Snippet: First To Fight (The Empire’s Corps XI)

3 Jun

Hi, everyone

First To Fight is Book 11 (yes, 11) of The Empire’s Corps, but as a sideline novel (and one written in a different format, to boot) it should be readable without any prior knowledge of the universe. FTF is really Captain Stalker’s origin story; his early life, his training in the TMC and his first deployments.

As always, comments, suggestions, continuity mistakes and suchlike are warmly welcomed.

Chris

Prologue

The Empire did not believe in heroes.

This may seem odd to us, but the Grand Senate was very keen to promote the idea that no one – absolutely no one – stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The idea that someone might be deserving of extra praise was alien to it, an attitude that makes no sense unless you realise that a popular hero might serve as a rallying point for resistance to the Grand Senate and the government. Indeed, when someone did become a hero, their positions were quietly undermined; their reputations were called into question, their failures were promoted while their successes were quietly ignored and – if they failed to get the hint – they were often reassigned to somewhere nicely isolated.

The careers of Admiral Stockholm and Admiral Valentine serve, alas, as examples of the vicious jealousy shown by the Grand Senate towards anyone who dared to win unsanctioned admiration. Admiral Stockholm, who saved an entire sector from an insurgency that threatened to drag it out of the Empire’s clutches, was punished for daring to succeed where others failed. Tame reporters were encouraged to ask questions about the disposition of the loot – with the obvious implication the Admiral had been looting himself – while his failure to achieve an impossible degree of perfection was held against him. By the time he resigned from the service, he was a broken man, worn down by fighting against a foe he could neither understand nor defeat.

Admiral Valentine, by contrast, knew very well which side his bread was buttered on. He served the Grand Senate loyally and, despite a lacklustre performance on Han, found himself assigned to Earth just prior to the Empire’s collapse. Valentine was no hero; he may have been promoted as a military genius, but he commanded no loyalty from anyone outside his own family. He posed no threat to the Grand Senate, while Admiral Stockholm, given the right opportunity, could easily have become a rogue warlord, followed by his loyal officers.

Heroes, the Empire claimed, simply did not exist. The stars of stage and screen were not heroes; they were either promoted as figureheads for their staffs or portrayed as fools, cowards or criminals. Heroes from the past were deconstructed until their warts came to overshadow their successes. Captain Ian Macpherson, a noted naval hero during the Unification Wars, fought in seventy-one battles and won sixty-nine of them, a record unmatched before or since. However, most portrayals of Macpherson in the Empire focus on his relationship with his wife, including a strong allegation that he cheated on her. The simple fact that theirs was an arranged marriage, that they both had extra-marital partners, that they knew and understood what they were doing is simply ignored. Macpherson, dead and gone, is branded a villain in the eyes of the Empire’s public.

It is easy, of course, to see why the Grand Senate was so distrusting of heroes. The Grand Senators lacked charisma, let alone the common touch that would allow them to win the love and admiration of the people they ruled. They were so detached from their subjects that they might as well have lived in another universe. A hero, on the other hand, who commanded respect and loyalty from his followers, was a deadly threat. Might Admiral Stockholm have taken his fleet to Earth and overthrown the Grand Senate? The Grand Senate did not command the loyalty it needed to secure its position – how could it? All it could do was systematically undermine anyone who might have posed a threat.

Like so much else, it was a policy that proved disastrous. As the Empire neared the point of final collapse, military officers in high places were paralysed by the fear of showing any independent volition of their own, or so resentful of the lack of appreciation that they were scheming to take advantage of the fall to establish their own empires. The emotional ties between the Empire and its military officers were broken, allowing room for strong-minded officers to forge ties of their own. In many ways, the post-Empire universe was a return to the age of heroes – and villains. A strong man in the right place, at the right time, could make the difference between the survival of civilisation or a collapse into barbarism.

Colonel Edward Stalker is one such hero.

I first met the Colonel when I was exiled from Earth, bare months before the Fall. He was and remains an impressive man, a Captain of Marines exiled himself (along with his marines) for daring to tell the Grand Senate the truth. In short order, Captain Stalker not only reasserted control over Avalon, but forged a lasting peace that laid the groundwork for the Commonwealth. Avalon may have been abandoned by the Empire – the message warning us that we were being left to our own devices arrived long after Earth itself had fallen – but Captain (now Colonel) Stalker never gave up. He led the growing power of Avalon against interstellar pirates, the military dictatorship of Admiral Singh and the threatening empire of Wolfbane. His life was not free of warts – no one is free of warts – but they never overshadow his success.

It took me years to convince Colonel Stalker to write his autobiography. He was not enthusiastic about the project, if only because he didn’t see himself as a hero or anything other than a marine trying to do his duty. I pushed as hard as I dared, reminding him that his story was an inspiration to the children of Avalon, to the men and women who lived in safety because of him and his marines. Even so, it was not until recently that I was able to convince him to put hand to keyboard and start outlining his early life and career.

I have changed none of the essence of this document, beyond inserting a handful of quotes and notes about the final days of the Empire. There are aspects, for various reasons, he chose to gloss over. As many of these aspects are covered in other works, I have not pressed the issue.

This, then, is the story of the forging of a Terran Marine – and a hero, even if he doesn’t want the title. And it is that, I think, that makes him a true hero.

– Professor Leo Caesius, Avalon University, 46PE.

Chapter One

Marines are not born, I was told, but made. They were put through hell in Boot Camp, then a different kind of hell at the Slaughterhouse. Many fall by the wayside, but those who survive become part of a truly unique brotherhood.

-Professor Leo Caesius

When we rolled into the unnamed town – which we rapidly started calling Shithole, because no two factions could agree on a name – we were greeted in the manner we had come to expect. The women and children were hurried off the streets, while the young men glared at us, some of them waving weapons openly, daring us to emulate our predecessors in Shithole and try to confiscate them. Some of them spat, others made rude signs and a couple picked up rocks, as if they intended to hurl them at the AFVs. The machine gun whirred as it turned to point at the men, who stood their ground. I fingered my rifle and watched, feeling sweat running down my spine. It wasn’t my first deployment, but it promised to be the most challenging.

“As you were,” Sergeant Harris ordered. “They’re not a threat.”

I had my doubts. The waves of hatred and rage emitting from the men were practically a tangible force. They didn’t want us anywhere near them, let alone trying to stop them from exterminating their rivals. Shithole had ten separate factions vying for control over the city and all of them, given half a chance, would happily rape, pillage and burn their way through the others. As far as I could tell, none of them were remotely decent people … but then, war does tend to erode human decency. There’s no point in telling people they should behave when war teaches us that nice guys finish last.

Five years of increasingly brutal civil war hadn’t done anything for Shithole, which might have been a decent city once upon a time. The streets were cracked and broken, lined with piles of garbage that no one had bothered to clear up. I could have sworn I saw a handful of dead bodies lying amidst the pile, the remnants of a family that had been unlucky enough to live in a war zone. There was no way to know, now, whose side they’d been on, if they’d had a side in the first place. They might have been innocent victims or they might have been killed in revenge for an atrocity they’d committed. It didn’t matter now, I thought, as I saw rats running away from the pile. Now, they were nothing more than dead bodies.

The buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, their doors and windows heavily barricaded to provide a limited amount of protection for their inhabitants. A number of houses had clearly been knocked down, either deliberately to provide building material or blown up by their enemies. The taller buildings, skyscrapers that would have been impressive if I hadn’t been born in the CityBlocks of Earth, looked deserted. One of them looked as though it had copped an HVM and, by some miracle, stayed upright. I wouldn’t have cared to live there, if I’d had a choice. It looked as though a strong wind would send it crashing into a pile of rubble.

And we might knock it down ourselves, I thought, as the small convoy turned towards the Forward Operating Base. A tall building could hide enemy snipers.

I gritted my teeth as a dull explosion rolled over the city, followed by several gunshots. The Imperial Army detachment charged with securing the city hadn’t done a very good job, according to the briefings; they’d rapidly managed to alienate all of the factions, even the ones that might have been happy to work with an outside force. I blamed it on the Rules of Engagement myself, rules written by people countless light years from Shithole. The soldiers had been ordered to show nothing, but strict neutrality … and to disarm the factions, as if removing weapons would somehow weaken the hatred pulsing through the city. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the soldiers, that no one dared risk being disarmed. The soldiers had promptly made themselves the enemies of everyone.

The Forward Operating Base looked utterly unwelcoming, even though it was – reasonably – safe. It was nothing more than a school that had been taken over by the soldiers, then turned into an armed camp. Strong prefabricated walls, topped with jagged glass and studded with murder holes, surrounded a large building, while a number of soldiers, radars and point-defence weapons were mounted on the roof. If the briefing hadn’t already told me that the enemy had mortars and were willing to use them, I would have guessed from the presence of the point defence. But the soldiers had only made matters worse, thanks to the ROE, by not shooting back at the mortar teams. The planners who’d drawn up the ROE had worried that innocent civilians might be hurt.

I snorted, then disembarked with the rest of the platoon as soon as the convoy rolled through the gate. The soldiers looked tired and thoroughly demoralised, which really shouldn’t have been a surprise. They knew they were being targeted, they knew they were vulnerable … and they knew that doing something to tighten up the defences would only get them in trouble with their superiors. Holding a city is hard enough at the best of times, but deliberately not taking basic precautions for political weapons only makes it impossible. The soldiers controlled only the territory under their guns and, sometimes, not even that. I was surprised the FOB had lasted as long as it had without someone smuggling a vehicle-borne IED through the gates and blowing it to hell.

“Get some rest,” the Sergeant ordered, pointing towards one of the former classrooms. It looked better than the classrooms I’d seen on Earth, even though the tables and chairs were gone and the floor was covered with sleeping mats. “We’re going out on patrol tomorrow.”

The enemy, it seemed, recovered very quickly from the shock of our arrival and started to organise a proper welcome. I snapped awake hours later to the sound of mortar shells screaming towards the FOB, only to be picked off in mid-flight by the point defence. It might have seemed a pointless exercise, but the enemy knew that it wasn’t impossible to overload the tracking radars and land a shell in the middle of the compound. The building itself had been strengthened, yet a lucky shot might kill a couple of us and convince our superiors to leave the factions to their mutual slaughter. And besides, it kept us awake. I might have grown used to only a few hours of sleep in Boot Camp, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed. Tired marines made mistakes.

“Fuck it,” Joker muttered. “This isn’t funny, you know.”

I shrugged. We’d trained for war endlessly, practicing in simulators and training grounds, but this was different. This time, real people could get hurt.

“Wake up, ladies,” Sergeant Harris bellowed, crashing through the door. The rest of the platoon either sat up or jerked awake, depending on how well they’d managed to sleep through the welcoming barrage. “Stuff some crap down your throat, then grab your kit.”

I nodded – salutes were forbidden in combat zones, with harsh punishment for anyone who dared – and reached for the MREs in my pack. The rations tasted better than anything I’d eaten in the Undercity, but I’d been told that complaining about them was an old marine tradition. I honestly hadn’t understood why until I’d gone on leave for the first time. Joker crouched next to me and offered to swap one of his ration bars for one of mine. We made the trade, chewed rapidly, answered the call of nature and finally lined up in front of the sergeant, who eyed us all disapprovingly.

“1st Platoon is on QRF,” he said, crossly. “2nd Platoon will take the first patrol, accompanying the old timers.”

I felt a chill run down my spine. I was in 2nd Platoon.

The old hands met us as we assembled near the gates. There were four of them; Young, Benedict, Hobbes and Green. They looked less spruce than us, unsurprisingly; they’d been assigned to work with the army deployment here, instead of remaining with their regular companies. They had been intended to train the local soldiers, but apparently all attempts to set up a local militia to support the outsiders had floundered on political correctness and local realities, leaving them with little to do.

“Expect the wankers to test your determination as soon as you can,” Young said. Wankers was an old term for enemy combatants, particularly those who didn’t play by the rules. (As if there was any other kind, these days.) “Remember your training, watch your backs and don’t let any of them come close to you. If you have to take prisoners, force them to strip. Better to walk someone through the streets naked than let them bring a bomb to you.”

“Shit,” Joker said.

The sickening feeling in my chest only got worse as we checked our weapons and body armour one final time, then advanced through the gates and out into bandit country. My hands felt sweaty as we slipped down the street, careful to give any piles of rubbish a wide berth. The enemy knew they couldn’t face us – or even the soldiers – in open combat, so they resorted to all sorts of tricks to even the odds. Hiding an IED under a pile of debris and then detonating it when we passed was an old trick. I saw a couple of faces peeping at us from behind a curtain – were they reporting our progress to their superiors? – which vanished the moment I glanced at them. They had looked like kids, but that meant nothing. A kid could easily serve as a spy, his handlers banking on the fact we would be reluctant to shoot at them.

And if we did shoot a kid, I thought grimly, we would only create a new rallying cry for the enemy.

We turned the corner and strode towards a marketplace. I would have preferred to be somewhere – anywhere – else, but doctrine said it was important to convince the locals that we could go anywhere, at will, and there was nothing they could do to stop us. The locals scattered in front of us, the women hurrying out of sight while the menfolk looked ready to fight, if necessary. I didn’t really blame them. They’d endured the attentions of a regiment more known for abusing the locals than fighting the enemy in the past, according to the briefing, and it would be a long time before any of them really trusted us. Stallkeepers eyed us warily as we passed, clearly expecting us to take what we wanted, but we had been warned not to take anything. If we wanted something, we’d been told, we had to pay for it.

The marketplace was a testament to human determination to survive, somehow. Everything was on sale, from meat (probably rat, but there was no way to know) to weapons and supplies smuggled in from outside the city. In a way, it was the only truly neutral ground in the city; I was mildly surprised the soldiers hadn’t set up their base just inside the market. But then, there were weapons on display. We made a show of ignoring them as we reached the end of the market and headed down the next street. It looked cleaner than the others, which surprised me. In hindsight, it should also have worried me.

One of the wankers panicked and opened fire, a second before we walked right into the ambush. We snapped up our rifles and returned fire, putting several rounds through the windows to keep the snipers from continuing their attack, then ducked for cover and advanced, in fire teams, towards the house. It wasn’t a big building, I noted absently as Joker prepared a charge to break down the door, but that wasn’t reassuring. Our advantages were most pronounced in open battle, not close-quarter knife-fights. The enemy had worked hard to create a situation that maximised their advantages and minimised ours. Joker snapped the charge against the door, shouted a warning, then detonated the device. The doorway exploded inwards; I unhooked a grenade from my belt and threw it inside in one smooth motion, then followed up as soon as it detonated. Several wankers who had been lying in wait had been caught in the blast; I glanced at their bodies, then led the way through the house. Four other wankers made the mistake of running downstairs and straight into our waiting guns. We shot them down and advanced upstairs, checking the upper rooms one by one. The sniper who’d started the ambush was dead. There was no way to tell which of us had shot him.

The brief encounter expanded as the QRF arrived, then started setting up barricades to trap the insurgents. Determined to show that we would not be pushed around, we searched through a dozen houses, killing nine insurgents and capturing three more. I knew they’d go into our detention camps, rather than those run by the army or the local government, such as it was. Hopefully, we’d actually get some valuable intelligence out of them. Oddly, I no longer felt nervous. I was doing the job I’d trained to do.

It was nearly an hour before we heard the whimper.

The area was firmly under control, or so we believed. The prisoners had been dumped into an armoured van, the locals were being kept out and we were merely making a final sweep for anything we might have missed. We didn’t – quite – relax, but we weren’t expecting further trouble. The wankers hadn’t expected such a vigorous response and, I thought, they were reconsidering their tactics. We were walking past an alleyway when I heard someone moaning in pain. It could have been a trap, but I couldn’t simply leave it; I called it in, informing the sergeant of what we’d heard, then led the way down the alleyway. Joker followed, watching my back.

I stopped and stared in horror as the alleyway opened into a backyard. A young girl was bent over a dustbin, her long dress raised, while Young stood behind her, unbuttoning his fly and clearly preparing to have some fun. Hobbes held her arms firmly in place, his face consumed with an unholy lust. For seconds – it felt like hours – I just stared. We’d been taught, time and time again, that molesting the locals was not only stupid, but wrong. Marines were held to a higher code of conduct and anything that smacked of mistreating anyone would draw harsh punishment. And yet Young was preparing to commit rape …

“Get away from her,” I snapped, levelling my rifle and aiming at his head. “Now!”

Young turned to look at me, then gave a sickly smile. “No one will miss the bitch,” he said, as the girl’s dress fell back to cover her legs. “You can have a go too, then we can dump her body and no one will ever know.”

Horror and disbelief were rapidly replaced by anger. I knew, all too well, just how my sister had died.

“Keep your fucking hands where I can fucking see them,” I ordered, snapping the laser rangefinder to visual. No one uses them in combat because the beam of light is visible in anything less than bright sunlight, revealing your position to the enemy, but they’re useful for making an unmistakable threat. Beside me, Joker covered Hobbes. “You’re a fucking …”

I got control of my anger, then muttered a command into the intercom. People passing the buck up the chain of command was one of the reasons the Imperial Army was so screwed up, but there were some matters that could only be handled by a superior officer. Captain Bilbo and Sergeant Harris arrived within moments, escorted by an entire fire team. Young and Hobbes were cuffed, stuffed into the van and driven back to the FOB. The girl was taken with them. We were told to join the rest of the QRF for the day, then report to Captain Bilbo when we returned to the FOB. I wasn’t looking forward to the discussion I knew we were going to have, but there was no choice.

“I understand you caught them in the middle of a rape,” the Captain said. I honestly hadn’t had much time to forge an impression of him, save for dedication and determination. “Do you believe we should press charges.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I fought down the bitter wave of emotion that, somehow, I had never managed to suppress. My sister’s death had left scars I had never managed to lose. But that wasn’t something I could say to him. “We have to show the locals that we’re not above the law.”

“Indeed,” the Captain said. He keyed his intercom. “Come in!”

I turned … and blinked in surprise as Young, Hobbes and the girl stepped into the room. The two men were wearing their uniforms … and so was the girl. Hers marked her out as a Field Intelligence Officer.

Joker grabbed for the pistol at his belt. “Sir?”

I understood, suddenly. “It was a test, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Captain Bilbo said. “A test. And you passed with flying colours.”

“Oh,” I said.

I knew what he meant. We weren’t training to become soldiers, any more than we were civil guardsmen or militiamen. We were training to become marines, members of the deadliest brotherhood in history. We had to live up to our own standards … and police those amongst our ranks who failed to keep faith with those who had died, serving as marines. And if that meant enduring a test so realistic that we forgot it was a test, it had to be done. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it.

It would have been easy to fail. We could have told ourselves that keeping faith with our comrades was more important than an innocent girl’s life and covered for them. But that wouldn’t have kept faith with the corps. We’d have been binned – kicked out of training – and we would have deserved it.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Go back to your barracks,” the Captain ordered. “You’re on QRF tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” we said.

3 Responses to “Snippet: First To Fight (The Empire’s Corps XI)”

  1. Charles Thurman June 3, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    A great start. I really miss Stalker. I feel like an addict that just got a “fix”. I hope he move back to the forefront of TEC novels.

  2. Richard Parks June 3, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Fantastic, I think this will be a great addition to the storyline. I look forward to the whole book.

  3. John W (TSgt, USAF Ret.) June 6, 2015 at 3:46 am #

    Sir, I’ve enjoyed all your stories and can’t wait for this one (First to Fight) to come out. So, Sir, I was wondering when I can pre-order it.

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