March_or_die_cover_final

J. Andrew Keith and William H. Keith, Jr., are prolific game designers and authors of adventure science fiction novels. The two brothers worked together for FASA on the Traveller game and then expanded to other gaming universes. As novelists, they wrote for Wing Commander, BattleTech, as well as the Fifth Foreign Legion series. Andrew Keith passed away in 1999.

William H. Keith, Jr. produced an enormous number of novels under his own name and various pseudonyms, working with collaborators Stephen Coonts, and Peter Jurasik and Bruce Boxleitner (both from the TV show Babylon 5). Three of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers and his gaming work has won several prominent industry awards.

March or Die by Andrew Keith and William H. Keith, Jr.

Stranded in a Galactic Rebellion.

As the Terran Commonwealth expanded the borders of the interstellar territories it controlled, a waning alien race was forced to yield much of their once glorious star empire. But they had never been fully conquered, and they would never cease trying to undermine the Commonwealth's power.

When Commonwealth diplomats and the command officers of the Terran Fifth Foreign Legion gathered in the alien capital city to meet with a local ruler, no one suspected the trap they were walking into. As assassins attacked the diplomatic party, native forces struck the fortress of the Fifth Foreign Legion, which was still under construction and not yet secure.

The ranking surviving officer from the fort has to lead his troops on an impossible march through the heart of enemy territory, fighting every step of the way in a last-ditch effort to reach the main base … or die in the attempt.

CURATOR'S NOTE

I had the unexpected opportunity to republish popular military SF series The Fifth Foreign Legion written by Andrew Keith and William H. Keith, Jr. WordFire reissued the three books in the series and they have done really well. Andrew died a few years ago, but Bill is an enthusiastic supporter of the series. – Kevin J. Anderson

 

REVIEWS

  • "Interesting setting with reliably solid story. Well led troops vs. poorly led troops which obviated their numerical strength. Well laid out story with a solid teaser for next volume in the series." – Amazon Review
  • "Good story, lots of action, good characters. Surprised story started as it did. Enjoyed book, buying number two and starting to read it." – Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

We shall all know how to perish,
Following tradition.

—from "Le Boudin" Marching Song 
of the French Foreign Legion

"I can't really explain it." Captain Armand LaSalle made a gesture to encompass the banquet hall. "I just don't think we should trust these monkeys."

Howard Rayburn shrugged. "One hannie's pretty much like another," he said. His languid tone seemed out of character for a captain of the Fifth Foreign Legion. It reminded LaSalle of the pampered young officers of the regular Terran Army. "Why should this bunch be any different?"

LaSalle frowned. "That's just it. This bunch is different. When the Semti pulled out a hundred years ago, these little bastards were still primitives. Up to now we've been dealing with civilized hannies, but we can't just assume the same rules apply here."

"Iy-jai wei sykai?" A hannie—one of the short, olive-skinned humanoid sophonts native to Hanuman—held a tray before the two Legion officers. "What will you drink, masters?"

"Jyuniy." LaSalle crossed his arms in the local gesture of negation to emphasize the refusal.

"Damn monkey gibberish," Rayburn said irritably. Touching a stud on his wristpiece computer, he said "Gimme wine, junior." The computer echoed his words in the kyendyp tongue of the locals. "I iyyi diiegyi kytuj-jai."

The ruff of quills around the hannie's neck stiffened. LaSalle wasn't sure if they were expressing fear or anger. Adchip orientation had left him with a good working knowledge of the languages and customs of the human-contacted regions of Hanuman, but translating the subtle nuances of a local's ruff movements was something few humans ever mastered. The alien might have been in awe of the human-sounding voice speaking from Rayburn's 'piece, or angry at the man's arrogance and disdain. Terran officers who let their computers translate for them instead of taking the trouble to learn local dialects or mores were all too common in the Commonwealth, though.

As Rayburn accepted a slender glass filled with the vile yellowish liquid that passed for wine on Hanuman and sipped it gingerly, LaSalle made a face, looking away. Diiegyi contained enough alcohol to satisfy any hard-drinking legionnaire, but its sour flavor was a taste LaSalle didn't like to think about.

The banquet hall was the largest reception room in the sprawling palace the locals called the Fortress of Heaven, the ceremonial capital of the realm of Dryienjaiyeel and the seat of power of the hereditary monarch, the yzyeel Jiraiy XII. Most of the throng of guests were members of the nobility of Dryienjaiyeel, the court, military leadership, and clergy of the realm. A few lighter-skinned natives moved among them with an air of confident superiority, merchants and diplomats visiting Dryienjaiyeel from Vyujiid, its more civilized neighbor to the north. The handful of humans from the Commonwealth mission to Dryienjaiyeel stood out from the crowd like trees towering over the barren steppes of LaSalle's homeworld, Saint Pierre.

Hairless, with dry, wrinkled, leathery skin, the natives didn't look that much like Terran monkeys, but there were just enough similarities to make the epithet appropriate. The hannies were short and dark, with long arms and barrel chests, wearing colorful but scanty garb. It was hard to think of them as an industrialized civilization here in the barbaric splendor of their ancient royal city. Men like Rayburn came by their bigotry naturally. We conquered the Semti; we made the Ubrenfars back down. The Terran Commonwealth stands head and shoulders over the rest.…

That kind of arrogance had killed a lot of good soldiers.

"Captain Rayburn?" The voice came from behind, speaking Terranglic with a soft, lilting accent. "Captain LaSalle?"

LaSalle turned to meet the new arrival, a lieutenant dressed like the other officers in the formal full-dress uniform of the Fifth Foreign Legion. The khaki jacket and trousers, blue cummerbund, archaic red and green epaulets, and black kepi were part of a tradition that stretched back over the centuries. Since the days before Mankind had left Mother Terra, legionnaires in similar garb had kept the peace in far-flung colonies. Five different legions serving different masters, different ends … but always the same tradition of service, honor, and glory.

"What is it, Chiang?" Rayburn was asking.

"Sir, Mr. Leighton wanted me to remind you that it is almost time for the reception ceremony." Chiang blinked owlishly behind thick glasses. Rayburn's Executive Officer didn't look much like a soldier. He was typical of the officers Rayburn preferred for his company: Terran-born, gentlemanly, well-educated. For the officers, at least, Charlie Company was like a miniature Regular Army unit, a far cry from the typical mixed bag of the Legion. Whatever Rayburn, Chiang, and their platoon leaders might have done to warrant assignment to the frontiers, they seemed determined to maintain their own standards regardless of their surroundings.

LaSalle smiled faintly. He wondered if Charlie Company's fastidious officers liked outpost duty here in Dryienjaiyeel, in Hanuman's mid-latitude jungles where temperatures rarely dropped below 30°C and humidity, rain, and mud were worse enemies than any native.

"I guess we'd better go line up so the head monkey can play king," Rayburn said. He set his glass carelessly on a passing waiter's platter and straightened his tie. "Then maybe we can get out of this goddamned hothouse and back into cli-control. Coming, LaSalle?" Though Rayburn was nominally the junior captain, he managed to sound like an aristocrat ordering a servant.

That was inevitable any time you mixed Terran-born officers with men like LaSalle, colonials whose fathers and grandfathers had won their Citizenship the hard way, earning it in service to the Commonwealth. Anyone born on Terra or one of the other Member-worlds was a Citizen automatically, part of a long line of Citizens, and was apt to regard himself as superior to any mere colonial. LaSalle had suffered under the system since the first day he'd entered the army.

The two officers pushed their way through the throng, past native courtiers in elaborate ceremonial headdresses, minor functionaries whose clipped neck ruffs were tokens of their complete identification with their yzyeel, and soldiers whose trappings were an odd cross between the traditional and the starkly functional. LaSalle's eyes narrowed as he studied one such, a senior NCO in the Dryien army according to the facial dye that marked unit and rank around the soldier's muzzle. The native's complex harness and ornate daggers were traditional enough, but the short assault rifle and the pistol holster both showed signs of long, hard service. That was unusual; Dryienjaiyeel court troops were hardly ever employed in the field.…

The NCO had the look of a trained soldier, too. LaSalle had seen enough nonhuman troops in his service with the Legion to recognize the universals that transcended species lines. Ky was a veteran, no mere ornamental court guard. Transferred for meritorious service in the yzyeel's ongoing war with the savages of the southern jungles? Maybe. But the sight brought back LaSalle's concern in full force.

"Ah, LaSalle, Rayburn. 'Bout time." Geoffrey T. Leighton, Commonwealth Envoy to the yzyeel of Dryienjaiyeel, was a big man with a booming, jovial voice. "It wouldn't do for the senior garrison officers to be out of place when The Excellent makes kys appearance, y'know."

"Yes, sir," LaSalle responded, but Leighton didn't seem to notice the answer. The diplomat's eyes had taken on a glassy, far-away look.

Listening to his implant, LaSalle thought with a twinge of jealousy. Back on Terra, tiny computer implants were all the rage among aristocrats and government functionaries. They filled the same role as LaSalle's wristpiece, but they were lodged directly in the user's brain. Implants gave their owners what amounted to instant access to any computer records or programs, total recall, automatic translation, near-telepathic communication with others wearing implant chips—a full range of functions without the bother of operating a primitive wristpiece.

"Ah, very good. Very good indeed." Leighton smiled as his eyes focused again on the two officers. "We've just received word from the harbor, gentlemen. Transport just set down in the bay with StelPhar's first consignment of equipment and technicians aboard. They'll hold meetings here before going out to the Enclave."

StelPhar Industries, Terra's largest importer of exotic pharmaceuticals, was the main reason for the Colonial Administration's interest in Dryienjaiyeel. For over thirty years the Commonwealth base at Fwynzei had been sufficient as Hanuman's main port and administrative center, handling a steady traffic in the planet's one valuable export commodity, the zyglyn vine. Processed zyglyn was a useful base for StelPhar's line of full-spectrum antiviral agents and commanded a high price Earthside. But zyglyn grew only in the hot, inhospitable mid-latitude jungles of Hanuman, and for just under a century StelPhar had been forced to depend on native traders to bring the vines from Dryienjaiyeel to Fwynzei.

Now, though, Leighton's patient months of negotiation with the yzyeel had yielded a new off-world enclave on Hanuman where Terran colonists would soon be settling to establish direct Commonwealth control over the harvest and shipment of zyglyn vines in much larger quantities than the native traders could hope to supply.

"So soon, sir?" LaSalle asked. "I thought we'd have at least another month before civilians settled in Monkeyville."

Leighton pursed his lips in disapproval. "The Enclave, Captain LaSalle, or Outpost D-2," he said irritably. "How many times do I have to tell you not to use that pejorative name in dealing with the kyen?"

"Sorry, sir," LaSalle answered. Everyone in the two companies of legionnaires employed in constructing and garrisoning the new Terran enclave referred to the complex as "Monkeyville," and to the Legion fort protecting it as "Fort Monkey." The diplomats, of course, were never happy at any hint of bigotry toward the natives and tended to become disdainful at the use of epithets like "hannie" or "monkey," or even the generic "loke" or "ale" in referring to the nonhuman inhabitants of Hanuman.

"As far as the schedule goes," Leighton continued as if LaSalle hadn't spoken, "I believe you reported last week that the Enclave is ready, didn't you?"

"The fort, the landing field, and the settlement buildings are, yes, sir," LaSalle replied. "But we've got more work to do on the inland roads, and I'm still not happy with the outer defenses."

"That work can continue after the StelPhar people settle in," Leighton told him. "After all, your legionnaires will need to find things to keep them employed while they maintain the garrison." Like most of his ilk, Leighton managed to convey massive disapproval in that simple word "legionnaires." The Colonial Administration needed the Legion to do the dirty jobs no one else would do, but that didn't mean they accepted the unit of misfits.…

LaSalle pulled his chin thoughtfully. "Mr. Leighton, I don't think it's a good idea to bring in civilians this early," he said at last. All his misgivings seemed to surface at once. "We've had reports of Dryien troop movements into the area around Mon … the Enclave for over a week now. Not to mention the reports we've been getting of military maneuvers on the northern frontier. And our native contacts have been hinting at some kind of trouble with the government. Not the yzyeel, but lower levels. Bureaucrats and military officials, those sorts."

"Unsubstantiated rumors," Leighton huffed.

"Maybe so, sir. But if they're not …" LaSalle paused. "A lot of the locals out in the jungles are afraid of us. They think Terrans are some kind of demon come to rape the planet after casting out the Gods. I've even picked up stuff like that from the civilized ones here on the coast. Two companies aren't enough to garrison the Enclave against a heavy attack. More than a quarter of my men are brand-new recruits, and my Exec's just out of a Regular Army intel unit, with no combat experience." He glanced at Rayburn. "I'm sure Charlie Company's got the same sort of problems. If there's trouble, my men might not be able to protect civilians."

Leighton turned to Rayburn. "Do you agree with Captain LaSalle on this?"

The other captain grinned. "Hell, no, sir. Ain't no loke—er, native, sir—able to beat the Legion."

LaSalle interrupted. "All I'm asking for is more time, Mr. Leighton. Time to get the recruits shaped up and my Exec broke in … time to firm up the outer perimeter of the Enclave. And time to find out if there's anything behind those rumors."

The envoy shook his head. "Nonsense. Captain. I can assure you that the yzyeel's government is entirely behind us. I'm certainly not going to put off StelPhar just because your legionnaires aren't spit-and-polish soldiers. If I waited for that, the Enclave would never be ready, y'know." He smiled, but there was steel in his eye.

Maybe the yzyeel is behind us, LaSalle thought. Ky's happy as long as the offworlders keep sending pretty new toys to play with. But what about the plantation owners and merchants StelPhar's putting out of business? And what about the bureaucrats who won't be getting the tax revenues from the zyglyn trade any more?

"If you're concerned about getting the construction work for your perimeter finished, I suggest you see Lieutenant Winters when you get back," Leighton went on. "Schedule your work through her office. Otherwise, I expect you to deal with your problems yourself, Captain." The diplomat turned away, cutting off further discussion.

LaSalle seethed inwardly. As usual, it looked like the Legion was getting the short end of the stick. That's the way it always is, he thought bitterly.

Around the banquet hall Terrans and hannies were jostling for position for the entrance of the yzyeel. LaSalle watched the courtiers as they argued over precedence. The Terran diplomats remained aloof; they knew they were superior to the natives. They moved among the native servants and guards as if the locals didn't exist.

There were quite a few guards in the hall—more than there had been a few minutes ago. Or was it just his imagination finding danger where none existed?

Movement near The Excellent's dais caught LaSalle's eye. A hannie in a particularly ornate harness was just entering the room, not the yzyeel but a high-ranking officer. LaSalle recognized ky: Zyzytig, the Dryien general whose office roughly corresponded to chief of staff. The general was in deep conversation with a taller figure swathed in a dark cloak. That angular, gaunt shape filled LaSalle with an instinctive loathing. Semti! What's one of those ghouls doing here?

A hundred years ago, the Semti had owned this part of space, before their defeat at the hands of the fledgling Terran Commonwealth and the destruction of their capital. Now the Commonwealth was expanding into the old Semti Conclave while the surviving Semti, their central government gone, submitted meekly to the conquerors. They were superb governors and xenopyschologists, useful mandarins in the Terran administration of the newly acquired territories, apparently eager to continue their work under their new masters without a thought for the war.

But a lot of people found it hard to trust them, LaSalle included. Maybe it was their scavenger ancestry, the foul breath and the hairless vulture skulls. Or perhaps it was their ancient culture and unfathomable philosophy, which seemed to mock everything human under a mask of helpful service. Not all the Semti were friendly; stories of plots against the Commonwealth fomented by discontented Semti schemers surfaced time and again. They were too useful to dispense with, too dangerous to trust.…

And one of them was here, in the court of The Excellent. When the Semti ruled Hanuman, they had been worshipped as gods in Dryienjaiyeel, while the Terrans who replaced them were cast as devils who had overthrown the natural order. A Semti agent could do a lot of mischief playing on old superstitions.…

"Leighton," LaSalle began. "What's a—"

"Shh! The Excellent is coming." Leighton's voice was a reproving hiss.

Wide doors behind the dais swung slowly open to admit The Excellent, the yzyeel of Dryienjaiyeel, Brother of Heaven, Lord of the Eternal Mists, Champion of the Gods. Not quite a king, not quite a pope, the yzyeel's power was little short of absolute, but kys authority in the ordinary government was almost nonexistent.

Barely a meter tall, with a soft, innocent face, ky would not reach the age of maturity for another four standard years, but as yzyeel the young ruler commanded near-total obedience throughout Dryienjaiyeel. There had been other claimants, of course, when kys parent had died two years ago, and LaSalle had heard mutterings among the common hannies that the selection of Jiraiy XII had been a mistake, that the child-yzyeel was too enamored of the offworlders, too easily manipulated, tainted with the curse of the old gods.…

The yzyeel paused at the front of the dais and Leighton, flanked by LaSalle and Rayburn, stepped forward to honor the young ruler. Each bowed in turn, rendering the ceremonial greeting: fingers clasped, thumbs crossed, palms outward, touching forehead, mouth, and throat. It was all correct, proper, but LaSalle thought he heard a stir in the crowd. Perhaps they resented the fact that the Terran envoy and his military leaders now took precedence over their native counterparts. Or was it something else, some ceremony or gesture Terran chip-training had left out?

A whipcrack sound filled the hall, a thunder LaSalle recognized instantly. Gunshot! Dark blood bubbled from the yzyeel's throat, oozing through kys ruff. The ruler swayed, staggered, fell. Gunfire erupted throughout the room.

LaSalle threw himself sideways, seeking the cover of a pillar. Leighton and Rayburn went down together as one of the heavy native assault guns sprayed the foot of the dais with full-auto fire. Another Terran, an economic attaché on Leighton's staff, fell to a savage hannie bayonet thrust. Someone was screaming. He wasn't sure if it was a Terran voice, or a native.

Clawing at the holster of his 10mm rocket pistol, LaSalle peered around the pillar at the chaos of the hall. Two hannie guards burst through a door a few meters to his left and opened fire at a trio of native soldiers running toward them, only to fall as autofire hammered from across the room. Two more Terrans fell beyond them—Lieutenant Chiang and Rowlands—the mission's linguistics expert. Near the rear of the hall a man in a Terran Army lieutenant's uniform urged one of the diplomats toward another door. A hannie raised kys gun …

LaSalle squeezed off a round, aiming at the soldier. The tiny 10mm rocket projectile left the barrel with a soft swoosh that grew louder as it gathered speed. His target went down in a bloody heap, and the two Terrans dived for safety. The lieutenant fired twice with a laser pistol, the shots making a crackle in the air that left a tang of ozone, but no visible flash. Behind the officer, the diplomat crouched low, eyes darting wildly from side to side.

The captain tried to cover the two, but answering fire from a dozen native rifles pinged off the pillar and the wall behind LaSalle. If I had combat battledress I might have a chance, he thought grimly. His dress uniform wasn't intended to stop bullets, even the primitive rounds they used on Hanuman.

He snapped off four quick shots and rolled to his left. If he could just reach the other two survivors, they might make it out together.

A pile driver blow to his chest staggered him, spinning him around. He coughed and gasped, feeling pain lance through his body. Then a second bullet hit him, and a third. His hand went numb and he dropped the rocket pistol with a clatter. LaSalle felt himself spinning, falling, hitting the unyielding tile floor. He tried to rise, but another shot slammed into his back.

LaSalle raised his head from the ground, squinting through the red haze of pain. Across the room the Terran lieutenant fired again, then spun backwards as autofire slammed into his chest. Then the civilian was kneeling over the fallen officer, scooping up the laser pistol and firing wildly.

Struggling to rise again, LaSalle felt his strength ebbing fast. A shadow fell across him. He rolled onto his back and found himself looking up at the stooped, gaunt, black-robed form of the Semti. The alien raised one arm slowly, and the tiny weapon concealed in his hand flared.

Agony seared deep in LaSalle's chest. Blackness closed around him, and he felt his life slipping away.

His last thought was of his home … the Legion.