Authors: David Sherman; Dan Cragg
Tags: #Military science fiction
Samar Volga maneuvered the mule up the forested mountainside almost all the way to the saddle before the steep slope threatened to overturn the machine. He sidled the vehicle against a sturdy tree to keep it in place, then climbed the rest of the way on foot. The saddle wasn't much higher, and he only had to use his hands a few times to help him climb. When he got to the other side of the saddle and looked into the hidden valley beyond, what he saw made his breath catch.
The valley was a long oval, no more than ten kilometers at its widest, close to double that in length. The mountains that ringed it were much steeper on the valley side than on the outer; only isolated bushes and weeds found purchase on their upper slopes.
But what bushes and weeds! He'd never seen their like; not in field trips, in the university's museum and labs, nor in textbooks. Samar Volga believed the valley's life-forms had been isolated from the outside world for so long they had evolved to the point where they were unique to it. He was equally certain that he was the first human to set eyes on them.
A couple of hundred meters down, the slope gentled and more growth had taken root. The floor of the valley was blanketed by a forest dotted with small clearings. Using his glasses at high magnification, he could make out the uppermost leaves in the nearer trees; none looked familiar.
Almost salivating with the desire to begin his investigation, the young botanist looked for a way down to the upper growths. But the slope was too steep, and he knew he wasn't a good enough mountaineer to risk a free climb without someone to back him up if he fell.
Momentarily frustrated but glad that he'd thought to bring climbing gear, he returned to his mule. He spent the rest of the day ferrying mountaineering kit, specimen packs, and recording equipment to the saddle.
Finally, exhausted, he made himself eat a light dinner and wrapped himself in his sleeping bag. But tired as he was, sleep was a long time coming. He was going to be the first human to enter the pocket valley, the first to examine its plant life. The honor of naming all its species would be his. Eventually he would go into other hidden valleys.
Maugham's Station was studded with such isolated pockets.
No need to investigate the hidden valleys indeed. He'd show those hidebound Frères Jacques what was what!
A cacophony of avian calls woke him at dawn. He barely took time for his morning ablutions and to bolt down a quick breakfast before heading back up to the saddle.
Quickly, he anchored a rope and lowered three loads of gear down the steep slope, collecting equipment, recorders, food, and water. Then he rappelled down to where the slope was gentle enough so he didn't need the rope. Maneuvering the gear the rest of the way by hand was hot, sweaty work, but when he reached the forest below he knew it was well worth the effort.
His pulse raced as he marveled at the scarlets, pinks, ambers, and blues--
--and the infinity of greens of the foliage before him. And it was all leaves and stems and vines; there wasn't a flower to be seen.
And it was all his to identify, classify, and name!
With great effort he pulled himself back from his state of awe and looked about for places to site his recording equipment. It wasn't until he picked three spots and began carrying his gear toward them that he realized something an entomologist or zoologist would have noticed immediately--the near utter silence of this forest of unknown species. There was no buzzing of pollinating insectoids, nor sounds of other animal life. The only sound was the rustling of vegetation moved by the wind. Except...
Except when he looked up he didn't see any movement in the treetops. He froze and listened carefully, slowly turning around, peering between trees, leaves, and vines, squinting into shadows, looking for whatever danger had made the animals and insects go quiet.
Surely they hadn't all gone silent because of
Never mind, he told himself. He had specimens to collect. He set to it with great enthusiasm and filled half of his specimen packs before thirst and hunger forced him to stop for a meal. He sat in the shade of a tree at the forest's edge, in clear view of two of his recorders.
Samar Volga never saw the streamer of greenish, viscous fluid that arced out and hit him in the back. But he felt it. He arched his back away from the burning agony, but it went with him. His mouth stretched wide to scream, but no sound came out--the pain of the first strike knocked the air from his lungs and there was none left to scream with. Not that anyone would have heard anyway.
His knees buckled and he fell forward. His hands didn't move fast enough to break his fall and his face thudded hard onto the ground. Another streamer of fluid lashed at him from a different direction, and he writhed as though violent movement would make the pain go away. A third streamer struck.
Steam rose from his bubbling flesh and his movements became jerky, slower, and after a few minutes ceased altogether.
Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass woke with a groan on the first morning after his return to Thorsfinni's World. His head hurt and his stomach began lecturing him on the need to mend his evil ways. He cracked an eyelid to see where he was, and immediately slammed it shut to block the murderous sunlight that stabbed into his brain. He groaned again, and lay unmoving while he tried to reconstruct what he'd done the night before, in hope that would give him a clue to where he was.
Right. It had been evening and he'd gone straight to First Sergeant Myer's quarters, where he'd found the Top, Gunny Thatcher, Staff Sergeant Hyakowa, Doc Horner, and both the FIST and battalion sergeant majors eating reindeer steaks, drinking Reindeer Ale, and playing cards. They'd all been shocked to see him--except for the first sergeant, who acted like he was expecting him. Bass had joined them for an evening of eating, drinking, and general revelry. He smiled at the memory, but quickly stopped because the effort hurt too much. He vaguely remembered being taken very late to the transient barracks, where newly arrived Marines were quartered when they joined 34th FIST, before being assigned to units.
He listened, but didn't hear any of the normal sounds of Marines performing their duties in Camp Major Pete Ellis. Then he remembered: last night was Fifth Day on Thorsfinni's World. Which meant this must be Sixth Day morning, and nearly everybody was off base on liberty.
He shifted into a more comfortable position--well, a less uncomfortable position--and assayed another smile; that one didn't hurt as much, so he let it linger. It was such a comfort to wake up without immediately worrying about fending off an attack from the Skinks, or the army of Dominic de Tomas.
He sighed as he remembered the young daughter of Zachariah Brattle. Well, not
young--she was a full-grown woman, after all, which she'd demonstrated to him beyond all doubt. That woman would make a wonderful wife for a warrior. He sighed again.
But Comfort was still on Kingdom, probably holding down some important government post, and he was back where he belonged, with 34th FIST on Thorsfinni's World, and he'd never see her again.
Back where he belonged.
He swore, comfort and Comfort forgotten, and rolled up to sit on his rack with his legs over its side.
Right. Back where I belong.
He'd been commander of Company L's third platoon for three or four years, ever since Ensign vanden Hoyt was killed in action on Diamunde. But he was a gunnery sergeant, a company level noncommissioned officer; a platoon commander was supposed to be an officer. And last night he'd been told that during the time he was thought dead, an ensign had been assigned to take command of his platoon.
being commander of Company L's third platoon. Of course, he could get command of another platoon easily enough--all he had to do was accept a commission.
Charlie Bass liked having his own platoon, but had refused a commission every time one was offered to him. In his opinion, officers had to do too much crap. They had to have fancy mess uniforms, act like proper "gentlemen," and not "fraternize" with their subordinates.
Well, senior NCOs weren't supposed to socialize with junior NCOs and enlisted men either, but he'd never let that stop him from playing cards or getting drunk with any Marine he felt like.
And to be an officer he'd have to go back to Arsenault, where he'd gone through Boot Camp so long ago, to that damn finishing school the Confederation Marine Corps called the Officer Training College, and learn which fork to use and how to hold his pinky out while he drank tea from a china cup. He already knew everything a Marine platoon commander needed to know to fight and win a battle and bring his men back alive, with the mission accomplished. Hell, the only fork a fighting Marine needed to know how to use was the one in his mess kit. And holding a pinky out in combat was a good way to lose it.
But there was no way he'd get third platoon back even if he accepted a commission. It was Marine Corps policy that when a Marine completed officer training and got commissioned, he was assigned to a unit he'd never served with before. Charlie Bass knew his only alternative was to accept whatever gunnery sergeant billet in 34th FIST he was assigned to, wait for a platoon commander in the FIST's infantry battalion to get killed, then hope for a reshuffling of officers that would open his job back up.
He grimaced. Marines died, more often in 34th FIST than in almost any other unit, but he couldn't wish death on another Marine, not for his own benefit.
Groaning and huffing with the effort of moving, he set aside his sour mood and struggled out of the rack to go to the head for his morning shitshowershave.
A lance corporal wearing the armband of the duty NCO stopped him on his way back to his room.
"Gunny Bass? Some people want to see you. They're in the office," the Duty NCO said.
Awe was audible in his voice and visible on his face. He'd heard about Charlie Bass. He didn't have much trouble accepting that Gunny Bass had somehow survived being captured by the Skinks and managed to escape from them. But to single-handedly overthrow a planetary government! Well, that went a bit beyond what he thought a Marine capable of--even if the Marine in question was
Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass he'd heard so many stories about, and he had the assistance of a rebel army and a rebellious army general.
"Thanks, Lance Corporal," Bass said. "Any idea what's up?"
"Nossir--I mean, no, Gunny."
Bass shot him a look. Enlisted men "sirred" sergeants major, but all other enlisted addressed each other by rank or the title "Marine." He saw how nervous the unknown lance corporal was and took pity on him. "Thanks," he said, and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Keep up the good work, Marine."
"Aye aye, Gunny. Thanks, Gunny."
Bass was wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist. He decided that wasn't appropriate dress for reporting to the transient barracks office, so he stepped into his room and, so as not to jar his aching head and queasy stomach, cautiously pulled on a set of drab-green garrison utilities.
The office was a few steps away. Bass opened the door and entered. Top Myer and Gunny Thatcher were sitting on two unoccupied desks. It was indecent how chipper they looked. Then he saw Captain Conorado, Company L's commanding officer, and Lieutenant Humphrey, the company executive officer. He pulled himself to attention.
"Gunnery Sergeant Bass reporting as ordered, sir," he said to Conorado.
"Relax, Charlie," Conorado said, stepping forward to shake his hand. "Welcome back."
"Thank you, sir. It's good to be back." He repeated the greeting with Humphrey. Only then did he notice that all four men were in undress reds, a much more formal uniform than they normally wore, certainly more formal than they wore on the weekend--much less the one he was wearing. "Undress reds" was a bit of a misnomer, as only the uniform's tunic was scarlet; enlisted men's dress uniform trousers were navy blue and officers wore gold.
"About time you decided to show up!" Thatcher snarled. But he smiled, so Bass knew he was just putting on an act.
"Actually, we aren't the ones who want to see your dumb ass," Top Myer growled. He picked up a garment bag and handed it to Bass. "This is your undress reds. Go back to your room and change into the appropriate uniform."
Bass looked at him, wondering what was going on.
"Here," Thatcher said. "Doc Horner said to give this to you, though I'm damned if I know why he'd want to cure your hangover after your behavior last night."
Bass took the thing Thatcher held out, a tiny box with a hangover pill. He wondered what Thatcher meant. He didn't remember doing anything more outrageous than anyone else the night before.
"Aye aye, Top. Thanks, Gunny." He turned to Conorado. "By your leave, sir?"
Conorado, blank-faced, pointed a finger at the office door.
What the hell? Bass wondered as he headed back to his room to change. The only reason he could imagine for them to wear their undress reds was an award ceremony. But decorations were always handed out at full-FIST assemblies--and those ceremonies called for full dress reds. Besides, he hadn't done anything to rate another medal. His part in overthrowing Dominic de Tomas didn't count, since he hadn't done that in his capacity as a Marine. He dry-swallowed the hangover pill on his way back to his room and was already beginning to feel better by the time he started changing into his undress reds.