Authors: Jamie McFarlane
We dozed for a couple of hours, listening to the rain fall on the disc that separated us from the top side. It would be best to move while it was raining, but I had no idea where we were, so that was a real problem.
“I’m going to see if I can get a peek at our surroundings,” I said.
“Careful,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
I pushed the heavy disc up and peered into the street. I didn’t get a great view, but I could tell we were in some sort of slum. There were a few slums in the large city and my best guess was we had ended up east of downtown. That area was closer to the headwaters of the great Amazon River and it made sense that the rainwater would drain in that direction.
Our FOB (Forward Operations Base) was on the southeastern side of the city, so this was probably as good a place as any to end up. We’d need water, food and transportation if we were going to get out of here. I’d take the latter over the first two if we could find it fast. I explained the situation to Irawan after replacing the disc.
“No doubt the drones will be covering the slums,” she said. “It’d be the first place I’d look.”
“It’s still raining, probably going to be our best chance,” I said.
“Did you see any transportation?” she asked.
“Nothing obvious, but with the curfew, I don’t think we want to be moving at night.”
“So, what? Break into a house and hunker down?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.
“Great. Okay. Lead on.”
I pushed the big disc away from the opening and the rain started pelting us again. On this street, there were stores on the lower levels and apartments on the upper levels. The stores all had retractable grills and looked to be pretty much burglar proof. I jumped up into the street and saw an alcove that looked like it could provide us some shelter. I pointed and Irawan ran for it while I slid the cover back in place.
“Anything look promising?” I asked when I joined her.
“I think we can climb up on that roof over there.” She pointed to a low-hanging eve. There were lights on in the apartment. “Someone’s awake though.”
“Ready?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
I ran across the street, jumped and grabbed the overhang. I pulled myself up, lay on the edge and dropped an arm down for Irawan. She ignored me and kicked off of the adjacent building, allowing her to get both hands on the roof and easily climb up to join me. At this point, I wasn't sure who was rescuing whom, and I sure appreciated having her at my side.
I crawled up the roof to the dormer window where we’d seen the light. Music filtered out from under the open window. Someone was making this easy on us. I twisted around so that I was on my knees but still below the sight line of the window. I popped up, raised the window and slid into the room.
A young woman standing at the opposite end of the room turned and screamed as she saw me enter. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old. There was nothing to be done about it, I couldn’t have her screaming, so I ran toward her. She tried to run, but panic had frozen her in place. I clamped my hand around her mouth.
Irawan slid in through the window and closed it behind her. She slid her hand down the side of the window to activate the privacy shield.
The girl struggled against me, but she couldn’t have been more than forty-five kilograms. I felt like such a heel.
“Clear the apartment,” I whispered hoarsely to Irawan. The girl tried savagely to break free.
Irawan looked at me and the girl and nodded. There was only one other room.
“Frak,” I heard her say. I dragged the girl with me to the doorway. A small boy, no more than three years old, sat on the edge of the bed, looking at us with wide eyes.
“Can you understand me?” I asked the struggling girl. “Stop struggling. If you promise not to scream, I can let go. We don’t want to hurt you or your family.”
She stopped pushing against me. “Will you promise not to scream if I take my hand off of your mouth?” I asked.
She nodded affirmatively. I kept hold of her arm, but let go of her mouth. She spoke to us in her native language, but I had no idea what she was saying.
“We don’t have our AI and can’t understand you,” I said.
She nodded and pointed to a drawer, saying something else I didn’t understand.
“I think there’s a pad or earwig in there,” I said to Irawan. The girl nodded her head, indicating I was right. She also talked to the little boy, who seemed on the verge of crying.
Lieutenant Irawan opened the drawer and pulled out a reading pad. She was still wearing her jump suit and I knew it would take over the functions of the small device.
“If I let you go, will you keep calm? We don’t want to hurt anyone. We’re actually in trouble and running from the officials.” I wanted to be ambiguous about which officials we were running from.
She replied and the pad started translating for us. “Yes, please don’t hurt us. We won’t say anything.”
I wasn’t dumb enough to believe she wouldn’t turn us in, but I also believed she’d behave for the time being. I let her go. “Just don’t make any sudden movements and we should be okay,” I said.
“What do you want,” she asked.
“We’re on the run and need to get out of sight. We’ll be out of your way as soon as we figure out how to get some transportation.”
“My brother has a vehicle. He could take you,” she said.
“He'd get in trouble for helping us,” Irawan said. “Don’t be so quick to involve your family. What if we stole his vehicle? I have money.” She unzipped her jumper, reached in and produced a card and handed it to the girl with the reading pad.
The girl waived it over the pad, gasped and asked, “This much?”
“Twice that,” Irawan said and took back the card. “If you get us to safety, I’ll give you two of those.”
“Let me call my brother,” she said.
“Not until morning, after the curfew, when we can actually leave. Would you make us something to eat?”
Morning took forever to arrive. We’d had only two hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, but we had to wait for daylight.
“I’ll leave one chip with you,” Irawan explained. “This way your brother will know we are on the up and up. If he gets us to within two kilometers of our base, I’ll hand him the other chip. If he turns us in, I’ll be sure to mention how helpful you’ve been.”
The girl blanched at Irawan’s naked threat. “I’ll call him,” she said hesitantly.
Half an hour later, a small blue hauler pulled up in front of the shop beneath the apartment with its door open. We’d wrapped scarves around our heads to avoid identification, although the drones wouldn’t need much. Once in the hauler, we pulled a heavy, smelly blanket around us and hunkered down.
“Thirty minutes,” he said. “It’ll be safer if I take back streets.”
He drove like a madman, careening through the streets with his low flying anti-grav hauler. The principle of the vehicle was simple; it floated a meter above the streets and was powered by small arc-jets to push it in one direction or another. It was an extremely inexpensive vehicle, not to mention a little slippery to navigate.
“We’re as close as we can get,” he said. “There’s a Soledad checkpoint up ahead. I can go no further.”
“Two chips to buy your vehicle?” Irawan replied instantly.
“Let me see them,” he said. She handed them over. He didn’t even turn around, just hopped out of the vehicle and walked away.
Irawan handed me the reading pad and said, “Set up a secure channel with Cent-Comm. Tell ‘em we’re coming in hot.” She jumped into the driver’s seat and took off at the vehicle's max speed. At this point, I was more concerned about our side shooting us than theirs. I doubted that the checkpoint we were approaching had ever seen action, I was certain our base had seen plenty.
“Well. They know we’re coming. It didn’t sound like they believed me,” I said.
“Get down.” She swung the back end of the hauler around. Two men had jumped out of a temporary building which was their guard post. The hauler punched through the temporary shelter and bounced down the street away from the guards. They picked themselves up off the street and pulled their weapons into firing position.
“Hold on,” Irawan said as she swung us around again. We’d lost quite a bit of speed running into their shelter and now we were accelerating again. A fusillade of blaster rounds whizzed past us, some hitting the back of the vehicle. We were out of range too quickly for the rounds to cause much damage.
Through the forward window of the hauler I saw the checkpoint leading into our base. We weren’t looking at two guards and a temporary shack. It was a fully defended, completely modern base. There would be no shortage of armor and firepower - all feeling itchy about our approach.
Irawan slowed and when we got to five hundred meters she stopped entirely. “Best we do the last bit on foot,” she said.
I handed her the pad and she established communication with the base. Someone must have believed her because ten minutes later a heavily armored transport landed in front of us, doors wide open. A full squad of Marines hopped out with guns drawn.
We sank to our knees and interlocked our hands behind our heads. I didn’t blame them, we were coming home in a pretty unconventional manner.
Half an hour later I was cooling my heels in the brig. I hadn’t expected to be welcomed back as a hero, but I thought the brig was overkill. If Lieutenant Harold Bentrod wanted to be a pain, he could bring me up on charges. I had, after all, ignored a lawful, if not stupid order.
I had to be honest. Being locked up was the easiest duty I’d ever experienced: three squares a day, air conditioning, a full night’s sleep and there was absolutely no chance I would have to jump into the middle of a firefight. For the love of god there was even a mattress on the bed! If Bentrod’s goal was to punish me, he really sucked at it.
I also didn’t hold a grudge. Bentrod had given me a legal order and I’d absolutely chosen to ignore it. That’s one of those things that pisses me off. People break rules and get all whiney when they get called on it. Not me.
On the third day of confinement I got a visit from a young naval lawyer on loan from Mars Protectorate.
“Lavonne Sterra,” she said, holding her hand out as she entered the room. I shook her hand, which was stronger than her small spacer build suggested. She was a pleasant looking woman, if not a bit thin. I was confused by her uniform, though. It was definitely not North American.
“You’re a fair piece from home,” I said.
“It’s part of our training. We get a chance to participate in low level court-martials and panels of inquiry,” she answered.
“I’m getting court-martialed?” I asked.
“No one has talked to you yet?” The surprise on her face was evident.
“I’ve heard some gossip, nothing official, though,” I said.
She wrote on the tablet she’d brought with her and then said, “I imagine that’s right, and no, you’re being brought in front of a Panel of Inquiry. One Lieutenant Bentrod has filed two charges that we’ll be exploring. The first is that you’ve been accused of willfully disregarding a lawful order under section 192A.465.” She paused and looked at me.
“True enough,” There was no reason to argue. It was true.
She continued, “And the negligent destruction of civilian structures under section 192A.545.”
“That little shit,” Now I was annoyed. That was another thing that pissed me off. Little rule followers who would do anything to prove a point to someone they were jealous of.
“Oh, Lieutenant Bentrod’s full of himself. That last one’s a pile of crap. The first one, not so much. He told me to come home. I had the opportunity and I didn’t. He’s right,” I said plainly.
“There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is the city of Manaus wants your head for the mess caused and so the Lieutenant’s charges are being heard.”
“And the good news?” I asked.
“The Marines aren’t likely to bend to political pressure.”
“What’s the worst case?” I asked.
“Recommendation for a special court-martial,” she said.
“When can we get to it?” I asked.
She checked her pad again. “Don’t you want to talk about your defense?”
“Will my company commander be there?” Captain Raffe was the real deal. He’d worked his way up through ranks and had the respect of his men, including me.
“Yes. Captain Raffe was selected to be part of the panel.”
“Then no, I don’t want to talk about my defense. Raffe has seen his share of combat. He’ll do the right thing.”
“Understood.” I’d expected her to be a little pissed off, but she wasn’t anything of the sort. “I admire your faith in your commander.”
“When?” I asked.
“This afternoon if you’re amenable. Personally, I’d like to have more time to prepare and review the combat data streams,” she said.
“Let’s do it,” No sense waiting. Bring the pain.
“Alright, Marine. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Get cleaned up. I’ll meet you there.”
The room they led me into wasn’t all that impressive. There was a table with three comfortable chairs behind it and a small desk in front of that with two less comfortable chairs. Sterra was already seated at the desk when I arrived.
A few minutes later three people entered. Captain Raffe was the only person I recognized. I’d risen to attention, which was simple protocol when an officer enters a room. Once they’d been seated and the proceeding was called to order, Colonel Alma Pertino introduced herself and the other members of the panel, Captain Raffe and Colonel Rostermel.
The charges were read out loud for the panel to hear. I had no doubt that they’d already been through them but we were the Marines and we had formality that had to be observed.
“Before we get started,” Pertino said, “Lieutenant Silver Irawan has asked to be allowed to give a statement.”
I’d never seen Irawan in anything but a flight suit. When she walked through the door in her dress uniform, I have to admit that I was thinking about anything but the proceedings. She nodded at me, gave me a guarded smile and snapped to attention.
“At ease, Lieutenant. You have a statement?” Colonel Pertino prompted.
Irawan spoke for about ten minutes, mostly outlining the details of our escape. She was light on the details where she’d saved me and emphasized where I’d done a decent job. She didn’t step over the line and say anything untrue, but it was uncomfortable to hear her rendition of it.
“May I ask a question?” Captain Raffe asked once she’d finished. It was rhetorical, as he was her superior officer. She recognized it as such and nodded. “In your opinion, would you have made it out of Soledad-controlled Manaus without Sergeant Hoffen’s aid?”
Captain Pertino dismissed Irawan and waited for her to leave the room. “Sergeant Hoffen, would you like to make a statement to this panel?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and stood up straight.
“I know there’s a lot of formality that goes into proceedings like this. But I also believe that we’re in a room full of Marines. I may not be right, but I believe the reason we have a court-martial system is because war brings about unusual events. If you haven’t experienced it, you really don’t have any damn idea how crazy things can get. I also don’t believe you’ll hang me on my words and that I can speak Marine to Marine here. Does that sound about right?” It was do or die at this point.
“Please continue,” Colonel Pertino prompted. “But continue respectfully, and know your words have meaning here and once said they cannot be unsaid.”
“Thank you,” I said. “The way I see it, the destruction of property thing is ridiculous. The Skampers …”
“Sergeant!” Colonel Pertino interrupted.
“My apologies, Ma’am.” Frak, I’d forgotten ‘Skampers’ was a bad thing to say. “Well, like I was saying, the enemy blew up both of our transport ships and ended up dropping a platoon of armored Marines into the city. They then occupied a building in order to gain a tactical advantage. Methane, Mulehog and Patch were pinned down. My intent hadn’t been to knock down the building. That said, I absolutely wanted to distract them long enough to get my squad out of there. I think the data streams pretty clearly show this.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“As to the disregarding of a lawful order, I agree. I did that. Lieutenant Bentrod gave me a perfectly valid order. However, I also knew perfectly well that the odds of Irawan being alive were very high. You see, AIs do a great job of counting the dead and the AI told me that it had lost comm with her, not that she was dead. For me it was simple, we don’t leave our people behind. So yeah, that one’s on me. You want to know the most embarrassing part of all that?”
Pertino looked at me like a schoolmarm addressing a rowdy student. “Certainly.”
“I didn’t save her one bit. Lieutenant Irawan had to save me.”
“Is that all?” Pertino asked.
I tried to think if there was anything I had missed. Nope. “I think that’s about it.”
“Sergeant, your term is up. Have you decided what you’ll do?” It was an unexpected question from Captain Raffe.
“Honestly, sir. I think I’m done. I love my men and I love the Corps, but I’ve seen too much.”
“I find that disappointing, but I understand. You’ll be missed,” he replied, looking down at his pad.
There were more questions and more talk, but nothing of real significance and the panel excused themselves after half an hour.
“How do you think we did?” I asked Sterra.
“I might have been a bit more subtle, but your honesty was compelling,” she replied.
The panel returned and I stood at attention to hear their judgment.
Colonel Pertino surprised me by starting almost casually, “Sergeant Hoffen, were you serious about leaving the Corps?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe I’ve served with dignity and to the best of my ability.”
“This panel agrees with that statement and commends you on your honesty. You will be missed as a leader. As to the charges, we are dropping the count of destruction of property. We agree with your assessment. As to the charges of disobeying an order, we find you guilty. The order was lawful, although in the view of this panel, also poorly considered. Your actions, regardless of your view of them, ended up in the safe return of Lieutenant Irawan. The problem is that you are still guilty, which I believe you understand.”
“I do ma’am. Might I add that it is not a sacrifice if there is no payment required,” I said.
“Well said. It is the judgment of this panel that you should be released from active duty immediately, with an honorable discharge. A disciplinary note will be added to your jacket. If you should desire to re-enter the service this might prove to be a roadblock, but not insurmountable. These proceedings are closed."