It was an easy assignment on a peaceful alien world—until the natives attacked!
The Sandcastle, on a water world on the fringe of Earth's expanding empire, houses the Fifth Foreign Legion—troops sent there to protect the interests of Seafarms Interstellar, a powerful Terran corporation.
At first, Captain Fraser thought his biggest problem would be keeping the Legionnaires from getting too bored. But that was before the Free Swimmers—the nomadic ocean clans—attacked and nearly overran the Sandcastle.
Suddenly, the Fifth Foreign Legion is facing a seemingly unstoppable alien army equipped not only with their native crossbows, but also high-tech offworld weapons that just might spell the end for the Fifth as well as the Seafarms civilians they have sworn to protect.
"Series is captivating &a compelling it is fast paced with lots of action, the series has a multitude of characters that will have you rooting for their survival. One of the most enjoyable reads I have done. A must buy for futuristic military sci-fi fans."– Amazon Review
Is it how a soldier lives that matters? Isn't it how he dies?
—Colonel Joseph Conrad, French Foreign Legion, 1835
Legionnaire Second-Class Alois Trousseau shielded his eyes against the dazzling light of the setting sun. Twilight on Polypheme was the stuff of romantic poetry, long, lingering, with brilliant hues of red and orange illuminating the low-lying cloud banks and reflecting off the vast empty stretches of the Sea of Scylla. The light caught the crescent shape of Nonhomme, Polypheme's satellite, as it loomed overhead looking close enough to reach out and touch, and reflections from the water rippled and danced everywhere.
But Trousseau paid little attention to the beauty that was Polypheme as he crossed the docking platform and knelt near the water's edge.
Displacing just under a hundred thousand metric tons, Seafarms Cyclops was a huge vessel. There were four of these docks spaced around her wide hull, but this was the best one for Trousseau's purposes. Designed to accommodate smaller ships with stores and equipment destined for the engineering spaces, this platform was rarely used or even visited.
And the setting sun would help hide Trousseau as he left the vessel in the raft he held bundled under one arm. By the time anyone noticed he was missing, he would be far from the confines of the huge harvester ship.
He'd planned his desertion carefully. Even the time was perfect. Not only would the sun help obscure his movements, but it was close to 0400 by standard ship-time. Polypheme's 47-hour rotation didn't mesh well with the cycles of bodies evolved for Terrestrial conditions. Most of the ship's personnel were asleep, and those on watch were likely to be slow responding.
In another few hours they would be leaving the Cape of Storms behind, and with it their last contact with solid land for a month or more. He had to act tonight if he was to escape.
Trousseau pulled the ring and listened to the hiss of the raft's inflation with a satisfied little smile. Once ashore it would be a long, hard march before he reached the native city of Ourgh. But it would be worth it to be quit of the Foreign Legion.
He knew some starport workers who would smuggle him aboard the next ship out for the hundred sols he's been hoarding for the last few weeks. Once they put in to the systerm on the outermost planet of the system he'd be able to come out of hiding. Maybe a ship would need an electronics technician. He'd put in enough time as the platoon's C3 operator to get a job handling any commlink or computer a small ship could mount.
The raft slid slowly into the water. Trousseau lashed it to the cleat and ran through a last mental checklist.
Free! He was finally going to be free of the Legion, of the martinet NCOs, of the overbearing officers. Free of the boredom. He'd never imagined it could be so boring until he joined the garrison on Polypheme.
With a last glance around, Trousseau turned his back on the Seafarms Cyclops—on the Fifth Foreign Legion.
Something splashed at the forward end of the dock, and Trousseau's trained reflexes made him spin to face it before he was even consciously aware of the sound.
He found himself staring down at a bulky figure with smooth gray-green skin. It seemed to take forever for the legionnaire to register it as one of the Polypheme sophonts, a "polliwog" to use the slang of humans living on the planet. By the time he realized what it was it had already climbed free of the water to stand on the platform, its stalked eyes focused on Trousseau with an unfathomable alien expression.
It—no, he—was one of the planet's ocean-dwelling nomads, clad in nothing more than a loose harness that held an assortment of primitive weapons and implements. An intricate pattern of tattoos on his chest identified his tribe, but Trousseau had never taken adchip instruction on nomad symbols or tribal signs, so it was unintelligible.
The wog was large for his kind, nearly two meters long without the flat tail that balanced his slightly forward-leaning posture.
But Trousseau was only vaguely aware of the creature's size. His attention was focused, instead, on the small device clutched in one long-jointed, web-fingered hand. A slender tube mounted atop an alien pistol grip.…
The alien raised the tube to point at Trousseau's chest and squeezed the trigger.
The impact of the 5 mm rocket projectile made Trousseau stagger back. His duraweave coverall—and the short range, which kept the rocket from building up to full impact velocity—had saved his life, but the legionnaire was stunned. He struggled to keep his balance, but couldn't.
Suddenly his feet weren't on the solid deck anymore. Salt stung his eyes and made him gag as he fell into the dark water. Trousseau came to the surface spluttering, gasping for air. Long fingers closed around his throat, pulling him down again.
Trousseau knew he would die.
He let himself go limp, then kicked away again as the grip relaxed. Wincing at the pain, he took another breath and let himself sink, his fingers operating the keys on his wristpiece computer. He couldn't outfight the nomads in their own element, but at least he could warn the others they were here before it was too late.
An artificial voice whispered in his ear. "Please give the password for computer access."
Damn! What was the password? Trousseau twisted away from another wog and broke the surface again. "Nightwing!" he spluttered, gasping for air. "Nightwing!"
"Access accepted. Please—"
"Security code India!" Trousseau shouted. A knife blade slashed through his coverall, and pain lanced through his back. "India! Intruders on Deck One, En—"
The knife struck again, and again.
And Legionnaire Alois Trousseau bobbed to the surface, staining the water with his blood.
O O O
Subaltern Toru Watanabe rolled out of his bunk as the ululating alarm shrieked through the bowels of the Seafarms Cyclops. The metal was cold under his bare feet, but the shiver that ran up his spine had nothing to do with the temperature.
Watanabe had hoped for a cruise as boring as garrison life back at the Legion's base, in the installation the humans on Polypheme called "Sandcastle." But the security alarm meant there was trouble aboard the harvester ship—serious trouble.
Still groggy, Watanabe crossed the cabin and slapped the call button on the intercom mounted above the desk. Like all the human equipment aboard Seafarms Cyclops the intercom had an improvised, unfinished look that stood out in contrast to the flowing lines and exotic patterns of the original vessel. The contrast reminded him vaguely of the blend of high-tech and traditional styles of art and architecture his Japanese ancestors had brought with them from Terra to his native world of Pacifica.
He forced himself to concentrate on the problem at hand as the heavy features of Sergeant Yussufu Muwanga filled the viewscreen. "Operations," the sergeant said gruffly.
"What have you got, Sergeant?"
"Computer just sounded the alarm, sir," Muwanga replied. "We're trying to find the source now. It wasn't any of our lookouts."
"A false alarm?" he asked hopefully.
Muwanga frowned. Watanabe rubbed his forehead absently. He knew the answer the man would give. Why had he let himself show his uncertainty so plainly?
"Someone put through an India code, sir," the sergeant said slowly. "The computer can't just come up with one on its own."
"Then get Trousseau down there and ask him," Watanabe snapped. "Meanwhile, order Sergeant Gessler to assemble the men in Hold Two. I'm on my way down."
"Yessir," the sergeant replied. The screen went dead.
Watanabe slumped into the chair behind the desk, feeling drained. Why can't I keep a lid on my temper? he asked himself bitterly. A year ago he'd never have lost control like that. Toru Watanabe had the reputation for being quiet, soft-spoken, calm in any crisis—a competent platoon commander.
Since then, though, Toru Watanabe had changed.
He dressed quickly in duraweave fatigues, boots, and a beret, his mind on the past year. First, the excitement of getting his assignment. It was rare for a top Academy student to request the Fifth Foreign Legion, but Watanabe had gone after the posting with a single-minded determination to follow in his father's footsteps and be a part of the Legion tradition. He'd made it, too, earning a platoon command.
But then came the fighting on Hanuman, the long overland retreat through hostile territory after a coup d'état had cut his company off from outside aid. And at the climax of the campaign the legionnaires had been forced to make a desperate stand against overwhelming odds, and Toru Watanabe had watched as his precious platoon was all but destroyed. Somehow he'd come through the fighting alive, but he knew he'd never be the same again.
War wasn't like the stories you saw on the holovid shows, or the textbook accounts of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers. It took courage to command men in battle; not just personal bravery, but the kind of resolve that would let an officer order his men to their deaths. Toru Watanabe wasn't sure he had that kind of courage anymore.
But if the alarm was genuine, he might soon have to find that kind of courage again.
His mind was still grappling with doubts as Watanabe left his quarters and sought out the Operations Center, a windowless cabin two decks below his quarters near the heart of Legion country commonly known as "C-cubed." Seafarms Cyclops was a huge ship, originally designed to carry a crew of several hundred gregarious Toeljuks on an extended cruise. Since her refit for human personnel she needed less than fifty men for a crew, and there was more than enough space for a thirty-four-man Legion platoon to have private quarters, rec facilities, drill spaces, a secure armory, and everything else they could possibly want to make a three-month tour at sea bearable.
Sergeant Muwanga looked up from a control console as Watanabe entered. "Sir, Trousseau won't answer. And he didn't assemble with the others."
Watanabe crossed the cramped room and bent over a computer terminal beside the sergeant. "Did you check his quarters?"
"Empty, sir," Muwanga said with a gesture at a viewscreen. It showed a small, spartan cubicle. There was no one visible, and the bunk was neatly made up. A locker stood open nearby, obviously empty as well.
"Goddamn …" Watanabe said softly. He punched up a code that would allow the computer to trace the legionnaire's helmet communications gear.
"No response from beacon," the computer voice said. "Helmet has been damaged or disconnected."
Muwanga and Watanabe exchanged looks. "Desertion," the black man said. "Has to be."
Watanabe sank into a chair. "Damn stupid place to desert," he said.
The sergeant shrugged expressively. "Cafarde," he replied.
Watanabe nodded. Le cafarde—the expression meant cockroach—was a disorder that had been a part of Foreign Legion lore from the very beginning. A compound of boredom, instability, and confusion, it caused men to react in bizarre ways. Some committed suicide, some deserted, some picked fights, a few just went mad—all from cafarde. Some superstitious legionnaires talked of it as if it really was an insect, a bug that crawled into their ears and whispered to them in the night.
Cafarde was becoming a problem on Polypheme, as boring a duty station as any legionnaire was likely to see. But Trousseau had never seemed like the sort to crack under that particular pressure.
Muwanga turned away to operate another console. He held a headpiece speaker to one ear. "Sergeant Gessler says the men are ready, sir," he said. "What are your orders?"
Watanabe stared down at the monitor, eyes locked on the empty cabin. Trousseau had been with him on Hanuman, one of the handful who survived. He'd picked the legionnaire to be his new C3 technician personally. It was like a betrayal.…
"Sir?" Muwanga insisted.
He looked up at the sergeant. "Didn't Trousseau like to go out on one of the docking platforms to get away from everyone?" he asked quietly.
Muwanga hesitated. "Yeah … Yes, sir. I'm not sure which one."
"Check the monitor cameras on all four of them, Sergeant." Excitement was putting a sharp edge in his voice. If he was right.…
Muwanga's fingers skimmed over a keypad. "Nothing … nothing … Hell! Portside aft platform doesn't have a camera feed. Must be out."
Watanabe leaned past him to stab at the intercom button. "Sergeant Gessler! Take the platoon to the docking platform, portside, aft. I'll meet you there!"
Sergeant Muwanga stared at him. "Not much to go on, sir.…"
"Someone set off that alarm, Sergeant, and Trousseau's the only one not accounted for. And if he really was making a break for it, he would have knocked out the camera so you wouldn't see him." Watanabe ran from C-cubed, hoping inwardly that his guess was right.
O O O
Corporal Dmitri Rostov dropped to one knee and peered cautiously around the corner. The broad corridor leading to the docking platform was empty, and the door beyond was sealed tight. He hoped they weren't chasing shadows. That warning siren was sweet music, promising action, and action was just what he needed right now.
He glanced over his shoulder at his lancemates. "Vrurrth … Slick … Corridor's clear. Move up and flank the door."
Legionnaire John Grant—"Slick" to the rest of the lance—nodded and slid past Rostov noiselessly. Vrurrth, the hulking legionnaire from Gwyr, followed more slowly. Rostov had a grin at the contrast between the slender teenager and the big alien. The three of them had been on Hanuman together and made a tight-knit team.
The other two members of Rostov's recon lance moved closer. They were new to the unit. Legionnaire First-Class Judy Martin was a veteran who handled her laser sniper's rifle like she'd been born with it, but he still didn't know much about how she was likely to react. As for Legionnaire Jaime Auriega, he was a nube, a newcomer fresh out of training at the Legion's depot on Devereaux. As such, Rostov thought with another suppressed smile, he was the lowest form of life. He'd remain so until he proved he could cut it with the Legion.
"Cover 'em, Martin," he said. "Nube, when I move, you move. Got it?"
Auriega nodded dully. He wasn't bright, but he was willing, and that often counted for more in the Legion.
Rostov leaned around the corner again and gave Vrurrth a curt hand signal. The Gwyrran gave a ponderous nod and undogged the hatch. Like most of the fittings on the harvester ship it was of original Toeljuk design, manually operated and made to accommodate their squat bodies. Vrurrth pushed it open with a grunt, and Slick, his FEK gauss rifle held at the ready, rolled through the hatch with a smooth motion that looked like a move in an intricate ballet.
Slick came up on one knee, spraying autofire at unseen targets.
"Recon!" Rostov shouted, springing to his feet and pounding down the corridor to support the young legionnaire. Auriega's heavy footfalls echoed just behind him.
Slapping the helmet control that operated his radio, Rostov cut in the channel to Platoon Sergeant Gessler. "We got bad guys, Sarge! Better send some help!"
O O O
Watanabe heard the call from the recon lance over the commlink in the helmet he had donned in place of his uniform beret. He speeded up, ducking his head to avoid the low overhang of a Toeljuk hatch. Without a helmet he could walk through shipboard doorways without any trouble, but the extra communications and computer gear in a command helmet made it bulge up in back an extra three centimeters, just enough to be a problem.
Platoon Sergeant Karl Gessler turned to meet him. "You heard, Sub?" he asked.
Frowning, Watanabe nodded. "You could've sent more than one lance to check it out, Gessler," he said sharply.
The sergeant shook his head. "Rostov's boys were the first ones to draw their weapons. I sent them on ahead—per your orders, sir." His tone was cold. Gessler obeyed his platoon leader, but Watanabe knew there was no respect there. The sergeant had seen Watanabe struggling with minor decisions too often lately.
"Let's get some more men up there now, dammit!"
"The rest of Light Section's already on the way," Gessler said. "And I was about to get the rest moving.…"
"Then do it!" Watanabe turned away from the sergeant, cutting the conversation off.
"All right, you sandrats! By lances! Let's mag it!" Gessler's voice sounded even colder and harsher than usual.
Watanabe followed the legionnaires, trying hard to ignore the growing conviction that he deserved every bit of the sergeant's contempt.
O O O
Rostov ducked through the outer hatch, swinging his FEK to the ready. The wind was starting to rise on the exposed platform, probably a sign of one of Polypheme's fierce storms moving into the area. He ignored the weather as he sized up the situation with experienced eyes.
Slick and Vrurrth were crouched side-by-side a meter from the hatch, spraying FEK fire across the platform into a small group of natives clustered at the forward end of the dock. Several locals already lay sprawled on the deck, their bodies shredded by the tiny gauss-propelled slivers that were the primary ammo of the Legion assault rifles.
He heard a sound behind and above him and whirled.
A large-eyed alien face leered down at him from the smooth sides of the superstructure. The polliwogs were equipped with sucker-like appendages on their arms and legs, which helped them cling to boulders and cliffs in the tidal flats that were their primary ecological niche.
This native clutched a knife in the feeding tendrils curled below its mouth. It seemed to move in slow motion, freeing one arm, taking the knife in a flat, long-digited hand, raising its arm to strike.…
Rostov's finger tightened on the trigger of the FEK and the face disappeared in a mass of blood and torn flesh. The knife clattered to the deck beside his boot.
"Look out, Corporal!"
Rostov barely had time to register Auriega's voice before the big legionnaire slammed into him, shoving him to the deck. There was a bright flash and a hiss of burning propellant.
Then Auriega sagged to the deck, his own face ruined. Beyond the dead legionnaire Rostov saw another wog clinging to the superstructure. It clutched an unfamiliar-looking pistol in one hand. He fired before the alien could shift aim and shoot again.
More men burst through the door from inside the vessel, led by a pair of figures clad in armor from head to foot and carrying onager plasma rifles in their bulky ConRig harnesses. The unbearably bright flash of a plasma bolt was like an extra sun shining on the deck. A nomad gaped down at the leg the shot had severed before falling over backward into the sea.
A native surfaced nearby, opening its mouth to give an eerie, deep-throated cry that Rostov couldn't translate. Suddenly the rest of the natives were diving into the water of their own free will, escaping.
Rostov stood slowly, checking his magazine and surveying the cramped battlefield. Much as he craved action, he wasn't about to follow those things into their own element.
O O O
Watanabe followed Gessler through the hatch and onto the dock. A pair of legionnaires were busy pushing native bodies over the side, but the splatters of blood were still plain testimony to the savage little fight.
Corporal Rostov met them and gave a sketchy salute. "One man dead, Sub," he said, pointing to a still form under an improvised shroud on the deck nearby. "Auriega. The new man."
Watanabe noted that Rostov avoided using the legionnaire's scornful "nube." The man had proved himself, and paid the highest price for doing so. "What about Legionnaire Trousseau?" he asked quietly.
"We found some of his gear on that raft, Sub," Rostov replied. "No sign of him, though."
"Then it's almost certainly two dead, corporal," Watanabe said wearily. They couldn't have helped Trousseau, but if Gessler hadn't sent the recon lance in ahead of everyone else Auriega might not have been killed.
But Gessler wasn't to blame. Watanabe was the platoon leader, and responsible for every death.
"Found something else I thought you'd want to see, Sub," Rostov went on. He held out a pistol of some kind. "Some of the lokes were carrying these."
Watanabe examined the weapon. It was small, looking more like a child's toy than a real pistol, and made almost entirely of some lightweight plastic with a peculiar rubbery finish. But it was clearly an autoloading rocket pistol, more primitive than the FE-PLF he carried on his hip, but using the same principles.
Principles none of the natives of Polypheme were supposed to have mastered, not even the most civilized of the shore-dwelling cultures. Crossbows and blowguns were the limit of native technology.
Until now, it seemed.
He handed the pistol to Gessler. "Have this thing scanned and analyzed. I want to know what the owner of this thing had for breakfast!"
"Corporal, did you see anything else that looked out of place, unusual?"
Rostov shook his head slowly. Another legionnaire, the kid they called Slick, looked around. "Uh … Sub? I saw something that struck me kind of funny."
"Well … uh, our briefings said the natives were highly aggressive when they got into a fight, and swarmed on an enemy until one side or the other was dead. But these wogs broke off the attack when things started to go sour. Looked like an officer down in the water was giving them orders, sir."
Rostov nodded. "He's right, Sub," the corporal agreed. "I didn't really think about it, but Slick—er, Grant—put his finger on it. Those bastards were fighting like they knew what they were doing."
Watanabe looked away, staring at the choppy sea.
High-tech weapons and a new style of fighting. The nomads of Polypheme's open oceans were definitely becoming more of a threat than anyone had imagined was possible.
Captain Fraser would have to know about this.