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Chapter One

The command sergeant major, 502nd Brigade, 17th Division, Imperial Marine Corps, looked up at the crisp, traditional double-tap knock upon his office door.


"Enter!" he said, raising his voice slightly, and the door opened.


He watched critically as the tall, broad-shouldered young woman marched through the doorway, braced to attention, and saluted smartly. There was still just a bit too much of Camp Mackenzie in that salute, he reflected. Too much spit and polish and new, unworn edges. But that was only to be expected in such a recent graduate of the Corps' premier training camp on Old Earth herself.


"Private DeVries reports to the Sergeant Major!" she announced crisply.


He tipped his chair back slightly, examining her with the same, thoughtful expression which had greeted literally generations of new Marines. Her red-gold hair was short, almost plushy, just beginning to grow back out from the traditional close-shaved smoothness of boot camp. Despite the fairness of her natural coloring, she was tanned to a dark, even bronze, and he noted the sinewy strength of the forearms bared by her fatigues' precisely rolled up sleeves. Her boots were mirror bright, the creases in her fatigues sharp as an old-style razor, and a smile hovered invisibly behind his evaluating eyes as he reflected on how happy she must have been to be issued her smart-cloth uniforms. It had been quite a while since his own days at Camp Mackenzie, but he remembered perfectly how . . . irritated he'd been by the Corps' insistence that boots had to experience traditional old-style uniforms which actually had to be ironedand starched—to maintain precisely the correct appearance.


For all of her height, the young woman in front of his desk was younger than he usually saw. He doubted that she would ever be a full-breasted woman, but at this particular moment, she still had quite a bit of filling out to do. Despite her solid, hard-trained physique, she still had the "not-quite-finished" look of adolescence's last gasp in more than one way, yet despite that, the black, single chevron of a private first class rode her right sleeve, just below the crowned stinging-wasp shoulder flash of the Imperial Marine Corps.


He completed his leisurely examination while she held her salute. Then he returned it, with the less punctilious, well-oiled ease of long practice.


"Stand easy, Private," he said.


"Yes, Sergeant Major!"


She dropped not into the stand-easy posture he'd authorized, but into a precisely correct parade rest, and despite his many decades of service, his lips twitched, hovering on the brink of a smile, as she stared straight ahead, a perfect regulation ten centimeters over his head.


He let her stand that way for a couple of seconds, then climbed out of his chair and walked around his desk. He stood directly in front of her, half a head shorter than she, scrutinizing every detail of her appearance one more lingering time. It was, he was forced to concede, perfect. There wasn't one single thing about it he could have faulted, any more than he could have faulted the perfection of her non-expression as she stood statue-still under his microscopic examination.


"Well," he said finally, and opened his arms wide to envelop her in a crushing hug.


"Hello, Grandpa," the private said, her contralto voice huskier than usual, and wrapped her arms about him in return.


* * *


"I tried my damnedest to get home for your graduation formation, Alley," Sebastian O'Shaughnessy said a few minutes later, half-sitting, with his posterior perched comfortably on the corner of his desk and his arms crossed. "It just wasn't on."


"I knew when they assigned you out here that you wouldn't be able to be there, Grandpa," she told him, and smiled. "I'm just glad my own movement orders left me enough slack to stop in and visit you on my way through.


"I am, too," he said. "On the other hand, my spies kept me informed on your progress." He frowned portentously. "I understand you did fairly well."


"I tried, at any rate," she replied.


"I'm sure you did. And I guess I'll just have to be content with your graduating second in your training brigade. But by a full tenth of a percentage point?" He shook his head sadly. "I mean, I had had my heart set on your graduating first, but I suppose that was unrealistic of me."


His eyes flickered with laughter, and she shook her head.


"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Grandpa," she said politely, "but I was at a certain disadvantage, you know."


"But nineteenth in PT?" he said mournfully. "It's a good thing you maxed everything else, that's all I can say!"


"Only two of the boots who beat me out in PT were from Old Earth," she told him severely, "and both of them were male, and one of them was a reserve triathlete in the last Olympics. The others were all from off-world. >From heavy-grav planets, as a matter of fact. And only three of them were female."


"Excuses, excuses." He chuckled, shaking his head while he beamed proudly at her. "If it hadn't been for that small arms record you set, you'd have only graduated third, you know!"


"But I'd still have topped my regiment," she shot back.


"Well, I suppose that's true," he conceded with a chuckle. Then his expression sobered. "Seriously, Alley. I'm proud of you. Very proud. I expected you to do well, but you've managed to exceed my expectations. Again."


"Thank you, Grandpa," she said, her voice softer. "That means a lot to me."


Their eyes met again, and O'Shaughnessy smiled warmly. Then he straightened slightly, with the air of a man about to change the subject.


"Did you know that Cassius Hill and I have been friends for the last twenty or thirty years?" he asked.


"You and Sergeant Major Hill?" She blinked, then shook her own head. "No. I suppose I should have wondered—you seem to know just about everyone in the Corps. I guess one reason it never occurred to me was that he was such a . . . fearsome presence, let's say. It's sort of hard to picture him having friends, actually. I mean, I know he must, but it's just hard to imagine from the worm's eye view of him I had. In fact, there were times all of us boots were positive he had to be something they'd cooked up in an AI lab somewhere. We figured they were field testing autonomous combat remotes and using us for guinea pigs."


"Well, a boot isn't really supposed to like his DI, and that goes double—or triple—for his battalion sergeant major. But Cassius rather liked you. I had four letters from him while you were at Mackenzie. He said you'd managed to impress him."


"I did?" Alicia laughed. "I didn't know that. I knew he'd impressed me, though! Scared me to death, a time or two."


"He was supposed to. On the other hand," O'Shaughnessy looked at his granddaughter thoughtfully, "he told me that nothing ever seemed to faze you. I think he was almost a little worried. Thought he might be losing his touch, or something. In fact, he said he sometimes thought you were actually enjoying Mackenzie."


"I was," she said, her tone surprised.


"Enjoying Mackenzie?" O'Shaughnessy looked at her, and she shrugged, as if surprised by his attitude.


"Oh, parts of it weren't exactly among the most pleasant moments of my life," she admitted. "And I had more trouble with the augmentation surgery than I'd expected. But overall? I had a blast, Grandpa. It was fun."


O'Shaughnessy leaned back, eyebrows arched. The most astonishing thing about it was that she seemed perfectly serious.


Camp Mackenzie, on its island off the southeastern coast of Old Earth's United States Province, had been a training site for Marines for over a thousand years—since long before there'd been an Imperial Marine Corps, or even an Empire for it to serve. It still was (although there were some on New Dublin who felt that their home world would have been a better site), and he knew why that was. Old Earth remained the imperial capital, the heart of the Empire, after all. And no location on the mother world could have been better chosen to provide the maximum summer heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and sandfleas to test a new recruit's mettle . . . or to melt him down into the properly malleable alloy required for the Empire's steel.


Not that the Corps hadn't found ways to make it still better than nature alone had intended. O'Shaughnessy had always more than half believed the rumors about the Corps shipping in alligators to make sure the Mackenzie population was maintained at ample levels, for instance. But whether that was true or not, there was no question but that the merciless training regimen was deliberately designed to create a hell on Earth. Not out of the institutional sense of sadism some of the recruits—the "boots"—who experienced it were certain was to blame, but because the Corps had spent so long learning to take civilians apart and rebuild them as Marines. No one survived something as grueling as Camp Mackenzie without being brought face-to-face with what was really deep down inside him. It was supposed to be the hardest thing a boot had ever done. It was supposed to teach him what he was, what he could accomplish and endure, and the often grim, frequently harsh difference between any daydreams he might have cherished about the military and its truth. It taught him how to meet the challenges of the reality of what it meant to be one of "the Empire's Wasps," and above all, it gave him the discipline, devotion, and self-confidence which went with those lessons. And in the process of learning those things, those who survived the teaching were hammered into true Marines on the Corps' anvil.


But while Mackenzie was many things, including the avatar of the Corps' very heart and soul, one thing it most definitely wasn't supposed to be was "fun."


"You're an even more peculiar young woman than I thought you were, Alley," he told her, after a moment. "You thought Mackenzie was fun. I don't think I have the heart to tell Cassius that. It might finally break his spirit."


"I didn't say it was easy, Grandpa!" she protested. "It wasn't. In fact, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. But it was still fun. I got to learn a lot about myself, and like you say, I did graduate second overall in the entire brigade." She grinned. "I earned this the hard way." She touched the first-class stripe on her sleeve. "I not only survived boot camp in August, but I got to kick ass and take names along the way!"


"I see." He shrugged. "Well, that's the sort of thing a sergeant major likes to hear out of any larva, even if it does raise a few minor concerns about the larva in question's contact with what the rest of us fondly call reality. And I really am proud of you. But don't go around admitting you actually enjoyed boot camp. We're stretched enough for personnel that the Corps couldn't afford to replace all the senior noncoms who'd drop dead on the spot when they heard you."


"Yes, Grandpa," she promised demurely, and he chuckled.


"Your parents?" he asked then. "Clarissa?"


"All fine, and they all send their love."


"Even your Dad?" O'Shaughnessy asked with another half-smile. "He's forgiven me for 'encouraging you'?"


"Don't be silly, Grandpa." She shook her head fondly. "He was never really that mad at you, and you know it. He loves you. In fact, once he'd calmed down, he even admitted it wasn't your fault. And you did get me through college first, you know."


"Somehow," O'Shaughnessy observed, "I don't think he'd really expected you to burn through the entire five-year program in only three and a half years. I think he'd figured you'd slow down a little bit once you were out of high school."


"No," she said. "What he figured was that once I'd gotten my undergraduate degree under my belt, those Ujvári genes might kick in the way they already have with Clarissa and I'd forget about the Marines and pick some other career." She shrugged. "He was wrong. As a matter of fact, Mother knew he was wrong about that going in. She told him so when I told them I hadn't changed my mind."


"She would have," O'Shaughnessy said wryly. "A lot like her mother, your mother. So you don't think your Dad is going to shoot me on sight the next time he sees me for proposing my 'compromise'?"


"Of course he isn't. He wouldn't even if he weren't Ujvári. I took the scholarship, I got my degree, and that was my part of the bargain. He didn't even wince when he signed the parental waiver for the recruiter. Not once, I promise. He's tough, my Dad."


"Actually," her grandfather said, his expression and tone both suddenly more serious, "he is. I may tease him sometimes about being Ujvári, but I've always known it keeps him from really understanding what drove me—and you—into this sort of a career. And on top of that, his ministry duties mean he's in a position to know exactly what sort of crappy jobs the Corps gets handed, and just how hard we can get hammered if it falls into the pot on us." Sebastian shook his head. "It's not easy for any father to see his child go off to something like the Corps, knowing she could be wounded, or captured, or killed in action. Especially not when she's only seventeen. And extra especially not when you love her as much as your parents love you."


"I know," she said softly. She looked away for a moment, then back at him. "I know," she repeated. "And that's probably what could have come closest to making me change my mind, really. Knowing how much he—and Mom, whether she's willing to admit it or not—are going to worry about me. But I couldn't, Grandpa. I just couldn't give it up. And," her eyes brightened again, "like I say, Mackenzie was a blast!"


"I really need to check your psych profile," he told her. "In the meantime, though, I suppose they've gotten you squared away for your first assignment?"


"I got to request the duty I wanted because of where I graduated in the Brigade," Alicia replied. "I got it, too. Well, I didn't get to pick the actual unit, of course."


"I'm reasonably familiar with how the process works, Alley," he said dryly, and she laughed.


"I know you are. Sorry. But in answer to your question, I'm on my way to the recon battalion of the First of the 517th."


"Recon?" O'Shaughnessy frowned slightly, tugging on the lobe of his right ear. Recon Marines were generally considered, even by their fellows, as among the Corps' elite. Normally, a Marine couldn't even be considered for Recon until he'd pulled at least one hitch doing something more plebeian. Even Mackenzie honor graduates were supposed to get their tickets punched before they were considered for Recon.


"Sergeant Major Hill warned me that I probably wouldn't get it," Alicia said. "But I figured I might as well ask for what I really wanted. The worst they could do was tell me no."


"I'm surprised they didn't," O'Shaughnessy said honestly, but even as he did, a sudden suspicion crossed his mind. He tried to brush it aside as quickly as it occurred to him. After all, the very idea was preposterous—wasn't it? Of course it was! No one would be thinking that so early. Not even about his Alley!


"Well, let me see," he said. "I know Brigadier Erikson has the 517th, but who has the First?"


"There's something about the Corps you don't know?" Alicia's green eyes danced, and he made a face at her.


"Even I can lose track of the minor details, girl," he told her.


"Well, your secret is safe with me, Grandpa," she assured him. "And I'm not sure who has the Regiment right now. According to my orders, though, Recon belongs to a Major Palacios. Do you know her?"


"Palacios, Palacios," O'Shaughnessy murmured. Then he shook his head. "I don't think I've ever actually crossed paths with her. There are at least half a dozen officers in the entire Corps whom I've never met. Just your luck to draw one of them."


"Might be a good thing, now that I think about it," she said. "I love you, Grandpa, but your shadow can be sort of overwhelming."


"Yeah, sure!" He rolled his eyes, and she chuckled. "And now that you've pandered to my fragile ego," he continued, "when are you supposed to report to Martinsen?"


"Martinsen?" Alicia looked surprised.


"The 517th is stationed in the Martinsen System," O'Shaughnessy pointed out, and she shrugged.


"That may be where the Brigade is headquartered, Grandpa, but it's not where they're sending me. According to my orders, I'm going to Gyangtse."


"Oh?" Fortunately, Sebastian O'Shaughnessy's face and voice had had a great deal of experience in saying exactly what he told them to. But that didn't do much about the sudden chill which danced down his spine.


"I didn't know the First had been reassigned to Gyangtse," he said after a moment, keeping his voice merely thoughtful. "Still, from the intel reports I've seen, sounds like things might get 'interesting' out that way, Alley. Do me a favor and remember what they taught you at Mackenzie and not all the bad holo dramas you've seen."


Alicia DeVries gazed at her grandfather, and her own expression was as calm as his. Not, she suspected, that either of them was actually fooling the other. Obviously, he knew something about the Gyangtse System that didn't exactly make him happy. She was tempted to ask him what it was, but the temptation was brief lived. It was hard enough being Sebastian O'Shaughnessy's granddaughter without letting herself fall into the habit of trying to take advantage of their relationship. Not that her grandfather would be likely to let her. In fact, she'd be lucky if he didn't take her head off if she tried, she reflected.


"I'll remember, Grandpa," she promised him, and he gazed into her eyes for a moment, then nodded in obvious approval of what he'd found there.


"Good! And," he pushed himself up from the desk, "since you're in transit, rather than reporting in for duty, a noncommissioned officer of my own towering seniority can permit himself to be seen in public with a mere PFC without unduly undermining military discipline and the chain of command. So, I was thinking we might head off-base for an hour or two. There's a really good Thai restaurant I want you to try."


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