Barghest Chapter 4

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Hour 0900, Day 073, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the Rajasthan Reactor Catastrophe. Death toll estimated at 600,000.

Maker clenched her jaw and tried to ignore the hot ache in her shoulder joint. The surgeon in charge of the bone reconstruction had protested her discharge, claiming the artificial ligaments needed more time to fully attach to the new clavicle. Unfortunately, an official inquiry into her actions on the last mission superseded medical authority. The doctor had practically snarled when he tossed a sling at her, growling about barbarian recovery procedures. She had left the sling in her bag in the corridor before she was escorted into the hearing. Standing before a panel of officers, at least one of whom she knew had a personal dislike of her, was not a time to look pathetic. Lieutenant Commander Soon had made it clear during their time stationed aboard the Pershing that he felt it was his responsibility to make her life a living hell. Maker still wasn’t sure why, but she wasn’t about to expose any weaknesses. Any more weakness, she snorted to herself.

Most of the bruising on her face had faded, but there was no doubt that she had been injured. The brace that kept her two new vertebrate properly aligned made her uniform coat bunch and strain. Unlike the sling, she couldn’t just remove it. Vertebrae were much more sensitive to misalignment than shoulder joints. Just thinking about it made her shoulder throb.

“This inquiry is called to order,” the Commander chairing the meeting stated. She dropped the gavel with enough force to echo in the mostly empty room. Lieutenant Commander Soon sat straight, nearly leaning forward in his chair in anticipation. To the Commander’s left sat an older officer who took no pains to hide his bored expression from the intimidating woman speaking. “Sargent Clara Maker, Service Number SC2144-E56-00861, you have been notified of Questions of Concern regarding the performance of your duties and the accuracy of your field report during the mission noted as,” she paused and consulted the tablet in front of her, “2148-RD-237.” Maker was vaguely surprised that there had been 237 Recon and Detain missions authorized so early in the year. Must be a real scramble for the paper pushers, she thought sourly. “Do you understand the Questions as they have been posed?”

Maker didn’t shift her gaze from the Commander, although she could feel the attention of the other two panel members on her. The Questions of Concern had been listed in the summons she received while she was in the hospital. Although a lot of statute and protocol was mixed into the language, the message was basic: they thought she fucked up. It wasn’t an unsurprising conclusion. Her sergeant’s stripes weren’t even broken in, and a simple bag-and-drag had resulted in the death of nearly half of her team, including the commanding officer. The killing of two Cullers and capture of another only added a layer of strange to the fucked-up. The blatant flaunting of the order to remain covert was a frosting of insubordination. A bitter sprinkling of incompetence from the damage inflicted on the mining station was the final touch on her shit sandwich.

Incompetence on insubordination on strange on fucked-up, she summarized internally. Yeah, I understand the questions.

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” she said aloud.

“Very good,” the Commander said, scrolling through her files. She flicked the one she wanted onto the wall display. “Let’s begin with a review of the field footage.” The lighting dimmed.

Maker tried not to fidget or relax her posture as they forwarded through hours of pre-incident footage from the multiple angles offered by each soldier’s personal recording device. The playback was paused only a few times to highlight the lieutenant as he gave orders to switch shifts or stay focused. Her back ached and her shoulder burned; her arm felt like a lead weight pulling down on the socket. She was unsuccessful at controlling her blush when they slowed the images down in time to catch her exchange with Rodriguez. The older panelist chuckled. The Commander remained impassive. Lt. Commander Soon sent her a glare.  After that, the film became uncomfortable to watch. She flinched when her own video feed was enlarged to show her clumsy attempt to back away from the Nick she had thrown alcohol on. The muscles in her back twitched in remembered and real pain as she watched her fall from the pipe to hit the floor. The tech displays were overlaid on the recording of her vision, and Maker stood still while she watched her team’s lights go dark all over again.

Kerry’s transmission seemed louder and more frantic as it played in the meeting room than it had on the mining station:

“Transport down! Cullers! Two in the bay, one in the weeds! Request immediate assistance! Respond!”

“Retreat! Cargo is expendable, if necessary! Go, Go, Go!”

Her video shook as she had run down the alley, and then the Culler was on her. Maker broke out in a sweat, just watching the attack. Then the video feed went dead. Sound had continued to record, and the room sat in silence, listening to her heavy breathing, her grunts and screams of pain, the grating words of the Culler. Video flicked in and out a few times. Once it showed the blood-soaked face veil as she ripped it off and vomited on the ground. Her arms had been shiny-wet with blood welling out of her body armor and making her gloves slick. The second time lasted longer, and captured Bretavic on the edge of the hole in the floor, his gesture to the corridor, and the first charge of the Cullers. Her shot had gone wide, ripping through the wall of a shop.

Then there was the noise and confusion of the fight, the explosion. Maker watched while a cold sweat made her skin clammy. The increasing desperation in her recorded voice as she tried to raise someone on the comms made her nauseous:

“This is Command, respond.”

“Command calling, over.”

“Command here, call back.”

“This is Command, please respond.”

Then there were her threats to the miners, and her discussion with Kerry and Rodriguez on the transport. The feed ended, and the lights slowly brightened.

“Sargent Maker, is the evidence shown here, incomplete as it is, accurate?”

“Ma’am,” Maker had to pause to gather enough spit in her mouth to speak. A trickle of sweat slid under the collar of her uniform. Her stomach was twisting again, with fear or guilt she wasn’t sure. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you expect us to believe that you took out three Cullers on your own, Sargent?” Soon leaned forward in his chair, his forearms braced on the table. “What really happened while your video was out?”

“Sir, I could never have terminated those targets on my own, sir.” Maker swallowed again. In another time and place she would have savored the smug look on Soon’s face, knowing she had the power to wipe it away. Reliving the disaster of her first command obliterated the petty impulse. “The first target, Species Cancri 8 -”

“Nicks, I believe you called them.” The older officer who had laughed at her exchange with Rodriguez smiled.

Maker nodded stiffly, and continued, “That was dumb luck. As you could see, my aim was off and I nearly broke a leg trying to get to higher ground. The second one was as much Rodriguez’s success as mine. Likely more.”

The Commander glanced down at her tablet. “That would be Private First Class, Rodriguez?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Maker agreed. “The Culler in the alley-”

“The one who killed your commanding officer,” Soon interrupted. Maker nodded jerkily. “But you had no trouble with it.” His contempt was obvious.

“No, sir. Bretavic’s team had already wounded it, and it still dislocated my shoulder, snagged an artery, and destroyed my tech.”

“Thing probably died more from the ceiling crashing down than the girl’s shot,” murmured the old man in amusement.

Maker didn’t wait for Soon to interject again, she was desperate to get the inquiry over with. Her body hurt, and she didn’t want to think about what had happened on the station for a moment longer than she had to. She spoke quickly, “The other kill and the capture were similar. They were already injured, and I took wounds, from the enemy and my own actions, and destroyed a significant amount of personal and corporate property, in order to survive. The mission objectives, as stated by my commanding officer prior to his death, were achieved. The subsequent loss of life and breaches in protocol are solely my responsibility. I am prepared for whatever decision this body hands down.”

The room was quiet for a moment, then the Commander spoke reproachfully, “This is an inquiry, not a court marshal, Sergeant. No executions will be held today.”

“I have heard enough,” the oldest member stated, rolling his shoulders. “This evidence and testimony, combined with what we reviewed earlier, confirm for me that Sergeant Maker acted to the best of her ability within the confines of her orders and the situation.” The official statement was spoken with a practiced tongue, and the officer casually slapped his palm onto his tablet to sign his decision.

“I object,” Soon said flatly. His eyes sparkled with malice. “I am not satisfied, nor do I feel that Sergeant Maker has conducted herself in a manner befitting a member of these forces, much less an officer. I recommend that this case be forwarded onto the Justice unit for an expedited court marshal.” He, too, pressed his palm down, but with a barely suppressed smile. The bottom fell out of Maker’s stomach. She had wanted it to be over, but she hadn’t honestly expected that result. Her eyes turned to the Commander.

“The circumstances presented here are unusual in the extreme, as are the actions taken by Sergeant Maker,” she said slowly. Soon’s white teeth flashed in a savage smile. His satisfaction was premature, “The veracity of her statements is not in dispute, and has been confirmed by other accounts. However, given the preparation and intelligence provided for the mission, and the challenges posed, as well as Maker’s own inexperience, I believe that she displayed quick-thinking, courage, and grace under pressure. These are the basis for a fine soldier, and a fine officer.”

“Provided she doesn’t blow herself up first,” muttered the third member.

“Indeed.” Maker might have imagined it, but she swore she saw a crinkling at the corners of the Commander’s eyes. “This body has a majority. All Questions of Concern have been addressed, and no further action is indicated.” The Commander sealed her palm print to her tablet and then banged the gavel again. “The meeting is concluded. Sergeant Maker, you are dismissed.”  Soon stormed out of the room; the Commander followed more sedately. Maker simply stood, blinking, for a few moments wondering what exactly had happened. She slowly pulled her injured arm to her chest, cradling her fist against the opposite shoulder.

A voice at her side startled her, “That was quite a thriller you treated us to,” said the older officer. Maker was surprised to note the bars on his cuffs. His badge read, Sullivan.

“Captain, sir,” she said weakly.

He chuckled, “In my day we would have pinned a medal on you for killing those Culler bastards. Still, try not to end up here again, eh?” She turned to follow him out, and they parted at the doorway. He threw a wink and a parting comment over his shoulder, “And tell your mother, next time you see her, not to worry about the favor. I don’t like serving on these things, but reading this mission report was the highlight of my week.” Her mouth fell open, she was sure, and she stared at his back as he walked away.

She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, trying to process that she wasn’t going to be disciplined – and why. It was Bretavic that finally caught her attention as he limped around the corner, a cane gripped uselessly in his hand and a brace on his leg. “Hey,” he called out, drawing the attention of several administrative staff in the hallway. He ignored them. “Shouldn’t you be in the infirmary?”

“I could say the same for you,” she answered automatically. Then she shook her head to clear it. “Inquiry,” she said shortly. Her shock at Captain Sullivan’s comment was wearing off, to be replaced with anger.

“I take it everything went okay?” At her nod, he continued, “I tried to tell them, but that Soon was a real jackass.” She began a slow walk back toward the lift, her ire continuing to build. Favors, it always come down to favors, she thought. She needed a painkiller, and a soft bunk, and some method of reaching through subspace and misguided, unwanted maternal protection to slap someone. Her shoulder throbbed. “Rodriguez asked me to wait around for you after he got done with them, but I had to report for a physical.”

“Everybody okay?” Concern for her team pushed aside the irritation for a moment.

 He listed out the other soldiers, two of whom were still in the infirmary listed as critical. ““Kerry and Rodriguez are clean. They had duty this shift. So…” His voice trailed off, and Maker shot him a glance. The big man looked uncomfortable. He was substantially cleaner and healthier than the last time she had seen him. She hadn’t known him well before the mission so she couldn’t determine if uncomfortable was usual for him. His jaw was showing a five o’clock shadow, strange since it was barely 1200 hours, and his uniform had a few creases. Not enough to take a penalty from an officer, but enough to be noticeable. She might have stripes on her sleeve, but Bretavic had seniority over her. Between that and flying her out of the FUBAR mission on the station, she wasn’t inclined to mention anything about regulation dress.

He shifted a few times and an awkward silence grew between them. “What?” she finally asked. She pushed the button for the lift and stepped in when it almost immediately opened. They were alone in the car, and Bretavic let out a pent-up sigh as the doors closed.

“I have a card game on Thursdays.” He said it with an air of challenge, as if Maker cared that he engaged in gambling. It was prohibited, but not enforced, and it wasn’t like she was going to get into trouble. “Stop by, if you want.”

Oh. Maker blinked. Despite coming completely out of the blue, she recognized an offer of friendship when she saw it. Maybe I will get into trouble. She reflected on the meeting she had just be subjected to. Screw it. “Yeah, thanks. Where at?”

“Maintenance Bay Six. Security code 1234.” He grinned, showing off straight, even white teeth that almost made him handsome. He was at least a decade older than her, but still a private. Maker could guess what had held back promotions. As if it was just one thing. “It’s ironic.”

“I get it,” she responded dryly. A tone sounded and the doors opened.

She heard him call after her quietly as she walked away, “And find a fucking sling, Sarge.”

Her surgeon was fairly upset to find out she had let the weight of her arm hang from his “perfectly good capsular ligament”, resulting in dislocation. He had a nurse hold her while he reinserted it – sans anesthetic. When she woke up, she found that she had been restricted to bed rest in the infirmary for a further two days. It wouldn’t have particularly hurt her feelings, if she hadn’t been itching to make a call.  Rodriguez visited once, although he spent most of his hour flirting with a resident. Kerry came as well, and, in the true vein of the friendship they had forged years before during basic training, he mostly sat quietly and listened while she talked. Although he surprised her by sending a few new novels to her net account as well. It gave her something to do besides practice the lecture she was waiting to give.

Within twenty minutes of being released, she was back in her own quarters. She shared with another non-commissioned officer, but her bunk mate was luckily on duty. Maker flipped on her display and opened her net account. She had to look up the code, but the call was picked up right away.

Perry, here, state your business.” The voice was clipped and professional. Maker expected nothing less from a member of that crew.

“Sergeant Clara Maker, Service Number SC2144-E56-00861,” she responded. She didn’t bother sitting up straight, although she knew the communications officer on the other end could see her. As was protocol for an active-duty ship, the camera on that end remained dark until permission was granted by a senior officer. “Requesting to speak with Captain Yamamoto, immediately.”

“Sergeant,” the officer’s voice dropped about ten degrees. “That is not in your pay grade. Submit a formal request.”

“Is Commander…” she wracked her brain for the man’s name. It had been years since they met. “Alarcon available?”  There was a long pause, and Maker vacillated between anger and hope. Anger for the Captain. Hope that the Commander remembered her.

“Go.” The single command came from a new voice, just as concise as she recalled.

“Commander Alarcon, this is Sergeant Clara Maker. I need to speak with Captain Yamamoto as soon as possible, sir.”

“Sergeant,” he hesitated, and then the display activated. A middle-aged man, his skin dark and silky looking, stood with the communications officer behind him. “The Captain is off duty. Can this wait?” His face was calm, but not unkind.

“No,” she said, just as evenly, “it cannot.” The display went dark again and a protest by the communications officer was abruptly silenced. There was a minute of nothing while the indicator lights at the bottom of the screen blinked to show the communication was being held in the system.Then they flashed green.

“Yamamoto, here.” Her voice was a little rough, she had obviously just woken up.

“Lin,” Maker said flatly. The camera on the Perry immediately switched on. Yamamoto looked the same as when Maker had last seen her, almost two years prior. Her skin was a flawless almond. Her hair, despite the mess of sheets and dented pillow on the bed where she sat, lay in a smooth black curtain just past her jawline. The blue pajama set was not standard issue sleepwear, but they displayed to advantage a body that had been well-taken care of for the last four and a half decades.

“Clara,” she didn’t raise her volume, but her eyes widened in surprise. “Is something wrong? I thought you would be in the infirmary for another few days, at least.”

Maker tried to keep her anger behind a cold voice, “Why would you think that? In fact,” she could feel her blood pounding in her ears and had to grip the edge of her desk to keep from pointing an accusing finger at the screen, “How did you know anything about my injury?”

“That,” Yamamoto frowned and waved a hand as if it wasn’t worth mentioning. “I would never know anything about you if I waited for you or your father to inform me. The Chief Medical Officer on the Pershing is an old friend. He notified me as soon as you were admitted.” Maker ground her teeth together with fury, but her mother continued as though she couldn’t clearly understand the expression on her daughter’s face. “Your surgical report showed several coral grafts and some artificial bone. Are you rejecting them?”

“Why ask?” Maker spit out, furious. “Why not just ring my doctor and ask him?”

“Clara, that would put him in an awkward position, don’t you think?” Her gentle chiding sent Maker’s blood boiling. “Now, if you would simply add me to your information release form, we wouldn’t need to go through this. I barely had enough time to call up your grandfather’s old classmate to help smooth out the inquiry.”

“Captain Sullivan-” she began, but was cut off.

“Yes. I hoped you were sufficiently respectful during the inquiry. You will never get a decent posting once you are commissioned if you don’t-”

“I will say this once more.” Maker leaned in close to the screen, focusing on her mother’s face. She kept her voice low, knowing that the walls in her quarters were not thick enough to keep her neighbors from overhearing if she shouted. “I have no intention of being commissioned. I will not re-sign once my obligatory two years’ service is up. I do not want your help. I do not want to use the Yamamoto name or connections. I. Do. Not. Want to speak with you. Stay out of my life, Lin.”

She ended the transmission and logged out of her account, locking the station. As soon as she had her breathing under control, she grabbed her dopp kit, towel, and a change of clothes and went to wash.

It was a short walk to the showers in her section, and they were nearly deserted. When she finished, Maker wiped the steam from the mirror. Her wet hair looked nearly black, the unruly waves slicked down against the back of her neck. The white of her skin looked deathly against the bruises under her eyes. Freckles, cultivated during a childhood spent under the Earth’s atmosphere, had faded to nearly nothing; they took on a green cast under the harsh lighting. Her new scars were minimal, courtesy of laser stitching and low-impact techniques. Only slightly shiny patches on her pale skin denoted where a talon had pierced her calf and the bullet trail across the top of her thigh. A silvery line, barely wider than thread, traced down her arm to end in a faint starburst where her damaged tech had burned her. With the mirror, she could see the still healing pink tissue on each shoulder; her left was surrounded by fading bruises from the recent dislocation.

It didn’t seem like enough. Four soldiers were dead but she had to search for a visible sign of her injuries..

It was too much. She hadn’t wanted to be a soldier, would never have joined if it weren’t compulsory. Nineteen years old. Four months left to serve and she wanted nothing so badly as to just go home.

She could feel hot tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, which made her angry. She shouldn’t be crying. She wasn’t hurt anymore; she didn’t have the ashes of a loved one on their way home in a jar. She didn’t have any reason to cry. Still. Maker yanked on standard issue loose grey shorts and tank – the contrast to Yamamoto’s attire was satisfying. On the way back to her quarters she kept up a pace that was uncomfortable for her healing body and fell into her bunk before any moisture leaked out onto her face.

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