. Godenov was listening intently. MacIlargie had a quizzical expression on his face and didn't seem to be paying any attention. He had the kind of face that should have been framed by long, tangled hair, and a mustache with ends that drooped to below his chin wouldn't have seemed out of place--but Marine regulations required short hair and forbade mustaches that long.
"Are you listening to me, MacIlargie?" Chan snapped.
"What's that smell?" MacIlargie asked.
Taken aback by the unexpected question, Chan sniffed. He hadn't noticed any aroma that might indicate danger. "What smell?" he asked. "I
don't smell anything."
Godenov, a big young man, deceptively soft-looking, took a deep breath. He didn't smell anything either.
Schultz seemed to pay no attention to the exchange--he knew what
MacIlargie noticed and that it was irrelevant.
"That's what I mean," MacIlargie said. "Something's missing." His face lit up with a broad smile as he realized what it was. "Okay, now we see how sharp you are. What's missing? If you can't tell that, you're not going to be very good on patrols when we go on operations for real." He grinned at the others.
Godenov got it first. "The air doesn't smell like fish!"
"Izzy, if I was in charge, I'd make you my second in command,"
MacIlargie exclaimed. "You get out here in the toolies, you gotta be sharp, and you're the only one who figured that out."
Chan simply looked at MacIlargie's grinning face, hovering in the middle of the clearing like the last glimpse of a Cheshire cat.
MacIlargie, like Godenov, was on his first assignment after Boot Camp.
Both had recently joined the platoon as replacements for men lost on the
FIST's last operation, peacekeeping on Elneal. Chan himself had been on four combat operations, including one with the 34th FIST. Schultz was more experienced than he was.
MacIlargie staggered, then almost fell, and yelped. Schultz, in his deceptively casual, almost invisible way, had come near and hit him with an elbow--hard. Schultz's disembodied voice mumbled something that might have been an apology but probably wasn't.
MacIlargie recovered his balance and spun toward where he thought
Schultz was. For a second it seemed he'd attack Schultz if he could find him. But only for a second. He remembered what Schultz looked like when he was visible--Schultz moved languidly and seldom had much to say, but he exuded a dangerous self-confidence that gave strong men pause.
Chan spoke up: "We're going to that hill. MacIlargie, take point.
Godenov, bring up the rear. Now. Move it out."
Schultz gave Chan a look that said, I should have the point. Chan said again, "MacIlargie, move out." Then he added to Schultz, "This is training. He needs the experience."
Schultz nodded, satisfied that Chan understood that if it had been a real operation, he was the one who would take the most dangerous and important spot in the patrol column.
The tor was closer than it had looked. It was a broad, low platform of limestone, forced upward in terraces by an up-welling of magma deep below the surface. Scree dotted the ground at the foot of the tor's steep side.
MacIlargie stopped at the foot of the hill and looked back at Chan,
uncertain what to do next.
Schultz brushed past both of them and started climbing the eight-meter cliff to the first terrace.
Chan looked back and saw Godenov's face hovering as he stood watching.
"Watch our rear, Godenov," Chan said. "That's the rear point's job:
watch the rear."
Godenov started. "Oh." He turned around and dropped to one knee to peer into the thin trees behind them.
Even though he could barely make out where Godenov was, Chan saw that he wasn't in position to effectively watch the rear. He shook his head and wondered what they were teaching recruits in Boot Camp these days. Surely he'd been better than that at field craft when he went on his first assignment. He briefly considered taking the time to show the young man how to pick a better position, but instead said to MacIlargie, "Follow the man."
Schultz's climbing noises indicated he was already over the top of the first terrace. Chan flipped down his infras so he could watch his men.
When MacIlargie was halfway up the first terrace, Chan sent Godenov after him. He then gave the trees near the base of the hill a quick once-over.
When his infras didn't show anything man-size in them, he followed.
The higher terraces and slopes were older than those below. As the
Marines climbed, it became easier because the increased erosion made the slopes gentler. Here and there crevasses and cave mouths dimpled the tor.
Once, when they were close to each other, Schultz said to Chan, "I
know this place. If we have to, we can hide."
It didn't take long to approach the top. "Off the hori-zon, people,"
Chan said when he saw two man-size pillars of rock above. He was crouched below the top, as he knew Schultz was.
One of the rock pillars rippled, and MacIlargie's face appeared above it. "What do you mean?" he asked. "We're wearing chameleons, nobody can see us."
"Chameleons pick up the nearest colors," Chan said, "not what's behind you. You look like a man-made pile of stone up there."
Rocks seemed to shift as MacIlargie shrugged. "A man-size pile of rock doesn't have to be a man, it's just a pile of rocks."
Chan flipped down his infras. "These tell me you're a man, not a pile of rock," he said. "Off the top of the hill."
MacIlargie snorted. "You've got to be less than a kilometer away for infras to show enough detail."
"Hoppers have infras that can pick out a man as far as the horizon.
Get down." Godenov had already dropped down to the military crest of the hill.
MacIlargie's face disappeared and his rock pile rippled as he turned in a circle. "I don't see any hoppers out there," he said as his face reappeared.
"You don't know anything about evasive flying, do you?"
MacIlargie yelped and his face dropped through the space that no longer looked like a man-size pile of rocks. Then his shocked, frightened face skittered down from the top of the hill and came to rest next to Chan.
Schultz's voice came from MacIlargie's other side. "That's how you get someone too dumb to live to do what you tell him to. Either that or blast him." He had slithered unseen to the top and knocked MacIlargie's feet from underneath him, then dragged him down.
"Hey, don't do that!" MacIlargie shouted, and swung a fist at Schultz,
but the other man had already moved away.
"Calm down, MacIlargie," Chan said, putting a restraining hand on the new man. "When Marines don't follow orders, somebody can get hurt. On a real operation, not following orders can get Marines killed."
"No need to knock me down like that," MacIlargie muttered. "You want me to do something, all you got to do is say so."
"What do you think I was doing?" he snapped. Chan shook his head, then switched his attention back to the mission. "Everybody, four corners. Use your infras, use your magnifiers, use your bare eyes. And listen. Mike
Company, or part of Mike Company, is out there somewhere. We damn well better spot them before they spot us. Schultz, far side. MacIlargie,
right, Godenov, left side. Do it now." Through his infras he watched his men moving away. He'd give them a minute or two to get into position, then go around and check them. Especially the new men, to make sure they were behind rocks that would reduce their heat signatures.
Everyone was well-positioned when Chan made his rounds--even
MacIlargie, who didn't seem to understand how vulnerable even a man in chameleons and a blaster shield could be. On his way back to his own position, Chan scouted routes between positions to see how they could move about while exposing themselves as little as possible. Then he settled down to watch, listen, and wait.
Once the Marines settled down, tiny things, gnatlike flitterers, gathered around their still bodies. Landed on them, got inside their clothing,
crawled about, itched and annoyed them, made them focus inward, close at hand. As the waiting, watching, and listening time lengthened, the Marines found their attention diverted from the horizon and surrounding landscape to their very near airspace and skin. The new men were the first to begin waving their hands to dispel the flitterers, to pluck them off their skin,
pull them out of their clothing, to crush them between fingernails when all else failed. After more than an hour of watching nothing happen out there, even Chan began paying attention to the bugs. Eventually, Schultz too was delousing himself. It took a lot to get Schultz to shift his attention from the mission to tiny bloodsuckers; to him they were simply part of being in the field. And a lot less dangerous than people.
After half a day of boredom and delousing, Chan noticed aircraft humming somewhere in the distance. The humming quickly grew louder. He looked around but didn't see anything from his position.
"Heads up," he murmured into his helmet comm unit, "aircraft coming.
Who sees them?"
A couple of seconds passed before someone whistled over the team's comm net, then MacIlargie's voice said, "I see ten hoppers. They're coming straight at us."
"Nobody move," Chan ordered. Keeping under cover as much as possible,
he rushed to MacIlargie's position. As the new man had said, ten hoppers were coming at them. They were flying just over treetop level, less than two kilometers away and closing fast. He shivered.
"Hold your positions," Chan said into his comm unit. "Maybe they'll pass over us and keep going." If that happened, he knew he and his men would have a long walk trying to follow them. But if that many hoppers landed anywhere nearby, the reinforced company they must be carrying would be far too many for his four men to deal with.
The formation began orbiting a small clearing two hundred meters away,
and the hoppers touched down two at a time to disgorge passengers.
MacIlargie said, "We need to even the odds a bit." He checked the simulator on his blaster, raised it to his shoulder, took aim at the nearest hopper, and fired at it before Chan could stop him.
"Oh, no," Chan groaned. "You just got us killed."
The laser beam the simulator transmitted hit the hopper, and sensors on the aircraft signaled the crew that their bird was hit, where, and how badly. The pilot radioed his squadron commander that he'd been hit and the direction the fire had come from, then made a quick landing to off-load the squad and half of the infantrymen his hopper carried. He immediately lifted off again to treetop level and headed back toward base at half speed, which was as fast as the simulated damage the hopper sustained allowed it to go.
Another hopper, carrying extra weaponry instead of passengers, broke from the formation and spun toward the tor. It opened fire with its simulators, peppering the side of the tor with random fire until its infras could pick out and zero in on the "enemy."
MacIlargie gulped and his eyes bulged at the sight of the oncoming hopper and the fire it was spraying in their direction.
"I could have told you that was going to happen," Chan said dryly.
"Dumb guy." Then he thought frantically about what to do next while
MacIlargie fired a shot at the hopper as it swooped past them. MacIlargie missed.
"You just gave them our position," Chan told him. "They'll fry us on their next pass."
"No they won't," Schultz's voice said. "Maneuver toward me. I know a way out of here." MacIlargie ran upright, fast enough that Chan's reaching hand couldn't grab him and pull him into cover.
Chan made his way using as much cover as he could. The escort hopper came back around the side of the tor and swept the area he and MacIlargie had just vacated. Continuing the circuit, its fire reached the narrow opening in the hillside the four Marines ducked into just as Chan, again bringing up the rear, was diving through it. A couple of hundred meters away the last of the hoppers was off-loading its passengers, and the reinforced company was deploying for an assault on the tor to mop up any of the "enemy" who weren't killed by the escort hopper.
MacIlargie and Godenov huddled near the entrance, exclaiming to each other about their narrow escape from the hopper.
"Now you know why nobody makes the mistake of firing at Marine hoppers more than once," Chan snarled.
MacIlargie looked at him innocently and shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Chan shook his head patiently. "Now what do we do? Hope they give us a chance to surrender, or do we go out in a blaze of glory?" he asked sarcastically. He quickly looked around. The cave appeared to extend only three or four meters into the side of the tor.
"Neither," Schultz said. "Follow me." He scuttled to the back of the cave, past MacIlargie and Godenov, and seemed to melt into the rock wall on the left.
"Where'd he go?" Godenov exclaimed.
"You coming with me or not?" Schultz's muffled voice echoed from the wall.
Chan brushed past the two men to examine the wall where Schultz had disappeared. "Well, I'll be. Come on, you two."
Situated where it couldn't be seen until you were right on top of it,
a crack just wide enough for a man to squeeze through opened into the side of the cave. Chan pulled and pushed his way through, and for a brief moment thought he was going to get stuck. MacIlargie, smaller, got through more easily. Godenov, like Chan, almost got stuck.
"Hey," MacIlargie exclaimed when he was in the crack, "it's dark in here. How are we going to see where we're going?"
After a couple of meters the narrow slit opened into a room larger than the cave mouth. Schultz was patiently waiting for them. They could see his face easily in the greenish illumination from a sphere in his hand the size of a tennis ball, a nonissue, civilian glowball. It wasn't a bright light, but in the darkness of the cave it was enough to see by.
"Never go into the field without your own personal glowball," he said to the new men. "If you live long enough, you might learn these things."
"Why wouldn't we live long enough?" MacIlargie asked.
"Because you're stupid. If you don't make a mistake in training and get yourself killed, someone else might kill you to keep you from getting him killed." He turned to a tunnel leading away from the entrance to the room. "I hope none of you are claustrophobic," he said over his shoulder.
"It gets tight in a few places back here."
"Wait a minute," Chan said sharply. "Where are we going?"
"This way." Schultz pointed at the tunnel.
"Where does 'this way' go?" Chan asked. He didn't want to admit it,
but in fact he was claustrophobic.
"To the other side of the tor. This place is honeycombed. We can come out anywhere we want."
"Yeah, and if it's honeycombed, we can get lost anywhere too. And how do you know it's honeycombed?" Schultz was a hard, cold man. The fact that
Chan wanted to argue with him was a measure of how afraid he was of being in a cave.
"I've been here before. There are markers we can follow." He walked toward a shadow on the other side of the room and toed a small cairn.
"Like this." He ducked and disappeared into the shadow--the mouth of a passageway.
"You better be right," Chan muttered, "because if I get lost or stuck in here and die, I'm coming back to haunt you." Then, louder, he said to
MacIlargie and Godenov, "Follow him."
The tunnel was low enough that they had to crouch to get through, but they didn't have to crawl--the crawling and slithering came later. This first tunnel curved gently to the left, then took a sharp right and emptied into another cavern, which had two exits.
Schultz didn't hesitate before picking one and heading for it.
Nervous sweat was beginning to bead on Chan's forehead. "Are you sure you know where you're going?"
"I don't see any of those markers you said were there."
"You're not looking," Schultz said as he slid into the exit he'd chosen.
"I see it," MacIlargie said as he hurried after Schultz. His boot tapped the cairn as he passed it and knocked it over.
Godenov gave Chan a glance that was half excited and half scared, then followed.
"Muhammad's beard," Chan muttered. He shrugged out of his pack, dug in it for his glowball, then paused momentarily to repile the cairn. He hoped it didn't matter what order the rocks went in, because he couldn't remember how they'd been piled before MacIlargie knocked them over. "Wait for me," he said as he sidestepped into the crack in the wall. It was another tight squeeze, and he resolved that he wasn't bringing up the rear again--if he got stuck, he wanted someone behind him as well as in front so he could be pushed or pulled in either direction to get free.
Time seemed to suspend its normal movement, and it felt like they were spending the beginning of an eternity making their way through the rock passages. But it took less than one hour standard to make their way to the other side of the tor. They squeezed sideways through vertical and near-vertical cracks, slithered on their bellies through horizontal ones.
Here they had to clamber up, there they gingerly climbed down. Most of the time, though, they duckwalked or crawled on all fours; few of the passages were high and wide enough for them to walk erect. Now and then they passed through chambers so small only three of them could squeeze in, but one of them was big enough to hold a platoon. Chan never got permanently stuck,
but there was one briefly harrowing spot where he couldn't move forward or aft until he let all the air out of his lungs and was push-pulled through with his sweat serving as lubricant. Schultz noticed how wet he was and how he stank of fear, but only grunted.
When they reached yet another small room, Schultz took off his helmet,
then turned off the glowball and returned it to his pack. "Wait a few minutes," he whispered to the others. "The exit's right on the other side.
We'll let our eyes adjust until we can see some light, then follow it."
"We're not out yet," Chan said. "And there's still a whole company out there looking for us."
Schultz's helmetless head was now visible as a shadow on a shadow, and
Chan saw him shake it. "They're not still looking for us here. Only a couple other people know about these caves. Either they're searching every opening on the other side of the tor or they think we managed to evade all their sensors and get away."
At last, diffused light was visible on the far side of the room.
"Let's go," Schultz said. They followed him through the crack. The crack turned, dropped, and became a narrow tunnel that emptied directly onto the hillside next to a mid-size boulder. Schultz dragged himself out,
then helped the others gain the open air.
"We made it," Chan said, immensely relieved. He shook himself,
enjoying the feeling of nothing pressing in on him. "Now we need to find out where Mike Company went to so we can do a number on them."
"We're right here," came a voice from above and behind them. "Drop your weapons or you're dead."
They looked back and up into the faces and blasters of a Marine squad.
"You didn't really think you were the only ones who knew about the caves in there, did you?" the Mike Company squad leader asked.
Suddenly, the air smelled of fish again.