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School of Fire

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School of Fire

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Author: David Sherman
Dan Cragg
Publisher: Del Rey, 1998
Series: Starfist: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Combat, betrayal, and murder at the edge of human space . . .

Deployed to assist the oligarchs of Wanderjahr in putting down a rebellion that threatens the planet's political and economic stability, the Marines must fight two wars at the same time . . . one against the resourceful, well-led guerrillas and another with the entrenched police bureaucracy.

But who is the real enemy and who can be trusted? On Wanderjahr, nothing is as it seems--not even the animal life--and everyone has his own agenda. Inexorably, the Marines of the 34th FIST are drawn deeper and deeper into the politics of a world where murder, terror, and betrayal are the accepted methods of government . . . and everyone is ripe for an old-fashioned butt-kickin'.


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 fo...

Copyright © 1998 by David Sherman

Copyright © 1998 by Dan Cragg


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