Chapter 1
A Social Call

24th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Berenice Airbase, Constans Province, Kingdom of Byrandia

Berenice was a place you went to forget, or to be forgotten. Not much would grow that far up north. Trapping stopped being profitable over a hundred years ago, and the mine was abandoned about forty years later. Still, it was one of the last stops before braving the frozen wastes of Neveland, so it maintained a small population, one that was supported more by the local airbase than anything else.
During the previous war, Berenice was bombed half to oblivion. Old Berenice was left in ruins, uninhabitable thanks to all the hellspawn that overran the town. A smaller village was built by the survivors on the other side of the airbase. In 18 years' time, it was almost civilized. Almost.
The airbase itself barely qualified as such. Three airstrips, a couple hangars, a few barracks and other buildings. Many posts had larger exercise fields. Paper units and detached companies comprised the bulk of Berenice Airbase's tiny garrison, just enough to hold the line so long as the current peace held.
On the north side of the base, near the perimeter fence, a lone soldier was lying prone atop a lichenous outcropping. He was clad in the common khaki field dress but did not bother to wear a jacket even though it was scarcely ten degrees out. His kepi was doffed contrary to regulations and lying next to him. With binoculars in hand, he was busy watching the ruins of Old Berenice.
Another person approached, staggering a little due to the uneven footing. It was a female officer of the Royal Air Force in her blue field dress, who clearly did not handle the cold as well as the soldier because she was wearing a field jacket, gloves and a woolen watch cap under her kepi. Combining the watch cap with the kepi is of course a uniform violation, but you could scarcely call yourself a member of the garrison without one or two violations at all times.
"You have a funny idea of what makes a good date, Root," the female officer said.
"Oh, come on, Trish," the male soldier replied. "This is good stuff. Have some binoculars."
'Root' was Lieutenant Rutger Maartens and 'Trish' was Sub-Lieutenant Patricia Lamonde, both staff officers in the base's headquarters. Because there were so few personnel at Berenice, the Army and the Air Force mixed quite freely and the chain of command past the company or squadron level was a great mess.
There was rarely much pressing business at Berenice, so staffers came and went pretty much as they pleased. So long as you did your job when you were told to do it, the Commandant did not care much and neither did most of the other officers. Every now and then a new arrival would think he could lay down the law, but no one had succeeded yet in the three years Root had been stationed there.
Root was not the sort to be cooped up in an office, so he often wandered about both on and off post. A bit of a jack-of-all trades, he could tinker around with the engine of a busted jeep, troubleshoot a glitchy computer, drop in on a ruck run with the infantrymen, improvise explosives with the sappers and so on and so forth. At the moment, though, he was nature watching, one of the few activities he could safely invite Trish to join in.
Lying prone beside him, Trish accepted the binoculars he offered her, took them out of the case and looked out into the ruins.
"Okay, what are we looking at?" she asked.
"Out thataway," Root said. "See that big black bugger?"
After the initial bombing of Berenice, a second wave airdropped all manner of creatures to finish off the survivors. Many of them were killed in the counteroffensive that retook Berenice, but some managed to escape into the hill country, where they proceeded to breed like rabbits. They started reoccupying the ruins of Old Berenice, so the soldiers on post would regularly go out to cull the packs lest they try to attack the base or Bernecita--the new village on the south side.
Root had to point out the creature he was talking about, a great monster that looked like an eyeless, earless bear at least three meters long with a good 800 kilos on him.
"Yeah, I see it," Trish replied.
"Pay attention," Root said. "Karnovsky's jeep section's on the hunt. They're gonna try out the new Twelve-Sevens we got last month."
Sure enough, a jeep came barreling over the hilltop and the gunner opened up with a punishing salvo that mercilessly tore into the black beast. Even its blood was black, splattering all over the ground and a nearby brick wall.
"Hoo!" Root beamed giddily. "Look at that!"
The jeep went around for another pass, just to be sure. It was important to stay moving while in the ruins. Staying put is a good way to get yourself killed by the smaller, faster creatures running around.
Trish lowered her binoculars and looked to Root.
"Root, do you miss the Legion?" she asked.
Before being stationed at Berenice, Root was a section leader in the Foreign Legion. If at all possible, the brass preferred to have native Byrandians serving as officers to keep the suspect foreign volunteers in line. Many a young man was drawn to the Legion's mystique and the promise of adventure abroad and Root was no different. Experience has a way of killing romance, however.
"Not really," Root said, still looking out at the ruins. "Running around in some hellhole fighting people who hate us to protect other people who hate us alongside even more people who hate us... No, I had my fill. Four years was enough to last me a lifetime."
Root didn't make a habit of talking about his time in the Legion, even with a friend like Trish. This was the first time she was hearing how he felt about it.
Part of the romantic image of the Legion is the idea that all manner of people from every corner of the globe come together to put their past aside and fight for the sake of Queen and Country. It played well with civilians and even many military folk had no idea what it was really like.
Like any nation that ever held power and influence, Byrandia had its share of enemies. The degree to which that resentment was justified is a question for another venue. Needless to say, for the common Byrandian, the idea was that the Legion was the one place all foreign prejudice against them is left behind. Trish was no exception to the great mass of people under this illusion.
"Even the Legionnaires hate us?" she asked.
"Not all of them, no," Root replied, "but they're not Byrandian and they don't forget it. They can't forget it because the colonels never let them forget it. For some people, getting to be called an honorary Byrandian after twenty years is enough to keep you going, but not everyone." Root shrugged and chuckled bitterly to himself. "At least I didn't go in for the Colonials. They really catch hell from the locals."
"I can't even imagine..."
"No, you can't," Root said gravely, "and be glad for it."
The crack of a high-caliber rifle immediately lightened his mood.
"Boom! Nailed it! Ha ha!"
Trish smiled and shook her head. She returned to her binoculars, but it seemed that the hunt was already winding down. Root was already following the jeeps back to the East Gate. Scanning a little farther ahead, he saw something.
"What's this? A car's coming."
"Who is it?" Trish asked.
Root had to adjust the lenses to make out the markings on the car. It wasn't military and it wasn't civilian. Realizing who it was, Root cursed under his breath.
"Blackamoors..." he growled. He got up off the ground, dusted himself off and donned his kepi. "I think I'm gonna be somewhere else."
"Don't leave me with them," Trish pleaded as she got up.
"You can be somewhere else too," Root said.
"They're going to go straight to the Commandant's office. You know what that means."
"Margie..."
Margie was the base's mascot. She was the illegitimate daughter of some nobleman. Most bastards get tossed to the wayside, but her father was a rare soft-hearted sort who still tried to provide for her. He couldn't grant her legitimacy, of course, so instead he pulled strings to get her into the Interarms Military School. The plan was for her to get a commission in the Reserves so she could have her portion and a little status with no real danger to her. A silly, flighty sort of girl, Margie washed out of officer training after a mere three weeks. Because officer candidates are paid at the same rate as subofficers, they simply granted her rank to match her rate and shipped her off to an obscure post where no one would notice with an indulgent commander who wouldn't complain.
Of all the mildly military personnel at Berenice, she was the worst. She wouldn't even be able to fake proper military discipline and bearing. Serving up coffee and tea for everyone in headquarters was about the extent of her ability. The Blackamoors would eat her alive. As much as Root dreaded the idea of crossing paths with the jack-booted thugs, he couldn't very well leave someone like Margie to face them alone, nor let Trish be the only one standing between them and her.
"Dammit," he grumbled. "Okay, let's go."
They made their way down the outcropping and headed to the headquarters building. The Blackamoors' cars were getting parked as Root and Trish got close. There would be no time to duck inside.
"They're here already," Root said. "Okay, quick, form up."
On the south side of the sidewalk leading up to the door, the two of them lined up. Trish was standing to his right. That wouldn't go unnoticed.
"Wait. Get on the other side of me. And stow that watch cap. Hurry."
Trish went around on the other side of Root, took off her watch cap and stuffed it in her jacket pocket. While she was smoothing back her hair to re-don her kepi, Root noticed Margie standing across from them on the other side of the sidewalk. No doubt the Commandant sent her to greet the new arrivals, but she was woefully unprepared for it.
"Margie, what are you doing?" Root demanded. "Where's your cover? Nevermind. There's no time to go and get it. Get over here."
Margie didn't move, idly twisting the ball of her foot on the ground. Root could hear the heavy clop-clop of the Blackamoors' boots on the pavement. It would be all the worse for everyone if they saw a lieutenant pleading with a sixteen-year-old enlisted girl to follow instructions.
Reverting to a voice he had hardly used in three years, Root barked, "Fall in, Margis!"
'Margis', which coincidentally sounds a lot like 'Margie', is the old short form for 'marshal of lodgings', which was Margie's rank. Actually, she held the rank of chief marshal of lodgings, though she could have been enlisted at birth and still not have the time in service to deserve it.
"But, Root," Margie whined, "we always form up over there."
She pointed to the patch of ground a little ways off where they would hold morning and evening formations, when they actually bothered to do so. Of course, her complaint gave her even less reason to be standing where she was.
"Margis, I said fall in!"
Root hoped the uncharacteristic harshness of his voice would impress on her the seriousness of the situation, but she continued to stand there like she had no idea what was going on, and indeed she probably didn't have any idea, the poor, stupid girl.
Root would have physically dragged her into position next to Trish, but it was too late. The Blackamoors were there.
Root and Trish stood at attention while Margie looked more like a lost child in the market. Disorganized though their little formation was, Root tried to play it off, smartly saluting the lead Blackamoor and saying, "Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Berenice Airbase."
The lead Blackamoor--what was two pairs of crossed golden arrows again?--gave the Blackamoors' stiff-armed salute but didn't tell them to carry on or stand at ease. Instead, he and the four men with him circled around Margie. Root glanced out of the corner of his eye to see Trish looking concerned, but he fervently hoped she stayed put.
"What have we here?" the lead Blackamoor asked to himself. "A cadet?" He looked closer at the epaulettes on her subofficer's cloak and replied, "No, a chief margis. Whose uniform have you stolen, girl?"
"It's my uniform!" Margie protested, ignoring all military courtesy.
"Not anymore it isn't," the lead Blackamoor said sharply. "Giving a child the rank of chief marshal of lodgings... Take a good look, men. This is the rot we have to cut out if Byrandia is to be strong again. Your name, Margis."
"Marg-- Chief Marshal of Lodgings Marguerite Anand, sir," Margie replied, remembering a little from her all too brief training.
Puffing up his chest and assuming an officious tone, the lead Blackamoor declared, "Chief Marshal of Lodgings Anand, by the power vested in me by His Excellency the Grand Dux, I hereby reduce you to the rank of private second class, effective immediately. Squad Chief."
The bigger and uglier of the four Blackamoor goons grinned.
"With pleasure, sir."
With a skill no doubt honed on helpless peasant daughters, the squad chief tore off Margie's subofficer's cloak and cast it aside. He took ahold of the epaulettes on her shirt and tore them off as well.
"No!" Margie cried.
Her legs gave out from under her and she broke down sobbing. This was not going to improve her situation any.
"Quit your blubberin'!" the squad chief growled. Taking hold of Margie's collar, he yanked her up, shouting, "On your feet, Private!"
"Leave her alone!"
Trish broke formation to go to Margie's aid.
Still standing fast at attention, Root whispered through clenched teeth, "Trish, don't."
She had already drawn attention to herself. The three goons besides the squad chief circled around her.
"Well, ain't you the kind one?" one of the goons sneered.
The lead Blackamoor turned to her and she at least had the sense to stand at attention for him.
Glancing at her rank, the lead Blackamoor said, "I don't recall saying 'Carry on,' Sub-lieutenant. By whose leave have you left formation?"
"The Grand Dux's authority doesn't give you the right to be bullies," she replied defiantly.
Actually, as far as the Blackamoors were concerned, the Grand Dux's authority did give them the right to be bullies and Root was rather certain that the Grand Dux felt the same way.
"Looks like this one needs straightening out, too, sir," another one of the goons said.
Whatever they were planning for Trish, Root was having none of it. He also didn't want Margie to get any worse than she had already gotten.
Still standing at attention, Root shouted, "Sir! As ranking officer present, any lapses in military discipline are my responsibility and mine alone."
Root knew he would be getting his turn eventually, but now he had jumped ahead in line. Being bullies, the Blackamoors loved to pick on the weak, but every now and then they would go for a challenge for the sake of macho posturing. Root was counting on the latter.
"Hmph," the lead Blackamoor grunted. "At least someone here vaguely resembles a soldier in the Royal Army. But I don't recall giving you permission to speak. So you want to take the punishment on yourself, do you, Lieutenant? How chivalrous. Squad Chief."
The squad chief let go of Margie, who promptly crumpled back on the ground, and stomped over to Root. He stood toe-to-toe with Root. He was trying to stare down Root, but he was a fair bit shorter than Root and Root refused to meet his eyes, instead looking straight on ahead, the way you have to do in training when the instructors are berating you.
Honestly, looking at that ridiculous greenish-black painted face might make him crack a grin and then things would really take a turn for the worst.
Failing to intimidate Root, the squad chief settled for punching him hard in the gut. The dumb ape of a man could hit like a sledgehammer and Root couldn't help dropping to a knee.
"Root!" Trish and Margie both cried out.
"Stand at attention!" Root warned, his voice strained by the pain.
Wincing, Root went back to the position of attention and allowed himself a grin.
"Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
The lead Blackamoor was unamused.
"Very well. You heard him, Squad Chief."
As the squad chief was drawing back for another punch, a woman's voice shouted, "Enough!"
The Commandant was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. Commandant in both rank and position, it was a bit of an irregularity to have someone so comparatively low-ranked command an entire base, but nothing much else about Berenice was regular, so it was not much of a surprise when you stopped to think about it.
The Commandant was an older woman nearing retirement. She had gone about as far as a commoner and a woman could expect, even in the more lenient Royal Air Force. She very well may have been the only female base commander in the entire kingdom, yet another sign of Berenice's irregularity.
Imperious and untouchable as the Blackamoors acted, they would at least pay some lip service to the military chain of command. The Commandant's timely intervention drew them off Root just as Root had drawn them off Trish and Margie.
"Ah, Commandant LaTriste," the lead Blackamoor said. "How good of you to grace us with your presence." He glanced back to Margie and Trish and then back to the Commandant and asked, "Are there no men around here?"
"We have few men, Centurion," the Commandant replied, "and not many more women. This is a small post and remote. It takes all the personnel here just to keep things running."
"You must be starved for men to have mere girl cavorting about in a chief margis' uniform."
The Commandant looked at the sniffling Margie and commented, "A uniform that appears to be in disarray. Your work, I take it?"
"That girl was a disgrace to the uniform," the lead Blackamoor--the Centurion--replied. "I have given her a more fitting rank. Who is your Personnel Officer?"
The Commandant nodded over to Trish.
"That would be Sub-Lieutenant Lamonde."
"Ah, the soft-hearted one," the Centurion said. He then told Trish, "You will receive the paperwork on Private Anand's personnel action within the hour. I expect it to be filed before the end of the day."
"I refuse," Trish replied bluntly.
The Centurion cocked his head.
"Refusal to obey orders, is it? Tell me, Commandant, what does your stockade look like here?"
"Sub-Lieutenant Lamonde, you will file the paperwork," the Commandant ordered.
Without flinching, Trish mechanically replied, "Yes, ma'am."
The Centurion walked over to Trish and leaned in close, just a little off-center to speak into her ear.
"You're going to have to learn to take orders from all superior officers," he said in a low voice, "not just ones who coddle you, Sub-Lieutenant."
Trish stood fast and didn't say anything. If Root knew anything about her, her skin had to be crawling, but she was doing a good job of not letting it show.
The Centurion turned his attention to Root and asked, "Commandant, who is the white knight here?"
"Lieutenant Maartens, my Operations Officer."
"He's no ordinary staff officer."
"I should say not," the Commandant replied. "He's a rather good one."
Root was grateful for the Commandant's choice of words. He would rather not have the Blackamoor know about his past. He might get it in his head that he needed to prove his manhood against a Legionnaire and that would be a no-win situation for Root.
The Centurion didn't settle for that answer though. He got up in Root's face much as he had done to Trish and as a theatrical touch, he drew a long, audible breath through his nose.
"The smell of the shit is on you, Lieutenant," he said. "What where you before you were sent here? Colonial?"
Lying to the Centurion would only come back to bite Root later, so he had no choice but to tell the truth.
"Foreign Legion, sir."
At very least, he could withhold his unit. Perhaps it would be enough.
"Ah, a Legionnaire. Interesting..."
Before the Centurion inquired any deeper into Root's past, the Commandant intervened.
"To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit, Centurion? Surely this is not a social call."
The Centurion sniffed derisively.
"Quite right. Though we Blackamoors should devote a little more time and attention to these little border posts because of the obviously slack discipline, I am here on other business. The light cruiser Junker Jorg will be docking here in the next 24 hours. I am here to levy local troops to assist in an expedition up north."
"I believe I already made clear that we are short-staffed here, Centurion," the Commandant said pointedly.
"So is the Junker Jorg," the Centurion replied. He pulled some papers out of his tunic and handed them to the Commandant, saying, "Here is the list of our requirements. You are authorized to contract civilians from the town, but at least one third of the levy must be military." He paused a moment before adding, "And they will be commanded by Lieutenant Maartens."
"You can't expect me to part with my Operations Officer."
"But you will," the Centurion countered. "And you will include Private Anand as well. It's about time she learned what it really means to be a soldier."
The Commandant frowned at all this, but the Centurion wasn't going to give her the chance to raise any objections.
"Don't forget, Commandant, that I carry the Grand Dux's authority," he said. "I would hate to see things go ill for you."
The threat was sufficient. Though still frowning, the Commandant replied, "Understood."
The Centurion allowed himself the sort of self-satisfied grin you might see on a snake who successfully sued to be granted visitation rights to a bird's nest.
"Good," he said. "Perhaps you would like to accompany me on my inspection of your post."
"I believe I would," the Commandant replied. "Lieutenant Maartens."
"Ma'am."
"Inform Captain Marche of the situation. Get a team together and go into town to recruit as many contractors as you can. Get a couple copies of this list transcribed before you go."
"Yes, ma'am."
The Commandant descended the stairs and walked heedlessly past the Blackamoors.
"Shall we be going, Centurion?"
"Indeed so, Commandant," the Centurion replied. To one of his men, he said, "Limpe, accompany Lieutenant Maartens on his trip to town."
The youngest of the four goons went to attention, clacking his heels and delivering the stiff-armed salute.
"Sir!"
As the Centurion left with the other three goons, he said, "Carry on."
Root would have liked to sigh in relief because it was over, but in truth it had only just begun.