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Before the Beginning. Kefiristan is about as close as you can come to hell on Earth.
I say that with authority: I've spent the last eighteen months doing a tour here, trying to keep the Kefiri People's Liberation Army, who call themselves the "Scythe of Glory," from the throats of the rightist Khorastisti, who have the backing of Azeri transplants from the south (who want to keep their enclaves), who are fighting a "dirty war" against Communist Cuban and Peruvian meres . . . Jeez, you get the picture. It's a snarled skein of a million bloody threads up here on the top of the world, in the northern extension of the Karakoram range, between Afghanistan and Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
We'd just punched through the craggy pass pleasantly known as the "torn hymen" in the local tongue and come across the small, Muslim city of pik Nizganij, perched on a mountain peak of 2200 meters.
I stared in horror. Even eighteen months of picking up after the Scythe of Glory and their Shining Path buddies didn't prepare me for what was left of pik Nizganij.
It was a Bosch canvas, severed limbs and hollowed- out trunks--eaten out by animals, I prayed--planted through the fields like stalks of corn, blood painting doors and walls like the first Passover... except it was human blood, not lamb's blood.
Corporal Flynn Taggart, Fox Company, 15th Light Drop Infantry Regiment, United States Marine Corps; 888-23-9912. Everyone calls me Fly, except when they're pissed.
Fox crept through the town, hell-shocked, trying with- out much success to count body parts and make a reasonable K1A guess. Fog or an evil cloud rolled across the mountaintop, shrouding the sprightly red decoration and muffling our footsteps. It was like we walked along a cotton corridor, tripping over gruesome reminders that war, especially the virulent hatred of one tribe for another, throws men back into pre-bronze, pre-agricul- tural savagery. I wondered how many victims were killed by the victors' bare hands.
Something moved in the mist.
A shadow, a shape; nothing more. Gunnery Sergeant Goforth froze us with a slight hiss... Fox is damn-well trained, even for the Light Drop.
Gates stopped next to me; he touched my arm, silently pointing to left and right. I saw immediately; whatever the shapes were, they surrounded us from eight o'clock to four o'clock... we might be able to retreat, but we couldn't flank.
I watched the gunny; Arlene Sanders was whispering something in his ear. She was our scout, the lightest of the Light Drop. PFC Sanders could fade into the night so not even a werewolf could sniff her out. My best buddy.
She might have been more; once, we had--no; we were buddies. We didn't talk about that night. Anyway, she had Dodd, and I don't separate bookends.
Arlene backed away, backed past me, throwing me a wink as she vanished. She would swing in a wide arc, ease around behind the still-moving shades, and report back to the lieutenant and Gunny Goforth via a secured line. I'd find out soon enough.
I hadn't moved, and neither had the rest of us; I could barely hear Bill breathing next to me and couldn't hear Dodd or Sheill at all. If we were lucky, maybe the dinks wouldn't even know we were here; they'd just pad right on by.
Then Lieutenant Beelzebub came running up, de- manding, "What the hell is going on?" in his normal speaking voice, an irritating whine.
The lieutenant's name was Weems, actually. I just call him Beelzebub because he's a fat, sweaty heathen always surrounded by a swarm of gnats. They like the taste of his perspiration.
The dinks froze as suddenly as we had; no longer moving, they vanished into the swirling gray. We had just lost whatever surprise we had, lost our best chance to get out of this encounter without a shot fired... and all because a buffoon who had been a first lieutenant for three years now couldn't figure out it was a Medusa drill!
One of them moved; then another. They moved singly, here and there, and we no longer had a clue where the mass of them was.
Weems began to panic; we'd all seen it before. "Aren't we going to take them out?" he asked Goforth, who was frantically putting his finger to his lips. "Somebody should take them out. "
Goforth put his hand to his ear; he was listening to Arlene's report, trying to stifle the lieutenant with his other hand.
But Weems saw a ghost to his left, a specter to his right. We were surrounded! In Weems's mind--I use the term loosely--they were Indians, we were the 7th Cav, and he was Custer.
"The lieutenant isn't going to stand for this!" snapped the lieutenant. "Goforth, take out those soldiers!"
The gunny broke his own drill. "Sir, we don't even know who they are... Sanders says they're wearing robes and hoods--"
"Scythe of Glory!" said Weems, again raising his voice.
"No sir, just robed men--"
"Gunny, I gave you an order... now take down those men!"
Arlene flashed past me again. "What the hell's going on?" she hissed.
"Weems wants us to take 'em down. "
"Fly, they're monks! You gotta stop the crazy son of a bitch!"
I was the second-ranking noncom; Goforth would listen to me, I thought. I hunched over and jogged to the gunnery sergeant. "Gunny, Arlene says they're monks."
"Taggart, right?" said Weems, as if bumping into me at an oyster-shucking party.
"Sir, they're just monks. "
"Do you know that for sure? Does anyone know that for sure?"
"Sanders said--"
"Sanders said! Sanders said! Does Sanders have to deal with Colonel Brinkle every week?"
"Sir," began the gunny, "I think we should recon the group before we open fire."
Weems looked him in the face, shaking in fury. "As long as I'm giving the orders here, Marine, you'll obey them. Now take down those men!"
Monks. Freakin' monks!
I snapped. Maybe it was the bodies, or the body parts. The mountain air, thin oxygen. A gutful of Weems, Arlene's frightened, incredulous stare, the way Goforth's jaw set and he turned to give the order--a twenty-year man, he wasn't going to throw it away over a bunch of lousy religious dinks.
But suddenly, it occurred to me that if Weems were lying facedown in the deep muddy, he wouldn't be giving no orders. Then we could let the damned monks disap- pear, and nobody would be the loser.
"Scuse me, sir," I said, tapping the looie on the shoulder.
He turned, and I Georged him. Full-body swing; came out of Orlando, where I grew up. Picked up speed over Parris Island, hooked in at Kefiristan, and turned off the lights of Mr. Lieutenant Weems in pik Nizganij.
Alas, they only flickered. Power was restored. The dork didn't have a glass jaw; have to give him that.
Weems sprawled messily in the mud, and a couple of the boys were on me like monkeys on a tree. Weems flopped for a bit like a giant spider, then he found his hands and knees. He glared at me for a moment, an evil smile cracking his face. "Later," he said. Then he turned back to Goforth. "That don't mean crap, gunnery ser- geant; now take down those men--or are you going to frag me, instead?"
Goforth looked at me, looked at Weems, looked at the ground. Then he clicked his M-92 to rock'n'roll and quietly said, "Fox--take down those men."
I closed my eyes, listening to powder hiss, bullets crack, the metal clang of receivers slamming back and home. The screams of the dying. The shouts of the victors. I smelled the smoke from the smokeless power, the primer, fresh blood.
I'm in hell, I remember thinking; I'm in hell.
We mopped up the enemy troops in record time. Strange thing; none of them shot back. Fact, no weapons were found... just fifty-three men ranging from pre- teen to seventy or eighty, wearing brown robes and hoods, shaved heads, a couple carrying prayer sticks.
The boys wouldn't get off my back. Weems wouldn't even walk around where I could see him, the murdering bastard, while he formally charged me and I opted for a formal court-martial instead of Captain's Mast.
Jesus and Mary, somebody should put a bullet in his brain. I could taste the trigger. I didn't know how I was ever going to be shriven if I couldn't feel remorse.

I didn't miss Earth, but I sure as hell hated Mars. Sitting in a dingy mess hall on Phobos, one of the two, tiny Martian moons, seemed like a nice compro- mise.
Ordinarily, the C.O., Major Boyd, would have handed me over to the jaggies for trial; but the day after Weems gave the fateful order that bought him a mouthful of fist from Yours Truly, the 15th received orders to answer a distress call from Phobos. Fox Company was due to rotate back to the world anyway; Boyd decided to mail us to Mars.
They poured me onto the transport along with the rest of Fox; plenty of time to fry my butt after we figured out what the hell the UAC miners were squawking about this time.
The Corps, the Corps, all glory to the Corps! I don't think you know what the Marine Corps truly means to me. It has a bit to do with my father; no, he was not a Marine, God no. Maybe something to do with growing up in Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles, seeing first the ersatz "Hollywood Boulevard" of Universal Studios East, then the even phonier real thing out west. Glitter and tinsel. . . but what was real?
Everything in my life rang as hollow as the boulevard until I found my core in the Corps.
Honor wasn't just something you did to credit cards. A lie wasn't called spin control, and spin was something you only put on a cue ball. Yeah, right, you think you know more about it than I? I know it was all BS, even in the Corps. I know the service was riddled up and down with lying sacks of dung, like everything else. "There is no cause so noble it will not attract fuggheads;" one of those sci-fi writers Arlene is always shoving at me, David Niven or something.
But God damn it, at least we say the word honor without laughing. At least we have a code--"I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those among us who do"--even if individuals don't always live up to it. At least it's there to reach for, even if our grasp falls far short. At least decency has a legal definition, right there in the Universal Code of Military Justice! At least respect means more than leaving the other guy's graffiti alone. At least we do more crap by six A.M. than most of you civilians do all day. At least the Corps is the Corps, semper fidelis--damn it, we know who we are and why we are! Do you?
Arlene never saw it the way I did; hell, no one did. I was a majority of one.
But you can't understand me unless you understand this much: there is a place in the world where decent men walk the streets, where water flows uphill, where miracles happen behind enemy lines and without air support, and where a guy (boy or girl) will stand on the wall that divides you people from the barbarians at the gate, take a bullet, and shoot back at the son of a bitch what fired it.
Unless you've been there, you'll never know. I want to take you there.
The long trip to Mars was dull, and the little voice in the back of my head had plenty of time to ask whether I would do anything different if given the chance. I had to honestly answer no.
Funny thing is, I always hoped I'd go to space one day . . . but not like this. My idea was to be on a deep-space exploratory ship, pushing out beyond the bounds of the known solar system. But when I scored only a 60 on the MilSpaceAp test, the chances of me receiving a deep-space assignment ranged somewhere between infinitesimal and "forget it." The big surprise was that one right upper cut to the concrete jaw of Lieutenant Weems opened my pathway to the stars.
Not only would I do it over again, I'd still enjoy it!
I stared at the two men whose job was to guard me, and had a strange feeling of unreality. "Want some coffee?" one of them asked with something that sounded like actual concern. His thin face reminded me of one of the monks.
"Yeah," I said. "Black, if you don't mind." He smiled. We'd run out of cream back in Kefiristan, and when he hopped up to Phobos, the supply situation was no improvement.
The guard's name was Ron. The other guard's name was Ron, too--I called him "Ron Two," but they didn't see the humor in it.
We didn't talk much. It seemed a little insulting only having two Marines protecting such a dangerous type as Yours Truly; but the other men were busy figuring out what had gone wrong on Phobos.
After we up-shipped to Mars Base, we sat for a solid day, trying to find out why the UAC miners on Phobos had sent a distress call--and why they didn't answer now. In the Marines, you spend eternity so bored you'd look forward to your own court-martial as a break in the tedium. Then an unexpected danger with huge, jagged edges comes rolling over all the set routines, a reminder that the universe is a dangerous place.
The last message we received from Phobos was: "Things coming through the Gate." When something that serious hits the fan, boredom is returned to its proper place as a luxury. The court-martial of a corporal was deemed less important than a potential threat to Mars--and not important at all compared to an imme- diate threat to the profits of the Union Aerospace Corpo- ration.
With a ringing cry of "sounds like they're smoking something up there," Lieutenant Weems boldly led his men into the transport. At first I thought I'd be left behind on Mars Base; but either Weems thought I might prove useful to have along, or else he just didn't want a loose end. I volunteered to go along. Sometimes I'm not very bright.
Major Boyd did his best to brief us by video feed, under the obvious handicap of complete ignorance. He made the best of it. We were issued pressure suits, in case we had to leave the immediate vicinity of the Gate. You couldn't stay very long outside the pressure zone, and you'd get mighty cold, mighty fast. But at least the suits gave you a fighting chance to get to a ship or a zone before you were sucking vacuum. I was pleased to be issued a suit; I was less pleased that Weems didn't issue me a weapon.
While I contemplated the lethal uses of common household articles, PFC Ron Two brought the promised cup of coffee. It tasted bad enough to be a strategic weapon of deterrence. The expression on the guard suggested that he might have sampled it before passing it on to me; but maybe he was just plain scared of the situation. I couldn't really blame him.
A word about these Gates on Phobos and Deimos, the two tiny moons of Mars; you've probably heard about the Gates, even though officially it's a secret.
They were here when we first landed on Mars. It was a hell of a shock, discovering that someone or some thing had beaten us by a million years to our own closest neighbor! It was long before I joined up, of course, but I can only imagine the panic at the Pentagon when we found ancient and wholly artificial structures on Phobos, despite the complete lack of any form of life on Mars.
It was pretty clear they'd been placed there by some alien intelligence. But what? All my adult life, I'd heard speculation: all the usual UFO culprits . . . Reticulans, Men-in-Black, ancient Martians--that was the most popular theory, despite not working at all: there was no native life on Mars; but try to tell that to generations raised on Martian Walkabout, Ratgash of Mars, and Mars, Arise!
Me, I figured it was a race of alien anthropologists; they got here, said, "Hm, not quite ready yet," and left a "helipad" in case they decided to return . . . which they might do tomorrow or a hundred thousand years from now.
Somebody decided to call them "Gates," even though they just sat there doing nothing for as long as we've known about them. But surrounding them was a zone of about half Earth-normal gravitation ... on a moon whose normal gravity is just this side of zero! In addition to the big, inert Gates, there were also small pads scattered here and there that instantly transported a person from point A to point B within the area, evidently without harm . . . teleports, if you will. I had heard about them but never seen one; damned if you'd ever get me into one, either.
When the United Aerospace Corporation bribed enough congressmen for the exclusive contract to mine Phobos and Deimos, they built their facilities around the Gates, taking advantage of the artificial gravity . . . except for those parts of the operation that wanted low gravity, which they built outside the "pressure zones." After the big reorganization, the Corps got the task of guarding the Gates.
Well--it looked as though the big Gates weren't quite so inert as we all thought.
Once we landed on Phobos, the gunny dropped me and my two guards at the abandoned Air Base depot (in the "western" pressure zone--antispinwards) and took the rest of Fox Company on to the UAC facilities, Weems in tow, to reestablish contact and "secure the situation." All my friends went with Weems, leaving me with the two Rons for company.
The Phobos facility is built like a gigantic, under- ground cone extending many hundreds of meters into the rock. There are a bunch of levels, I'm not even sure how many. Eight? Nine? The whole thing is built in the center of the solar system's largest strip mine, which would be terrible for the Phobos ecology--except that Phobos doesn't have an ecology, of course; it's an airless moon of ice and rock.
The facility was on the opposite hemisphere from the base. Big deal. . . the entire moon is only about twenty- five kilometers in diameter. You can walk from one pole to the other, except most of it is disturbingly close to zero-g, outside the pressure zones.
We had the radio on in the mess hall and were periodically picking up messages from Weems's Weasels. We'd about given up hope of hearing anything from the UAC guys who used to be on Phobos. As I sipped the scalding wake--up--call, wondering who I could sue if I burned my tongue, I couldn't help but scrutinize the two Rons. Neither gave the impression of being on top of the situation. They kept glancing at the closed cafeteria doors, at the radio, at each other . . . They weren't paying much attention to their prisoner.
They were also having the same conversation every twenty minutes or so. It generally started like this: "What do you think's happening?" one would ask the other.
I was tired of listening to variations on I-don't-know, so I volunteered a theory: "Somehow the Gates turned on, and whoever built them decided the UAC was trespassing. Maybe they were wiped out."
"But who attacked us?" asked Ron One. Funny; I never thought of Union Aerospace as part of "us."
"They said monsters were coming through the Gate," said Ron Two with the same sense of surprise he'd displayed the other half-dozen times.
"They said 'things,'" I corrected. Neither heard me. Things or monsters, I had faith in Arlene and the rest of the guys.
The guards didn't strike me as being overly interested in the subject of high order physics. They had reached firm conclusions in the realm of the biological sciences, however. They didn't believe in monsters.
The truth is that neither did I.
In one respect I was as bad as the PFCs. There were questions that couldn't be answered yet, but they wouldn't stay out of my mind. Who was the enemy? How had they reached Phobos through the gateways? And most troubling of all, why hadn't Fox found any bodies yet? Major Boyd and even Colonel Brinkle back on Earth would want answers to these questions and a lot more.
Suddenly, the radio sputtered to life, grabbing our attention, an invisible hand reaching out to choke the breath from us. It was PFC Grayson, out front on recon, reporting to Weems, who was elsewhere in the facility. The young Marine had found a corpse. Weems radioed back the obvious instructions.
"ID impossible, sir," reported Grayson, his voice tense. "It's in too many pieces. I can positively say that it was a white male. It looks like--Jesus, sir, it looks like claw marks. And this body's been chewed."
Wild beasts on airless Phobos? Judging by the sickened expressions from Ron and Ron, it was all too evident that neither of these specimens had ever seen combat. I've seen my share . . . and all at once, the idea of living long enough to attend my own court-martial seemed very appealing. Even five years at Leavenworth looked good. The fact that I didn't have a gun crawled around deep inside my gut like a tapeworm. Right then I decided to remedy the situation.
The masticated body parts had been found in the processing plant. We heard Weems over the radio issuing orders to converge on that point when a burst of static interfered with the reception.
When Grayson's voice came in again, it was loud and clear. Up until that moment, the universe still made some kind of sense to me. Of all the military scenarios running through my mind, none prepared me for what happened next: "Jesus Christ! It's not human," shouted Grayson. "Too big . . . shaped all wrong . . . humanoid . . . red eyes . .."
While Grayson was providing this fragmentary report, he punctuated his description with bursts from his rifle. Before he could become more coherent, we heard an inarticulate roar of animal pain from whatever he was shooting, and then he shouted, "I can't put it down!" The next scream we heard was fully human.
My whole body went cold. Jesus--Arlene was down there.
Keep cool, keep your head--she's a Marine, damn it!
One of the Rons looked like he was about to throw up. "Okay," I said, "this has gone on long enough. We know we're in this together. Give me a gun and let's make some plans." If Arlene were being shot at, God damn it, I intended to shoot back! The honor of the Corps was at stake, not to mention my best buddy's life.
The radio was reduced to background noise for the moment as Weems the Weasel tried to control the situation. The nervous looks exchanged between the dynamic duo in the mess hall made me wonder about training that completely destroys initiative. On the brink of death, all the Rons cared about was going by the book--even if that book printed their own obituaries in flaming letters.
One finally generated the initiative to say, "We can't give you a weapon!"
I tried again. "Staying alive is the objective here. We've all got buddies down there. They don't court-martial the dead! You can't help anyone or defend anything if you're dead. Now give me a piece!"
If either of them had shown a glimmer of intelligence or guts, I wouldn't have taken the next step. But they insisted on being idiots.
Jesus Christ! As the Godfather said, there are men who go through life begging to be killed.

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