Excerpt: Chapter 23
It's a military truism that no intelligence system, no matter how good or how thorough, ever provides enough information to the people who need it the most--the fighting men. Marine, navy, and Confederation intelligence on Elneal failed to provide a couple of vital bits of information to Ensign Baccacio. Of course, if the intelligence establishment had had those two bits of information, all of the Marines on Elneal would have been operating in a different manner to begin with.
One missing bit of intelligence was Shebeli's Raptors. They were a well-kept secret, though many people had been involved in that deal and there had been plenty of time to ferret out the information. But no one ever considered that such weapon systems might have been imported for the use of people as primitive as the Siad. The other thing the Marines didn't know was that Shebeli had adopted the method of movement developed by the thirteenth century Mongol horsemen.
The way Ensign Baccacio saw it, Captain Conorado was "micromanaging" when he'd ordered him to put out security during the daily all-hands. Today, with the company commander off "micromanaging" one of the other platoons that didn't need his meddling, and with Staff Sergeant Bass, who Baccacio was convinced was incompetent, away on his totally unnecessary field test of the UPUD, Baccacio found himself free to run his platoon in what he thought was the right way, without interference. Third platoon adhered to the routine that he knew could only build the morale and self-confidence of the people of Tulak Yar and the surrounding area. At sixteen hours, the few security watches on the village's perimeter were called in for the daily all-hands meeting. Even if the Siad had any hostile action in mind, Baccacio knew that as of yesterday they were two days' ride away. Even if the Siad came, the goatherds and crow-chasers would be able to give more than adequate warning.
That's what Ensign Baccacio believed to the core of his being.
Six-year-old Mhumar was one of the crow-chasers in the fields below Tulak Yar. He knew that he had the extra duty of watching for Siad raiders and giving warning to the Marines if any appeared. He was very proud of that responsibility. The Marines who came to save his village were the greatest and bestest men he'd ever seen. Life had changed quickly for young Mhumar and his friends since then. Now he couldn't wait for each morning, to get out and watch the Marines at their routines. Life in Tulak Yar was a lot of fun again for a six-year-old crow-chaser.
And they were nice to him, not like the Siad, who hit him when he came too close or when he tried to admire one of their horses or look at their sharp knives.
Mhumar would do anything he could to help his friend "Maknee Al" and the other Marines. When he grew up, he wanted to be just like them. Maybe, if he did a really good job of warning them if the Siad came, when he grew up they would let him be one of them. After all, old Mas Fardeed had gone off when young and fought bravely in many battles, and the Marines all respected him, so why not him?
The thought of becoming a Marine swelled Mhumar's tiny chest with pride, and he promised himself he would be good enough that they would let him join them. He remembered something that Maknee Al had told him. "A Marine is always ready for anything," Maknee Al had said. "Everytime he goes someplace, he is always looking around to see where the enemy might be, where they might come from, where he can find cover, how he can fight to win. A Marine always plans for whatever might happen."
It was a difficult thing to understand. There was very much that a Marine had to do all the time and everyplace. It was harder to understand because Maknee Al spoke a language that even now, a whole week after the Marines came to Tulak Yar, Mhumar hardly understood at all. What Maknee Al told him was translated for him into Afghan by old Mas Fardeed. Mas Fardeed nodded his head sagely and added in Afghan that the dark-skinned Marine was a man of surpassing military wisdom. Someday soon, Mhumar would have to make the old man tell him what "surpassing" meant.
But one thing Mhumar did understand very well: "A Marine always plans for whatever might happen." So Mhumar had made his plans for what he would do if the Siad came.
When the Siad came to Tulak Yar, mostly they came from the mountains to the northwest. But sometimes they came through the fields here where he was chasing crows from the crops. Once in a while they even came from the other side of the Bekhar River, but only when the water level was very low, but it wasn't low now. When they came from the west, they rode tall and proud on their horses and trampled their way through the crops. If they came that way, he would be able to see them a long way off.
Mhumar looked a long way off to the west. He didn't see any Siad riding their horses through the crops. Then he looked to the east, where the road ran up to the top of the bluff. He was a lot closer to the road up the bluffs than he was to a long way to the west. Yes, he would have time to run to the road and run up it if he saw the Siad a long way to the west. Before he reached the top of the road, he would start yelling for the Marines, to tell them the Siad were coming. But what if he was chasing a crow and the Siad were not all of that long way off before he saw them? He looked at the bluff, and behind the row of trees that shaded its base he saw the crease in its face that he and the other children used to climb to the bluff's top when the adults couldn't see them. None of the mothers in the village wanted the children to use that crease in the bluff. They said it was dangerous. But Mhumar and the other children could climb the bluff faster on that crease than they could running up the road. Besides, climbing up the crease was more fun than using the road.
Satisfied that he had planned for everything, and that he would be able to give warning if the Siad came this way, Mhumar looked around to see if any crows were sneaking in while he was making his plans to help the Marines. There was one! He ran at it, waving his arms and yelling. The crow twisted its head around on its scaly neck to glare at him, then ran and flapped its wings until it got off the ground. As it flew away, Mhumar looked around for more. He didn't see any others in the crops, though he did see many flying in the sky. He watched them for a few minutes, wondering why so many crows were flying and so few of them were landing in the crops to eat the food that the people of Tulak Yar were growing for themselves. Then he decided that the ways of crows were mysterious and he shouldn't question them. If he did, the crows, might all decide to eat the crops at the same time and he would have to run around a lot to chase them off and he would get very tired. He decided to go over to the bluff, where he had left his water bag in the deep shade of the trees to keep cool. Halfway there he froze. He thought he saw something in the shadows behind the trees. Something that shouldn't be there. His heart started fluttering in his chest and his entire body began to tremble. What he thought he saw wasn't possible.
Unwilling to approach, but needing to know, he resumed moving toward the bluffs, but angled toward the road to the top. Then what he thought he saw moved and he knew.
A mounted Siad warrior eased his horse into a walk from between the trees and the base of the bluffs, on a course to intercept Mhumar. All the strength suddenly went out of Mhumar's legs and a frigid wave of nausea swept over him. Involuntarily, the boy's bowels emptied. Now the boy could see a column of Siad advancing behind the lead warrior, all nearly hidden in the deep shadow behind the row of shade trees. Far in the back of his mind, where he was barely aware of it, Mhumar realized that there was more to understand about the things a Marine did than he knew. It had never occurred to him that the Siad might come in a way other than the ways they always had.
The lead warrior didn't seem to be looking at him. Mhumar had only one chance, run as fast as he could and hope he got far enough before he was spotted. And so he ran, faster than he had ever run before.
But the Siad warrior did see him. His sun-darkened face split into a grin, revealing a mouth full of broken teeth. Casually, effortlessly, as a man born to ride, he heeled his steed into a trot and then a gallop. As fast as Mhumar ran, the horse was far faster. Its hooves kicked up clods of rich dirt and thundered over the ground, echoing eerily behind the trees. Mhumar's voice shrilled thinly as he tried to call out a warning, but he was too small, and his voice couldn't carry to the top of the bluffs. The Siad pulled his horse out from behind the line of trees and galloped through the crops, trampling them in his wake. The horse's nostrils flared wildly as his rider spurred him on. Standing in the stirrups, the warrior rose and leaned forward against his mount's neck, extending an arm. The bayonet on his rifle glinted harshly in the sunlight just before it slammed into Mhumar's back and drove on all the way through his chest in one swift motion.
The Siad reined his horse to a stop in a swirling cloud of mud and shredded crops. He stifled the war cry he wanted to shout out, and instead victoriously thrust his rifle arm skyward, Mhumar's still wriggling body impaled on its bayonet. He looked back toward the trees, where the line of warriors followed, and grinned. The boy's warm blood gushed wetly down the warrior's arm and dripped onto his saddle. Not much of a prize, the man thought, but first blood was first blood. Then he thrust his arm forward and down, flinging the tiny corpse onto the ground. Raising the back of his hand to his mouth, he tasted the blood there in the age-old Siad ritual of the kill.
The Siad were not detected again until, screaming war cries, they swarmed over the lip of the road where it leveled out at the top of the bluffs. But that wasn't until after Shebeli's Raptors struck.
Ensign Baccacio looked at his platoon and smiled to himself. It didn't matter that this was a rump unit, with only twenty-two of his twenty-nine enlisted men. With Bass out of the way and Captain Conorado gone, for the first time he had the opportunity to show these men how the Marine Corps really functioned, how real Marines operated on a humanitarian mission. A daily commander's briefing to the men was important for morale and unit cohesiveness.
"If there are any of you who don't remember what Captain Conorado reported yesterday," he began, "I'll recap it. The Sons of Freedom have retired to their strongholds and don't pose a threat to anyone. The Gaels have simply retired, they evidently understand that they're totally outclassed and have decided to stop their depredations on the people of Elneal. The Siad, who are the ones we'd have to concern ourselves with if they were going to cause any trouble, have gone into the steppes where they can play Mongol horde without being a threat to anyone. Simply by landing an operational FIST on Elneal, the Confederation has stabilized the entire world."
Hyakowa nudged Eagle's Cry and whispered, "Is that the way you remember what the Skipper said?" Eagle's Cry shook his head. "I think our boy is reading the wrong things into what could be a tactical withdrawal to regroup."
"Me too." Hyakowa noticed Baccacio looking in his direction and nudged Eagle's Cry again. Both sergeants stood erect and looked at their platoon commander as though they were gratefully absorbing his words of wisdom. Mentally, Baccacio tallied a point for himself. It looked like those two were beginning to stop conspiring against him. As soon as they did, he was certain, the rest of the platoon would follow right along. He didn't miss a beat in his presentation about food and medical aid being distributed unhindered all around the plant as he glared at another minor disturbance to the side. It was McNeal, one of the troublemakers, and Goudanis looking at the sky over their shoulders. Baccacio was gratified when Corporal Leach directed their attention back to him without his having to say anything. During his presentation about the importance of the UPUD Mark II and what it was going to mean to future Marine operations, more of his men began nudging each other, mumbling among themselves, and looking to the northwest. He was losing them, and that couldn't continue. "Platoon!" Atten-SHUN!" he shouted. A few of the men glanced at him, but none of them snapped to attention. Baccacio saw red. Someone was going to suffer for this breach of discipline.
Just then Hyakowa turned and asked, "Mr. Baccacio, are we expecting any fast fliers?"
The question was so unexpected that Baccacio didn't say what he'd been about to. Instead he looked into the sky in the same direction as his men. He quickly picked up two objects moving in their direction. Now that he saw the aircraft, he heard the dim roar of approaching engines. They grew rapidly as he watched, and resolved into a flight of Raptors heading straight toward them at low altitude.
If he played this right, he wouldn't look like a fool to his men. "As you were, people," Baccacio said. "FIST HQ has decided to make a demonstration overflight, to show the good people of Tulak Yar how powerful we are." Miffed at the unexpected interruption, he promised himself to say something to somebody, raise some hell, really, about the need for higher headquarters to let local commanders know ahead of time when something like this was planned.
"I don't think they're ours, sir," Hyakowa said. "They don't have Marine markings on them."
The two Raptors flashed low overhead, the sonic shock of their engines at such close range shaking buildings in the village and sending dirt devils spinning. The Marines all ducked to cover their faces.
Eagle's Cry shouted, "They don't have navy marking either."
"Now this is absurd," Baccacio called out. "If they aren't Marines and they aren't navy, they don't exist. So they have to be ours. Everybody, eyes front."
Hyakowa was one of the few who faced him. "Sir, they exist and they aren't ours. What are we going to do?" To the southeast the Raptors were beginning a turn that would bring them all the way back around to the northwest for another overflight.
Hyakowa counted to two. When the young officer didn't give any orders he did. "Everybody, to your positions." The Marines sprinted to their fighting positions outside Tulak Yar as though their lives depended on it. In seconds Baccacio stood with jaw gaping, alone in front of the Dragon--its crew had already mounted and was starting it up for action.
The two Raptors completed their turn and came in again from the northwest. This time four lines of plasma burned through the village. Baccacio had seen fire power demonstrations before, but nothing like this, not this close up, and certainly never as a target. He felt the intensity of the heat on his face as structures burst into flame, and smelled the sharp, tangy odor of mortar and rock liquefying under the plasma bolts.
For an instant the villagers were stunned, frozen in place, the attack was so sudden and overpowering. One old man stood gaping at a plasma bolt as it sizzled along the street and vaporized him in a bright flash. The horrified ensign thought he heard a loud poof! as the man disappeared. Then everything dissolved into chaos. Men cried out in terror, grabbed their women and children and ran for whatever protection they could find. Other men ran about, searching for wives and children who weren't near them. Women screamed, for their children, their husbands, their lives. Children screamed and cried for their mothers, for the protection of their fathers. Many of them flashed into ash as the spitting streams of Raptor fire lanced through them. Houses exploded in the line of the Raptors, those made of wattle and reeds erupting into flames so hot they were vaporized. A conflagration sprang up in the path of the Raptors, and more people were caught in the flames and incinerated. The Raptors passed the village and turned again, more tightly than before. This time they swooped over the village from due north. The sonic boom of their passage knocked over structures weakened in the first pass and by the strafing. The air displaced by their passage sent burning debris flying about, spreading the fire already consuming a swath through Tulak Yar.
But the Raptors didn't fire this time; their gun batteries only held enough power for one strafing run. Shebeli had thought that would be enough to terrorize the people and panic the Marines, to pave the way for his horsemen. The Raptors made another, tighter turn and ripped over the village again from the southeast, the turbulence of their passage spreading the fire even farther.
Then four hundred horsemen came screaming over the top of the bluff.
Excerpted from Starfist: First to Fight by David Sherman; Dan Cragg. . Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.