Back | Next



Welcome to the Space Marines,
Please Keep Your Hands and Feet Away From the Monsters

Private First Class Eric Bergstresser parked his Jeep outside headquarters and got out, stretching his back.

Berg's first intimation he was being transferred had been the previous day when his team NCOIC, a staff sergeant, had dragged him out of morning PT and told him to "get his ass up to battalion." Upon reaching the battalion headquarters he had been put through "the one fastest post-clearance in history" according to the gunnery sergeant from S-3 who had walked the private through, then handed him orders to proceed, via personal automobile, to Bravo Company, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, which was based, oddly enough, at Newport News Naval Base.

Berg hadn't even known there were any Marines at Newport News which, as far as he knew, was still in the process of closure. He was more than surprised to find out there was a Force Recon company there.

Berg was a "Nugget," a NUG, the "new guy" in the battalion. He had volunteered immediately upon reaching the 1st Marine Division, his initial duty station after Basic. After taking the initial entry tests, mental and physical, he'd gone through the short hell of Recon In Process and the much longer hell of Force Recon Operator Training. After the Dreen War, Force Recon qualification had been revamped to concentrate more and more on off-planet operations. It also had gotten harder to qualify; of the sixty volunteers in the class with Berg, he had been one of only four to pass the full course. While not quite as hard as Delta qualification and training, it was equivalent to or surpassed SEAL BUD/S. At least in sheer brutality.

Berg wasn't sure what was happening to the Corps he had wanted to join for so long, but he was seeing changes that were interesting. Unlike most troops, he paid a lot of attention to things like the budget fights in Congress and current events. And in the former, especially, there were some odd things happening. After the Dreen War, and the closing of the various gates that had permitted the Dreen to invade Earth, most of the forces had suffered serious cutbacks. The still unexplained breakouts of Dreen infestations in several Islamic countries had taken most of the starch out of the Great Jihad and while U.S. troops were still deployed around the world, mostly they were back to peace enforcement or peace keeping missions; the War on Terror had died along with several hundred thousand jihadists in the Bekaa Valley, Mecca and Iran.

But while the Army and the Air Force were getting their budgets slashed, most of the money wasn't being "reinvested." It was going to the Navy and the Marines. And most of it was going into black holes. The "black" portions of the budget were getting large enough to cause some serious questions in the news media. The only information slipping out was that the expenditures involved "extraterrestrial military research projects."

He'd been directed to the windowless, block building by the gate guard on reaching Newport News, one long ass drive from Lejeune. Now it was time to find out just what this company of Force Recon was doing and why it was hidden away in a secure building in Newport News.

Entering the door marked "Visitor's Entrance" he found himself in a small room composed of mostly concrete walls. Directly opposite the door was a plane of what he recognized to be aliglass with a security station behind its protection. He knew that it was technically transparent aluminum, but it looked more like transparent sapphire, ten times as strong as plexiglass and still expensive as hell. A sheet of it meant somebody seriously wanted to stop an attack. The inch and a half thick window would shrug off an armor penetrator round.

"Bergstresser, Eric, PFC," he said, holding up his ID to the guard behind the glass. The guard was a civilian, not a Marine, but he was relatively young and armed for war with an MP-7 on a three-point combat strap hooked into his chest, boron carbide helmet and heavy body armor. "I'm reporting for duty."

"Hold your ID up to the scanner," the guard said, gesturing with his chin. The guard checked his computer, then nodded. "Hold there for escort."

"Aye, aye," Berg said, taking a position of parade rest.

"Nugget?" the guard asked through the intercom, smiling slightly.

"Yes, sir," Berg replied. "I've only been in Recon for three months."

"I used to be Recon," the guard said, glancing at his monitors. "Welcome to Wonderland. Here comes your escort."

The heavy steel door to the room opened and a first sergeant in Mar-Cam stepped into the small room. The first sergeant was tall and slender with hair cropped so short it was hard to tell the color, hazel eyes and a slightly oversized nose. His right jaw was slightly protruding, the muscle clearly much larger than the left's, a sure sign of a person who spent a lot of time in Wyvern battle armor.

"Bergstresser?" the first sergeant asked. His name tag read "Powell."

"Yes, First Sergeant," the PFC replied.

"ID?" the first sergeant said, holding out his hand. He checked the ID and nodded. "Welcome to the unit. I'm going to handle your in-brief then turn you over to your team NCOIC. Follow me."

"Yes, First Sergeant," Berg said, following the NCO into an even smaller room. The first sergeant waited until the outer door was closed, then cleared his throat. "Clearing Fourteen."

The inner door, marked with a large red numeral 14, slid aside revealing a corridor. They took a right and headed down the highly polished tile floor, passing several doors. Unlike at Berg's previous station, none of the doors had titles on them, only numbers. And most of them were sliding doors similar to the ones he'd entered the building by. For that matter, every ten feet or so there was a black pod on the ceiling that indicated a security camera. The interior of the building looked less like a headquarters than a prison.

The first sergeant stopped about halfway down the long corridor and cleared his throat again.

"Entering Seven-Six."

"Seven-Six, opening," a robotic voice replied as the door opened. "Five, four . . ."

"Come on," the first sergeant said, stepping through quickly.

At "Zero" the door slid closed with Bergstresser barely clearing it.

"Hate that system," said the Marine behind the desk in the office they'd entered.

"So do I," the first sergeant replied. "But it's there for a reason. Come on, Berg," he added, opening the door marked "First Sergeant."

The first sergeant took a seat behind the desk and looked Bergstresser up and down. The PFC had come to parade rest again, legs spread shoulder-width apart, hands folded behind his back, and was staring at a point six inches over the first sergeant's head.

"Rest," Powell said, ordering him to keep more or less the same posture but the PFC could talk. "I've read your service record. You were selected for this unit because of your IQ, your MGT scores, and your scores in Operator Training. But I'm going to ask you a few questions and I need straight answers. If you are wrong for this unit, then I need to send you back to your old unit. There won't be any repercussions on that, trust me. But this unit can only afford certain types of candidates. I'd rather go on a mission short than with an unsuitable candidate. I'll add that you're going to be tested on some of the questions, if we have time. If we don't and you've been anything other than perfectly truthful, you're probably going to get people killed. Are we clear?"

"Clear, First Sergeant," Berg said, wondering what the hell was going on.

"Have you ever suffered any form of the slightest anxiety at confined spaces?" the first sergeant asked. "For that matter, have you ever been in any confined spaces for any duration to test that?"

"I have never been in confined spaces for any significant time, First Sergeant," the PFC replied. "I have spent small amounts of time in normal confined spaces and never had any anxiety."

"Define normal confined space," the first sergeant said evenly.

"I . . . I used to play around culverts, First Sergeant," Berg said. "I've even gotten stuck in one. It didn't worry me."

"Not really what I'm looking for," the first sergeant said. "Have you ever considered what it might be like to be on a submarine?"

"Yes, First Sergeant," Berg said. "I don't think I'll have any issues."

"Here's a kicker," the first sergeant said, leaning forward. "Have you ever considered what it would actually be like to be in space? Like being an astronaut in a space suit outside a ship? No air anywhere around for billions of miles and the only thing between you and a horrible death being a suit built by the lowest bidder?"

"Yes, First Sergeant, I have," Berg said. "I considered trying to get in the astronaut program, but I've wanted to be a Marine for most of my life. I don't see a tour in the Marines as necessarily standing in the way of that. Worked for John Glenn."

"You've got the IQ for it," the first sergeant admitted, leaning back. "Ever read any science fiction, Berg?"

"Yes, First Sergeant," Bergstresser replied. He knew that that was as much an admission that he was a "geek" but the first sergeant had insisted on honest answers.

"What?" the first sergeant asked. "Or, rather, how much?"

"Quite a bit," Berg admitted, knowing that it was probably going to be a downcheck.

"Define quite a bit," the first sergeant said. "How many books? How many dealing with space travel? What sort of background on it do you have? Books, not TV shows or movies."

"I have a library at home of over a thousand books, First Sergeant," Berg admitted reluctantly. "I read all the time, both paper and ebooks. I've written game programs for space combat maneuvers. I'm a gamer and have played board games, role playing games and computer games that deal with space combat. I'm aware that that categorizes me as a 'geek,' First Sergeant, but I also—"

"Made it through the new qual course," the first sergeant said, smiling tightly. "Shiny. You're just what I was looking for."

"Huh?" Berg said, astounded. It was hardly the response he was expecting.

"For your general FYI, Berg, my IQ is higher than yours," the first sergeant said mildly. "So you seriously have thought about what it would be like to be in death pressure?"

"Yes, First Sergeant," Berg replied. "Space is a stone cold bitch. I wrote a paper on it in high school as part of a book report on Have Spacesuit–Will Travel. The book is about a young man who wins a space suit—"

"I'm familiar with it," the first sergeant said dryly. "Now the big question. This unit is going to be going on long deployments off-planet. The risk of loss of life is high. Most of it is going to be boring as hell with occasional moments, I am certain, of sheer terror. Actual conditions are unknown, but I would be unsurprised if casualty rates exceed thirty percent per mission. I'm saying that in my professional opinion, you, PFC Eric Bergstresser, have a one in three chance of dying. Possibly higher. Possibly much higher. And I cannot tell you the nature of the mission until you volunteer for said mission. So I'm asking, knowing the risks, do you wish to volunteer?"

"Yes, First Sergeant," Berg said, instantly. "I wish to volunteer for this unit."

"Shiny," the first sergeant said with a sigh, "you're in. But if we get the time, I'm going to put you in the tank and see how you really handle pressure. Welcome to the Space Marines, PFC Bergstresser. Semper Fi Ad Astra, if you will."


"Holy maulk," Berg whispered when his new platoon sergeant led him into the platoon office. "He wasn't kidding."

On the wall was a large poster, placed in much the same way that a corporate motivational poster might be hung. But this poster was a picture taken in space of a portion of what could only be a spaceship, the top of which was lined with suits of Wyvern armor. Over each suit was a name and he quickly picked out First Sergeant Powell as well as his platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Josh Hocieniec.

And there was no question it was a picture. Even with all the advances in computer generated images, it was still possible to spot CGI. This was, unquestionably, a picture. They might have been digitized in, but it didn't look like it.

"No, Top wasn't kidding," the senior NCO said. Hocieniec was shaved bald, short, barely over regulation height unless Berg was much wrong, and skinny. He looked as if he could barely carry himself around much less battle rattle. "You just joined the Space Marines. The maulky part, for you, is that the rest of us have been training for this for a year or more. And we're leaving day after tomorrow."

"Oh, maulk," Berg said, his eyes wide.

"You're replacing Harson," Hocieniec continued, sitting down at his desk, "because the dick-for-brains broke his grapping femur on a fast-rope climb two days ago."

"Welcome to Hell, Nugget," a staff sergeant said, looking up from some paperwork. "Staff Sergeant Summerlin. You're going to be with Jaen, Charlie Team." The staff sergeant was medium height and slim with dark brown hair.

"Summerlin's Alpha Team Leader and assistant platoon sergeant," the gunny said. "Jaen and Hatt are over on the ship doing maintenance on their Wyverns. So while Summer here does my paperwork for me, I'm going to get you into the barracks and through in-processing."


"And this is the gaming room," Sergeant Jaenisch said, opening the door.

The barracks and training area for the Space Marines was about a quarter mile from the headquarters. The barracks were pretty decent, "starbase" apartment barracks left over from the Navy when they'd pulled most of their people out of Newport News. There was enough room that the Marines were rattling around in them like peas. They even got individual rooms since there were enough barracks for a regular battalion much less a Space Marine company, which was about the size of a regular platoon.

A "company" is a variable term. Originally the term simply meant a body of companions. Latterly, it came to mean a group of about one hundred infantry personnel under the leadership of an officer who was not quite a junior, not quite a senior, usually a captain.

However, companies varied in size. Force Recon companies had ranged as high as two hundred when all the supports were added over the years. With the shift to Space Marines, the Marine Corps commandant had taken a step back. Since the Recon companies were going to be ship based, the Navy could damned well handle support. And given their firepower, training and individual lethality, the size of the actual unit could be dropped. However, retaining the leadership as a captain made sense. Young enough to carry the fight, old enough to do so wisely and without the mandated lobotomies of majors. Delta would call it a Troop, SEALs would call it a Team. The Marines called it a company of Space Marines. If the Navy ever got bigger ships, they'd reevaluate. In the meantime, the Marines got all the hot water they could ask for.

The training building was part of the base gym. There wasn't a regular shoot house or a range short of Quantico, but part of the funds had provided a pretty decent alternative.

The "game room" was a new building, solid concrete including the roof, attached to the gym and about as large. It also was nearly empty. There was a small entry room with some lockers and computer terminals and beyond, viewable through a sheet of plexiglass that was liberally splashed with blue splatters, was a cavernous, empty, room. On the far side were huge roll-back doors large enough to slide a business jet into the room. It looked more like a hangar than a training area.

"Virtual reality?" Berg asked.

"Got it in one," Jaenisch said, walking over to a computer terminal. "We've got just about every game on the market available on this thing but we generally use the one designed for the mission, a hack of Dreen War." Jaenisch opened up some windows on-screen and started a game up, then opened up one of the lockers, pulling out two sets of VR gear.

The gear consisted of a light harness, gloves and a pair of glasses. The VR glasses, thanks mostly to Adar tech, had reduced to the size of wraparound sunglasses. The newest military combat "goggles" were similar in size and structure. Berg had even heard that DARPA was working on combat "lenses" that could be worn as contacts. That would be interesting.

Jaenisch also handed him an M-10 and combat harness, preloaded with "simulated rounds." Simulation rounds used actual gunpowder to fire low velocity "paint" rounds that mimicked real bullets fairly well at short ranges. They required a special barrel and breech but the M-10 had already been modified for them and had the standard blue training barrel.

The glasses stayed clear until they walked in the room, then darkened momentarily and came back showing a jungle scene. It wasn't anywhere on Earth—both the trees and sounds were wrong—and it took Berg a moment to adjust.

"Where are we supposed to be?" he subvocalized. When they passed Basic, every Marine was fitted with combat implants that consisted of a small microphone implanted next to the vocal cords and a receiver in the mastoid bone. Learning to subvocalize was a requirement of Marine basic training. The system was virtually identical to the one the Adar used when they first reached Earth. For a short time, it had been thought that the Adar were telepaths since using the system looked much the same to an ignorant observer. There was virtually no sound involved and only short bursts of radio.

"This is based on Chen's World," Jaenisch replied subvocally, his lips moving only slightly. "But it's got different monsters. All we have to do is make it to the far wall." He hefted a virtual M-10 and was now, in the goggles, wearing full battle rattle, a set of boron carbide body armor with fitted pouches for ammunition. "You've got left, I'll take right."

Berg jacked a round into his own M-10, flicked the weapon off safe and nodded.

"Let's do it."

Jaenisch led off, following a narrow game trail. Berg kept his attention to the left, sweeping forward, up and to the rear. There were some light heat forms in his glasses, but nothing that looked like a threat.

A thunderous roar from the right almost made him spin around but he kept on his sector and it was a good thing. Just as the roar faded, a form came charging through the jungle. It was bipedal and looked something like a more insectile Dreen thorn-thrower. Whatever it was it had a big mouth and Berg wasn't going to take any chances.

He fired two rounds into center of mass and was unsurprised that the 7.62 mm rounds bounced off. But the thing had big multiple eye systems and he retargeted, hitting it in the eyes and blinding it. The thing continued its rush but missed the two Marines and Berg pounded it with single fire shots as it crashed past. He found a weak point under one of its arms and pumped five rounds into the spot until the thing dropped, thrashing.

"Reloading," he subvocalized, trying to keep his sector in sight as he pulled out a magazine. He got the reload in place just in time to spot something dropping from the trees. It looked like a sheet of paper but it was headed either for the Marines or the dead beast. Berg fired at it and the sheet ripped apart, falling in tatters.

Jaenisch had been firing at something as well and the two Marines went back to back as more of the bipedal monsters came through the jungle after them. Berg picked his shots more carefully since he only had thirty of the 7.62 mm rounds in a clip. He managed to drop three of the monsters before he ran out of ammo. The fourth and fifth, though, got him and the "jungle" vanished as the harness gave him a zap of electricity.

"Grapp me," he said, shaking his head.

"Not bad, actually," Jaenisch said, looking over at him. "I'm going to reset the system so we've also got .455s. You qualified on the .455?"

"Yes," Berg said. The high velocity Colt magnum was rarely used by combat forces, but he'd qualified with one in Force Operators Training. He had wondered at the time why they were training on a civilian "gun nut" pistol that no other force considered worth its time. Now he had to wonder how much FOT was influenced by the Space Marines. A group that, officially, didn't exist.

They returned to the prep room and added the big magnums to their kit. The gun's blue barrel was nearly a foot long and it was a heavy mother. But civilian hunters had used them to hunt both elephant and tiger at short ranges. It should stop even one of the bipedal monsters. He stopped before going back and readjusted the position of the ammo pouches on his armor. Every serious shooter had his own idea of where stuff should ride and Berg wasn't any different.

"Same general scenario?" he asked as they reentered the "jungle."

"It changes," Jaenisch said. "You never know what's going to come at you."

Berg kept a watch out as they reentered the path and while it was a different beast, they attacked at the same point. This time they got low-slung bright-red centipedes, about the size of a leopard. And there were more of them than of the bipedal monsters. And, the 7.62 mm rounds just bounced off again.

He let go of the M-10, which pulled back to his chest on its straps, and drew the .455 Colt. The magnum rounds did penetrate the centipedes' armor and, even better, he was a very good one-handed shooter. He fired all ten of the rounds in his magazine, getting six of the beasts, then did a rapid reload by just dropping his empty mag down the front of his armor and sliding another in. He got four more before they got him at last.

"This seriously sucks," Berg said, holstering his smoking pistol.

"Hell, you held out longer than I did," Jaenisch said, shaking his head. "I stayed on the M-10. Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"

"I just enjoy shooting," Berg said, carefully. The real answer was in Force Recon Operator's Training. Force Recon had always been a tough unit with a killer qualification phase. But its advanced training had mostly been ad hoc at the unit level. The new FOT included an Operator Combat Training program that far exceeded the normal Force Recon official training program. He was beginning to realize that the "regular" Force Recon guys might have much more experience than he did, but he was probably better trained. He was going to have to tread that path very carefully.

"Can you two-gun mojo?" Jaenisch asked.

"A bit," Berg said. "But I can't fire simultaneously. That's total bullmaulk. Usually what I do is empty one pistol then empty the other one. The problem is, it really slows down reload. So if you've got more targets than you've got bullets . . ."

"Want to try it that way?" Jaenisch asked. "I'll stay one gun on pistol, you go for two-gun?"

"I'll try it," Berg said. "But I'll stay on M-10 to start since we don't know what it's going to throw at us."

"I'll set it up for the same scenario," Jaenisch said. "I'm really curious."

The third time through, Berg carried two of the magnums and Jaenisch one. The centipedes attacked at the same time and in the same way, which was a bit of cheating, since it meant Berg didn't have to guess where they were coming from.

But the two-gun mojo worked. This time, knowing where and how they were going to attack, he managed to start winnowing them down earlier. When his right pistol ran out of rounds he holstered it and pulled out a clip. When the left ran out he did a fast reload then switched hands and went to a two-handed fire position, backing away from the centipedes until he had the last one dead. The things thrashed as they died, splattering green blood over the mostly blue vegetation and opening out the underbrush as they crushed it in their death throes.

"Damn," Jaenisch said, shaking his head. "Shiny. Now, let's see if we can make it to the far side of the room."

They were hit twice more but Berg's two-gun fire managed to stop both attacks cold and they eventually reached the "stream" that marked the far side of the room. He only had four rounds of magnum left, though.

"Clear VR," Jaenisch said when they reached the limit. "Not bad, Nugget. Not bad at all."

"Thanks," Berg said.

"This scenario is set up for a two team maneuver," Jaenisch admitted. "Six guys, not two. I wanted to run you through something harder than I thought we could handle, just to knock the starch out. So much for that idea. As a matter of fact, I hereby designate you Two-Gun. You may now call me Jaen."

"Thank you, Jaen," Berg said. "But I don't think it's a good way to do battle normally."

"Agreed," Jaen said. "But it was grapping awesome. I can't wait to replay the clip."

"This is recorded?" Berg said.

"Two-Gun, every second of every day we do this maulk is recorded," Jaenisch said bitterly. "Why do you think there are grapping cameras everywhere? We're guinea pigs. I'll explain when we get back to the armory."


Back | Next