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I was pretty sure that the story is from Starship Troopers, but upon reading it again, I realized it isn't. From what I remember, the main character (possibly an officer) is convicted and sent to a military prison somewhere in a desert. Here using his knowledge he manages to rally some of outcast prisoners. I distinctly remember 2 fragments:

One of the outcasts gets into a fight and the main character fights alongside him, so the next morning the both do their push-ups next to one another.

The guards split the prisoners into men and women and make them carry sand to build two piles. It was some kind of contest. The main character thinks if the prisoners had a leader he could make sure that the men slow down so both groups would finish in the same time.

Finally, due to the war going badly they get reinstated on a starship. I think the unit calls itself "Rats" and they have a inscriptions on their belt buckle reading something like "Touch me if you dare".

I think the enemy was called Arachnids, and this was one of several stories on the same theme. Also, I read it in Romanian, so it might not be a English story at all, and the quotes might not be accurate.

Edit:

The book where this story is had a series of stories related to the same war, most of them unremarkable, the only thing I remember is that the first story was somehow related to merchants and a bar brawl. The stories didn't have common characters.

The story I'm looking for starts with the main character arriving at the prison camp, and ends when the prisoners are reinstated.

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    I think this is from a Warhammer 40,000 universe novel. I'm sure that you're thinking of the Space Marines from Warhammer and not the Starship Troopers, they are similar. You may be thinking of the Tyranids which are similar to the Arachnids from Starship Troopers. Try the book "Space Marine" by Ian Watson, see if that's it. I don't recall him being a prisoner at any point in that novel, but there are a bunch of novels in the Warhammer 40k universe of novels. I'm fairly certain one of the units is "rats", perhaps stormrats, or something like that. I'll keep looking until I find a match. – Joshua A May 4 '16 at 20:00
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    Maybe the Luggnam Sewer Rats (warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Luggnum_Sewer_Rats)? – FuzzyBoots May 5 '16 at 3:27
  • The Warhammer 40,000 seems to developed. I'm pretty sure that the story I'm thinking of has a rather short history (no Empire ... ). I had a quick look and it doesn't seem to be the right path. – Sorin May 5 '16 at 10:51
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    @JoshuaA, as far as I can remember, there is no escape, the unit that convicts form is pardoned and they are put in active duty. And I don't remember the book, just that it had more than one story on wildly different units. – Sorin May 6 '16 at 5:06
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    @JoshuaA You can remove your up-vote, in my opinion the up-votes should be awarded for the quality of the question not personal preferences or advertisement of the question. Also, I'm sorry to say but you don't have a "method" You ignored the two fixed elements of my question (the push ups and sand moving) and concentrated on vague stuff like convicts, rats etc. (which I said I'm not very sure about). From that you suggested a lot of obvious choices which I already dismissed basically suggesting that I didn't do my part. Be sure that I've asked this question only after thoroughly searching – Sorin May 13 '16 at 7:29
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+100

This is one of the stories in The Siege of Arista (The War Years #2)

Not sure if I still have a copy, as I recall this story is towards the end of the collection. The central character is a battalion commander who is convicted and sent to military prison. (I cannot remember exactly what he was convicted of, possibly disobeying orders when he was in a no-win situation when Arista was badly losing the war. Notable scene is that when he is convicted and marched in front of his battalion, instead of performing an about-face and symbolically shunning him, the battalion presents arms and salutes him.)

The incidents are as described - there is slightly crazy prisoner who gets in a fight and the officer joins in, then does the described push ups as punishment afterwards. This is his first recruit, he then proceeds to effectively take control of the entire military prison, with one of the key characters being a female prisoner called 'Doc'.

When the war is going really badly, the brass then come to him and reinstate him, putting him in command of the Rats. The group are assigned to defend a space station, not a spaceship. The final action is the defence of the space station. The story ends with the defence unexpectedly succeeding, albeit with high casualties, and the main character and Doc sharing a moment of peace before the next attack wave comes in.

Regarding the first story in the collection - a group of special forces soldiers are sent to "make a statement" in an escalating trade situation by killing a group of the aliens in a bar fight. This is a horribly bad miscalculation - the aliens respond in a massive swarm within minutes, destroy the bar and everyone in it and proceed to continue destroying the entire town or city. The only survivor of the mission is the sergeant who was acting as an observer from a distance away.

As noted by the OP, each of the stories is about a different group of characters and examines a different theme. For example, one of the stories is about an invalided ex-soldier called "Papa" who is put to work in logistics and ends up investigating profiteering and deliberately low-quality military supplies.

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    I found a copy of the book - The exact story name is "Brig Rats". Thank you, this was driving me crazy! – Sorin May 7 at 8:15
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    The prison story sounds a lot like the plot of the (non SF) Robert Redford move The Last Castle. – eshier May 7 at 12:23

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