Starfist: Double Jeopardy
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It may be the twenty-fifth century, but the Marines are still looking for a few good men.
The Confederation has finally disclosed the existence of Skinks, fierce aliens bent on wiping out humankind. While the rest of the universe grapples with the news, the Skink-savvy Marines of the Confederation’s Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team (FIST) have their own worries: they’ve just learned they can’t transfer out of the unit. Who else has the skills to fight the Skinks on their home turf when the time comes?
Morale isn’t improved by a report of Skinks on the uncolonized world of Ishtar—which means that FIST must turn around and head right back into the jaws of hell with no downtime. But none of that matters to Lieutenant Charlie Bass and the third platoon of Company L. They’re Marines, they’re the best, and they’ve got a job to do.
Random House Publishing Group
; December 2009
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Title: Starfist: Double Jeopardy
Author: David Sherman; Dan Cragg
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Brigadier Sturgeon mounted the reviewing stand from the stairs at its rear. He'd briefly considered wearing chameleons for this appearance before his FIST but settled for garrison utilities rather than the dress reds that he customarily wore when he stood on the stand to address his Marines. Colonel Israel Ramadan, Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team's chief of staff, and FIST Sergeant Major Bern Parant followed him, also in garrison utilities. The rest of the FIST's staff had remained at headquarters; they had work to do. And this was an occasion Sturgeon felt he had to face with minimal support.
Garrison utilities; this was not a ceremonial occasion. Sturgeon reached the podium and looked out over his force. The Marines stood at attention; no one moved in the thousand-plus man formation. Still, he sensed unease among his men. They were as unaccustomed as he was to appearing in formation on the FIST parade ground in garrison utilities rather than in dress reds.
They have a right, he thought, to feel ill at ease. They'd heard most of what he had to say after the Ravenette campaign, but he had more details now—and some changes. But they hadn't heard it right after fighting the Skinks.
"You all know," Sturgeon said without preamble, his amplified voice loud enough to carry to every man in the formation before him and beyond, to personnel working inside nearby buildings, "that the quarantine on Thirty-fourth FIST has been lifted. That was announced a few weeks ago. What everybody has been waiting for is to find out exactly what that means for us.
"The first thing it means is, nobody faces a Darkside penalty for revealing the existence of the Skinks; they are now public knowledge, thanks to President Chang-Sturdevant's announcement to the Confederation of Human Worlds." He shrugged. The Darkside penalty had been essentially meaningless so long as the Marines of Thirty-fourth FIST were restricted to Thorsfinni's World and left the unit's home world only on deployments.
"What you are all concerned with are retirements, rotations to new duty stations, and the end of active service for those of you who are not making a career of the Marines and have already served beyond your initial eight-year enlistment.
"Orders have been issued from the Heptagon. They apply to all members of every Confederation Army division, Confederation Navy air wing and starship, Confederation Marine FIST, and any other Confederation military element involved in the Skink war on Haul- over. They do not necessarily apply to any planetary military forces that served on Haulover.
"Taking those concerns in order, and as they apply specifically to Thirty-fourth FIST:
"Those Marines who had put in for retirement before the quarantine went into effect are now eligible to be retired and may do so within the next six months. Anyone else who is eligible for retirement may put in an application, such retirement to take effect no sooner than four years from the date of application.
"All transfers to other duty stations are suspended for the duration." Sturgeon paused to look over his Marines again. They were still at attention, still standing stock-still; no murmurs or mutters reached his ears. But he could feel their morale melting away. All Marines in Thirty-fourth FIST, even the replacements still in Whiskey Company, were past their normal rotation dates. That wouldn't present any major problem with units stationed on more advanced worlds, but Thorsfinni's World was remote, and assignment to the Navy and Marine units and facilities on it was officially a hardship posting. Hence the normal two-year assignment, instead of the three or four or even more years at other duty stations. "There's a sound military reason for the continuing suspension of transfers," he continued, before his thoughts could affect his own morale. "Thirty-fourth FIST is the most experienced unit in dealing with aliens, hostile or otherwise. We've fought the Skinks every time we know of that they have come up against humanity. We fought the birdmen on Avionia. We fought alongside the headless hexapods on Society 419. No other human unit has fought the Skinks more than twice, and no other hu- man unit has fought against or alongside other alien sentiences. The Confederation wants to keep its most experienced unit intact rather than dilute the experience by spreading us out by rotations to other units.
"The positive side of that is, we all have the honor of remaining with the most active, most highly decorated unit in the entire Confederation Marine Corps."
Sturgeon understood that many of his Marines would already be wondering why the Confederation didn't want other units to receive the benefit of Thirty-fourth FIST's experience by absorbing some of those "most experienced" Marines into their ranks, or how adversely their chances of surviving "the duration" were affected by remaining in the unit most likely to face the Skinks—or other potentially hostile aliens. He knew they were wondering those things because he was wondering them himself. But he didn't have an answer to that question, so he didn't give it voice.
Now Sturgeon had to give his Marines the worst news.
"You have known since we found out about the quarantine that all routine 'end of active duty' releases were suspended, that the term of service for everyone in Thirty-fourth FIST was extended for the duration. I imagine that you believe, or at least suspect, that now that the quarantine has been lifted, so has the involuntary extension for the duration of the Skink threat.
"That is not the case. Everyone in Thirty-fourth FIST, and a few other Confederation military units, is still in for the duration."
Sturgeon stopped talking and looked over his Marines again. Again, nobody moved; nobody said anything that he could hear. But he could feel morale plunge even further than it already had.
He knew that many, perhaps most of the Marines before him had joined not to start a career but to serve one enlistment. They joined the Marines to prove themselves to themselves or to someone else; they joined seeking an adventure; they joined in a quest to become "men," for the intangibles to be gained from eight years as members of a brotherhood, of an elite force; or they joined to carry on a family tradition of military service. Some from sufficiently impoverished backgrounds may have enlisted because being a Marine meant having a job that carried a certain degree of respect in the civilian community. But most didn't enlist for the money—most civilian occupations paid better than the Marines did, and with fewer risks to life and health.
While Brigadier Sturgeon himself had always intended to make a career of the Marines, by no means did he look down on those who only intended to serve one enlistment. To the contrary, he thought they formed the body and soul of the Corps. And most Marines, when they returned to civilian life after their time in the Corps, whether a full forty-year career or just one eight-year enlistment, were better, more productive citizens of the Confederation and their home worlds than they would have otherwise been.
With few exceptions, mostly in Whiskey Company, his Marines had served more than the eight-year term of the one enlistment most of them had expected to serve. He had to give them something to counter the bad news he'd just given them.
Fortunately, he had such news.
"Since Thirty-fourth FIST went into quarantine, promotions from corporal on up have been almost totally limited to filling the billets of NCOs and officers killed or too severely injured to return to duty—which is a hell of a way to get a promotion.
"That means that many of you are still one or even two ranks below where you would have been in the normal course of events, had normal rotations been in effect.
"There aren't many Marines in Thirty-fourth FIST who are eligible for immediate retirement under the conditions I gave earlier. But everyone who does retire will open not only his own billet for someone to be promoted into, but will also open several promotion slots below his position."
Once more, there was no visible or audible reaction from within the formation, but Sturgeon hadn't expected any. After all, fewer than a platoon's worth of Marines in the FIST would be affected by the retirement-induced promotions. But most of them would be affected by what he had to say next, and the rest would be affected by it in the future.
"You will be interested to know that the Chairman of the Combined Chiefs, General Cazombi, backed up by the Commandant and the rest of the Combined Chiefs, went to President Chang-Sturdevant and Minister of War Berentus about the situation here. The President and the Minister of War then took them to the Congress to state their case.
"Congress, feeling both generous and appreciative for what Thirty-fourth FIST has done, has passed legislation moving every member of Thirty-fourth FIST who would normally have expected to be promoted by this time to be elevated to the next pay grade.
"Before you get too excited, you are not getting promoted, merely being given a pay raise.
"The pay raise is effective as of six weeks ago, the date the legislation was passed and signed. You will receive part of the six weeks of back-pay raise in your next pay, and the balance in your following pay. Following that, your pay should reflect the higher pay grades to which you are entitled by Act of Congress.
"I have one other item of good news. Most of you are be- yond your normal end of enlistment. In the normal course of events, those of you who reenlisted would have received a reenlistment bonus. You will be pleased to know that the Stortinget, which you should know is Thorsfinni's World's legislature, has passed legisla- tion granting monies equivalent to a reenlistment bonus to each individual in Thirty-fourth FIST who would have received such bonus had he reenlisted instead of being involuntarily extended. Within the next week you will each receive an envelope from the Thorsfinni's World government with that grant. The money will be paid in Thorsfinni's World Kroner, not in Confederation cred- its." He didn't mention that the legislature's act continued the granting of equivalent bonuses for as long as Thirty-fourth FIST's Marines were involuntarily extended—he didn't want his Marines think- ing that they might be here for the rest of their lives. Instead, he said:
"That is all."
Still standing at Sturgeon's side, Colonel Ramadan bellowed, "FIST, a-ten-tion!"
A sharp crack sounded as the men of Thirty-fourth FIST snapped back to attention.
Sturgeon about-faced and as he left the reviewing stand heard Ramadan calling out the first of the series of commands that re- turned the individual units of the FIST to their company commanders.
"Fuck a pay raise," Lance Corporal "Wolfman" MacIlargie snarled as third platoon mounted the stairs to their quarters on the second floor of the barracks. "And a fake reenlistment bonus! I don't give a rat's ass about the money, I want out of this chicken outfit."
Corporal Claypoole, on the step above MacIlargie, half turned and rapped the junior man on the top of his head.
"Hey," MacIlargie objected, rubbing his head. "What's that for?"
"That's for not appreciating what General Cazombi and the Stortinget did for you," Claypoole said, and raised his hand as though to land another hit. MacIlargie ducked out of the way.
MacIlargie wasn't the only one grumbling; there was a sussuration of complaints throughout the company, punctuated by an occasional shouted curse. Captain Conorado, the other officers, and the company's senior NCOs hung back, letting the men and junior NCOs give voice to their disappointment and displeasure. They knew the men needed to vent; they also knew that if they tried to intervene they'd take out their own frustrations on their Marines, and that would be unproductive.
"All of you, company office, now," Conorado said to the officers and senior NCOs. He rousted the company clerks and waited for First Sergeant Myer to close the door before saying anything.
"Well, that announcement shot morale all to hell," Conorado said. "We have to do something right away to keep morale from dropping any further. Suggestions?"
"We need to keep them too busy to think about it," Myer said.
"Right. But doing what? We don't have any field training scheduled."
"Inspections," Gunny Thatcher suggested.
"Close order drill," second platoon's Staff Sergeant Chway said.
"PT," Ensign Antoni offered.
"Forced marches or runs, in full gear," said Lieutenant Rok- monov.
"They're going to be trashing their quarters about now," Lieutenant Bass said. "I say we start off with a field day. Make the barracks sparkle like we're expecting the Inspector General."
"All good ideas," Conorado said before anybody else could toss out an idea of how to keep their Marines busy. "But I think Charlie's come up with the best starting point. Platoon sergeants, go bust your men's nuts about cleaning the barracks. Decide among yourselves who's responsible for the classroom, the rec room, and other common areas. Don't forget the supply shack. Officers, work with Top Myer and the Gunny to draw up plans for the other busy work.
There was a chorus of aye ayes and the platoon sergeants filed out of the company office.
"Mr. Humphrey," Conorado said to the company executive officer, "take charge of the planning team. I'll be in my office."
Conorado retired to his tiny office and closed the door before he sat at his small desk. He had everybody in his company getting too busy to dwell on the things that were hurting their morale. Now to figure out how he was going to deal with his own plummeting frame of mind.
The field day, quite naturally, was greeted with howls of protest. Nobody but nobody ever wanted to have a field day. At least not the Marines who had to do the work. Probably not any of the Marines who had to supervise a field day, either. There were many things a young person might expect to have to do when they enlisted in the Marines, but a house cleaning that would make the most neurotically spic-and-span of their mothers look slovenly didn't even make the list—not even the list of unpleasant things they imagined they might be called upon to do.
But the platoon sergeants were quickly joined by the squad leaders in getting everybody to work cleaning their quarters and the common areas. The squad leaders' hopes of avoiding any real work themselves in favor of supervising their men were quickly dashed when the platoon sergeants put them to work cleaning their own quarters. The platoon sergeants were then very busy making sure everybody was hard at work.
"Summers, Shoup," Corporal Doyle said to his two men, "pack everything up." Even as he gave the order, he was stowing all of his clothing into his seabag and civilian suitcase and securing everything from the top of his desk in the desk's drawers.
"Ah, everything?" PFC Summers asked.
"C-can I ask why, Corporal Doyle?" PFC Shoup asked.
"Because we're going to strip this room bare before we begin cleaning it."
Summers stood in the middle of the fire team's room, looking around. "Where are we going to put everything when we strip the room bare?" he asked.
Doyle looked at him; Shoup was already packing his belongings. "Outside. Where do you think?"
"Outside. Now get to it."
Summers began packing, but slowly. "What's going to keep somebody from stealing stuff?"
Doyle paused in his own packing and looked at his senior man. "A company of Marine grunts, that's what." He turned back to the last of his packing. "Don't worry, there'll be a guard on the gear. Everybody's doing it."
"Really?" Summers sounded as if he didn't believe his fire team leader. As though to prove his doubt, he stopped packing and stepped into the corridor to check what other fire teams were doing. About half the other fire teams were also packing, and some of the Marines were beginning to carry their belongings down the stairs. Summers groaned and reentered the room he shared with Doyle and Summers and resumed packing. Doyle was already finished and Shoup wasn't very far behind.
"Get a move on, Summers," Doyle said. "You're never going to get your crossed blasters this way."
Summers mumbled something about being overdue for a promotion anyway but sped up his packing.
"No, you're not," Doyle muttered back.
"Shoup," Doyle ordered, "go outside, directly below our window. I'll drop our bags down to you. Keep them together, about five meters out from the wall. Stay with them until I tell you otherwise."
"Catch our bags that you're going to drop down to me. Right." Shoup left the room and headed for the stairs, shaking his head. A minute or so later he was where Doyle had sent him and looked up.
"Catch," Doyle called down to him, and dropped his own sea- bag.
Shoup had to take a step to his side to catch the bag, but he was a little too close to the wall and nearly fell over backward when the seabag hit his arms. Still, he managed to maintain his feet.
"Do you see how to do it now?" Doyle asked.
"Got it, Corporal Doyle." Shoup positioned himself to catch the next one, a civilian suitcase. Instead of trying to catch it in his extended arms as he had the seabag, he clapped his hands against its sides and redirected it to his side and rear. It landed next to the seabag. Shoup grinned up at Doyle. "Got it!" he called.
Doyle dropped the next two bags. By then, Summers had his packed.
"Go down to the supply shack," Doyle told Summers. "Tell Sergeant Souavi I need a fifteen-meter length of rope. Tell him I need it, not you need it. Sergeant Souavi trusts me."
Summers thought for a second, not knowing why Doyle wanted a length of rope. "What if he doesn't have a fifteen-meter length?"
"Then get the shortest length he has that's more than fifteen meters."
"Fifteen meters or the shortest length longer than fifteen meters. Tell him you want it, because he trusts you," Summers muttered as he headed for the supply shack. What does fifteen meters of rope have to do with a field day? he wondered.
Other fire team leaders saw what second squad's third fire team was doing and began tossing items out the window to waiting men. Some made a game of it, the tosser seeing if he could make the catcher miss or, better yet, catch a bag off balance so that he'd fall over. The fire teams that didn't have windows facing the side where the bags were getting lined up crossed over to the rooms that did.
By the time Summers got back with a sixty-meter length of rope, Doyle had already dropped the stripped mattresses and bundled linens and pillows down to Shoup and was lining the furniture up next to the window. Some of the other fire team leaders were organizing a fire brigade chain to pass smaller pieces of furniture down the stairs to the side yard.
"Come on, Doyle," Corporal Chan said as he passed third fire team's room. "Get with the program and join the fire brigade."
Doyle ignored the squad's senior fire team leader and took the rope from Summers.
"What are you going to do with that?"
"Do you know how to tie a timber hitch?"
Doyle looked disbelievingly at Summers. "You don't even know what a timber hitch is?"
Summers shook his head, wondering what had gone wrong with his fire team leader.
"It's a kind of knot that sailors on old oceangoing ships used to hoist barrels and stuff."
"I'm not any kind of sailor. Forget about old oceangoing ships."
"Wood ships, with canvas sails," Doyle said, managing to maintain a straight face.
Summers looked at him aghast. "Wooden ships with canvas sails? What does that have to do with anything?"
"It's how we're going to lower our furniture. Watch." Slowly at first, but more quickly as his hands remembered how to tie the knot he hadn't used since his boyhood in the Young Pioneers, he tied the knot around his desk. "Hold this tight," he said, and climbed into the open window so that he straddled the sill. "Keep the rope tight." He bent over and lifted the tiny desk over the sill and let it hang. "Okay, let go of the rope and hold on to me!" As soon as Summers had a grip on him, he leaned out so that the desk was away from the wall and began lowering it. "It's a good thing all of our books are electronic," he said. "If our desks were full of hard-copy books, they'd be too heavy to lower this way." When the desk reached the ground he gave the rope some slack and the knot fell apart. Doyle used a different knot to lower the chairs.
In minutes, all three desks were down and Shoup had them arranged with their other things. A small crowd gathered to watch.
"You know, sometimes Doyle really surprises me," Corporal Dean said to Corporal Claypoole.
Claypoole shrugged. "Before Sergeant Linsman was killed, he was in Sergeant Kerr's fire team—uh, Sergeant Kerr was a corporal then. . . ."
Dean knuckled him in the shoulder. "I know that, dumb guy."
Claypoole gave Dean a nasty look. "Sergeant Kerr said Doyle had the makings of a good Marine," he said in a questioning tone, as though he didn't really believe it.
Corporal Dornhofer, who was standing nearby watching, chimed in: "And remember how he figured out how to make the Tweed Hull Breacher work without exploding."
Dean and Claypoole looked at Dornhofer, then at each other. They shook their heads. "But it's Doyle," they said.
"All right people," Staff Sergeant Hyakowa called out. "Shit- can the grabassing and get back to work."
Whether by fire brigade chain or by rope, it wasn't long before all the rooms—even the squad leaders' room—were emptied. Staff Sergeant Hyakowa assigned the gun squad's Lance Corporal Dickson, who still was suffering from being wounded by Skink acid on Haulover, to guard the platoon's belongings. He sent one man from each fire team, under the supervision of Corporal Dean, who was also not back up to full strength after being wounded on Haulover, to clean the company rec room.
Eventually all the interior cleaning was finished and everything from outside cleaned and restored to its proper place in the barracks rooms. The platoon sergeants held inspections, followed by the platoon commanders. Captain Conorado and First Sergeant Myer inspected last.
Everybody passed. After all, the objective of the field day wasn't to pass an IG, it was to keep the Marines too busy to dwell on their indefinite extensions, and lack of transfers and promotions.
From the Hardcover edition.