The Company Soldier series - a soldier's memoir set on the colony of Samsara, twenty light years from Earth. Alexander 'Sikunder' Armstrong - a seventeen year old runaway to the United Nations Off-World Legion - faces the grim realty of a hard life on the wild frontier. Surrounded by colourful characters and dangerous enemies in this epic scifi series punctuated by action, humour, and adventure, Sikunder recounts his adventures as a jawan soldier in lavish detail and with an eye to finding the humour in even the most dire of circumstances.
Surrounded by a palisade of rusting razor wire and disintegrating gabions leaking sand and gravel, the cantonment was made up of a dozen long tents, steaming in the sudden warmth. It housed a decuria of four contubernium or infantry squads which, when combined with a handful of staff from the Duceni, or support company, and a score of women and children family members, it numbered over eighty. In between the chalky puddles that dotted the rocky maidan, seven Mitsubishi transports – one of them a mere rotting relic propped on blocks – sat immobile and forlorn on flat tires in the gloom beside eight decayed flatbed trailers, a host of corroding cargo containers and a peeling flagpole with a tattered UN ensign.
Such was the might of the United Nations Off-World Legion that I could have wept.
“It’s meant tae be mobile, jawan.”
I turned to stare at the owner of the deep, bass voice behind me. Beside a drooping supply tent, his massive ebony face nearly hidden by a huge forked beard, stood a veritable gorilla of a man wrapped in threadbare crimson salwar trousers, a faded cobalt blue chapan coat with the two red stripes of the rank of subedar and decuria leader (a captain in any other military), a thick red tartan scarf and topped by a misshapen black turban. His name was Angus Motshegwa – a Scots raised Zulu originally from Cape Town – but better known to those in Panthera Centuria as MacShaka the Tartan Zulu.
“Pack up the transports and cargo containers an’ off we gae. Mind,” he added with a smile as he walked towards us with hands stuffed in pockets – and a hungry wolf had nothing on this man – “we no’ dae it tae much.”
The other jawan recruits joined me from the transport, threading between the cages of clucking chickens that were being unloaded by the driver, and a wandering goat curious at the commotion. The subedar eyed us curiously for a moment, his gaze lingering on me the longest.
“Names, an’ whaur ye’re frae.”
Perplexed by the thick brogue we stood in mute confusion. MacShaka rolled his eyes and snapped, “Och, whaur ye from, ye pack o’ glaiket dilly-daws?”
“Fawzi Abd-al-Kadir, Dushanbe refugee camp, Tajikistan,” volunteered the villainous Hazara bandit who smoothed his long salt and pepper beard and spat defiantly.
“Usman Imran Khan, Kandahar,” replied the youngest of us – the tender youth of sixteen.
The three girls answered, quiet, eyes down cast, and thoroughly submissive. They were all from Kabul and all sold into service by their relatives for a tidy bounty.
I, however, paused before that graven image as he glared down at me like a bishop. I’d never met his like, and he held me in a quaking thrall that I think both annoyed and amused him.
“Damn it, lad, speak up!”
“Alexander Armstrong, Naramata, British Columbia.”
MacShaka held me in his gaze a moment longer. I hardly fit the description of the common Legion jawan – that ruffian from the Central Asian refugee camps, or an impoverished African facing starvation or service. Few Europeans or North Americans joined the Legion save for the poorest or those foolishly seeking adventure off-world.
I was one of the latter – a choice I was already regretting.
MacShaka sniffed contemptuously then spat. He didn’t seem to think much of me. “Losh, another rich chota wallah no’ worth a docken,” he added to confirm my suspicion.
It meant nothing to me, save for the tone of the delivery. That was painfully obvious.
MacShaka’s brow knit as he looked at me searchingly and tamped tobacco into a pipe with the tempo of a hammer. He still held me in his gaze as he laid the flame of a Zippo lighter onto the bowl. “Och, lad, I hope ye’re no’ an off-world babu that I’ll hae tae place under the care o’ the decuria ayah for lookin’ after.” He puffed deeply, then waved away the smoke. “What on Earth the recruiters think when they take every clarty bauchle crossing their threshold then send ‘em out tae us I’ll never ken. Ye’ve lucked out comin’ here, I s’pose,” he added with a grunt, “instead of service on Gliesium. We’ll haud yer hand and teach ye how tae survive. All ye need tae dae is listen.”
Fawzi glanced at me darkly, then swore and shook his head. Usman looked embarrassed. The girls ignored me and said nothing.
“Aye, weel,” MacShaka announced as he spared me a final inquisitive glance, “time tae get ye dressed. Hae tae keep ye weel happit or ye’ll freeze.”
MacShaka loafed towards the supply tent while Fawzi moved to stand beside me.
“It is not what you expected, Sikunder?” he asked in smooth lightly accented English.
I shook my head, avoiding his evil gaze. Fawzi chuckled coldly and moved on.
For a moment, I stood nonplussed. I had come to this world with childish dreams of great adventure and apparently, with a shameful ignorance of reality. As a dozen brutish jawans looked upon me with a mixture of contempt and amusement, I knew that the five years of indentured servitude I had agreed to was a terrible mistake.
“Move yer arse, Armstrong!” MacShaka roared. I followed in resigned obedience.
 Maidan – a parade square or gathering place
 Jawan – Soldier
 Chota wallah – chota means small and a wallah is a person associated with an activity.
 Babu – Hindu clerk
 Ayay – Nursemaid
A Company Soldier series - a soldier's memoir set on the colony of Samsara, twenty light years from Earth. Alexander 'Sikunder' Armstrong - a seventeen year old runaway to the United Nations Off-World Legion - faces the grim realty of a hard life on the wild frontier. Surrounded by colourful characters and dangerous enemies in this epic scifi series punctuated by action, humour, and adventure, Sikunder recounts his adventures as a jawan soldier in lavish detail and with an eye to finding the humour in even the most dire of circumstances.
I believe it is the true mark of a man’s character in how he faces his end – whether it be a chicken bone in the Savoy Grill, an oncoming Kenworth on the 401, or a Sindhi pirate’s knife pressed to his throat. An imperturbable composure and a ready smile imply both confidence and courage in the face of certain death.
Mind you, being a screamer has its advantages too.
I tend to wail as death approaches, and if I’ve grown comfortable with my excitable perturbation, it is because howling like a dervish has staved off my demise on many occasions. Of course in my retired years, as I sip cabernet franc or petite Syrah in my hammock and enjoy the aromatic texture of an Okanagan summer breeze, my thoughts rarely return to the episodic excitations of my youth. Yet on occasion, in between a baked Brie with Amaretto, or a cedar plank salmon, the memories may come back – enduring the biting cold of a Samsāra winter, chopping cords of Pavonis pine for a steamboat boiler, vomiting down the side of a swaying tundra camel, or recoiling in horror at the words of a Sindhi pirate, “Breathe deeply, jawan, for it shall be your last.” If those years in the United Nations Off-World Legion and its host of resident dangers and terrors have forced a certain degree of hysteria to be my mark each time I confront my doom, well, so be it. I may not claim composure as death loomed, but I can at least claim a modicum of success in beating it with each terrible visitation.
After all, I’m still alive, ain’t I?
Colony of Samsāra,
Twenty Light Years from Earth
I endured three miserable days of post hypersleep sickness following my arrival on Samsāra, the fourth planet orbiting the star, Delta Pavonis, and if you’ve never experienced the heady pleasure of hypersickness, it is characterized by one word: vomiting. Not the normal kind of vomiting that comes with the pastrami in your Reuben Sandwich being a bit off; no, this is the kind of vomiting that comes from mixing tequila with Night Train and a dozen or so Colt 45’s after skipping lunch and supper in preparations for your High School Valentine’s Dance. You can tell I had some experience to prepare me; so, when supine and green in the first few hours after leaving hyperspace, I could at least categorize my torturous suffering and rank it up there with the night I should have gone out with Rachel McMaster but instead ended up lying beside a dumpster with my best friend videoing me and sending it to my mother just to see the look on her face.
After a protracted journey over twenty light years in length and through a string of hyperspace jumpgates, boxed up and shipped like a patio set and assigned a similar worth by KlondikeCorp – the bloated corporation chartered to raise, train, and administer the Legion – I and two dozen other like fated souls were dumped by hyper jet in a tiny snow choked spaceport called Menat. Cradled between the rolling hills of the Australus Erebus Vallis and bordered by the indolent slush choked waters of the Enipeus Flumen, Menat and its two hundred or so inhabitants (deposited by an extraordinary degree of moronic planning some one hundred kilometres from the nearest town) lived in an isolated world that would have horrified Odysseus. Pale and nauseous, my nose dripping like a faucet, and terribly conscious of the company I was keeping – refugees to a person from the UN camps in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan – I was herded into the back of a noisome six-wheeled lorry smelling of goat manure and containing, amongst other things, a well-used Persian carpet, four boxes of 9mm ammunition, and eight cages of very displeased chickens.
There were six of us squeezed into our lorry bound for a distant cantonment named Ophir Castrum. Two were Han Chinese – young girls named Fong and Kwan I believe, and though I smiled and delivered flimsy, maladroit flirtations (I was seventeen at the time and still dripping with adolescent angst and awkwardness) between wiping my nose on my sleeve or throwing up over the side of the bouncing vehicle, I received little response from either save for a quiet yet very pointed contempt. A third girl and I call her that because she couldn’t have been more than sixteen, was a Kandahar Hindu named Chengelpet, and a prouder more queen-like caricature I hadn’t seen before as she sat beside a pile of manure and brushed off chicken feathers with the grace of a duchess. She was equally disdainful of my chatter, and as the weight of their combined antipathy grew, I quickly lapsed into a sullen silence. My other two companions were of a more menacing nature, a pair of central Asian bandits of foreign character and dangerous repute. One, at sixteen, was a year my junior – a sort of impish Oliver Twist with a Khyber knife and a hashish pipe. The second was in his forties, a hatchet faced brute with a large salt and pepper beard and a glowering countenance. As if faced with a stalking cougar, I avoided eye contact, but allowed a sly surveillance whenever the opportunity presented itself.
For twelve wretched hours we endured a penetrating cold that our thin hypersleep coveralls and a pile of mephitic wool blankets did little to protect us from. The ride itself, to make the experience just so much more miserable, was rough and rocking, our road being little more than a trail of stony ruts and slushy puddles that afforded our lorry the bare ability to crawl over its length. On occasion, when we passed some isolated cantonment or a collection of tents that some wag with a sense of hyperbole called a village, we stopped to allow us to disembark and stretch our legs and recover from the beating of the trip. The world that greeted us, a wide river valley between low forested ridges still thick with snow and a brooding ceiling of dark grey cloud that hung at the hilltops, elicited a quiet dread as the desolation of our alien destination intruded. As a young and very sheltered man from the caressing warmth of the Okanagan Valley in the south of British Columbia, the enfolding cold was the first of many unpleasant experiences on Samsāra.
What struck me most, however, was the unlikely familiarity of it all. This knowledge was foremost in my mind as I stood on that alien planet twenty light years from Earth. One expected purple skies and indigo grass with seven-legged carnivores festooned with feathers and horns – foolishness of course if I’d bothered to do more than just conduct a cursory read about Samsāra before making the trip. There was, of course, none of that. There was just a wholesome air you could almost drink – crisp and clean; a palatable experience so enjoyable after the aromatic pollution of vineyards, mown grass and spring flowers in the Okanagan. There was still snow on the ground, and mud and rock. Sedge grass grew through the thinning alabaster blanket along with thorny bushes smelling with a faint yet heady mixture of cedar and sage. The trees were tall and slender, with thick scaly bark and massive boughs which spread like a capacious umbrella at their top. They created a dark canopy that allowed ferns, ivy, and lesser bushes to flourish in the frozen gloom. There were very few animals that had been found so far in the twenty years of colonization. Insects abounded including worms – some rather large, snake sized, and apparently quite tasty – and roach and beetle-like creatures that haunted the warmth of sleeping bags and tent corners with their chirps and nibbles. Very much like Earth at first glance, and the impression only grew as our journey continued – an emotional comfort to our cerebral reality.
So we carried on through the night, arriving at the cantonment just after dawn the following morning. With the sickening journey finally at an end and every bone and muscle in my body protesting at the ill treatment and, least to say, the growing horror of the situation I had volunteered for three months before in a moment of teenage pique against the smothering machinations of my parents, I lifted the folds of the mildewed cargo bed flap and jumped to the muddy ground.
Before me lay the cantonment of Ophir Castrum, and as the sheets of sleet subsided, the glowering dark clouds that had accompanied us since our departure from Menat parted to bathe it in a milky, pallid light.
A sorrier looking abode I had never beheld.
This is my opportunity to share parts of my novels both published and in progress as an opportunity for readers to enfold themselves in the story and characters. I love to write vivid, descriptive narrative harnessing - and sometimes freeing - quirky and unique characters, some of whom have been inspired by historical figures and events. The first book I'll will share is from my military scifi series, The Scarlet bastards.