“Lieutenant Maker, reporting for duty, sir.” Maker snapped a salute and kept her eyes straight ahead, waiting for the inevitable instruction to relax. An old-fashioned clock, one that still made a tick-tick sound, sat on the shelf at the back of the office. It was sixty-eight ticks before her new commanding officer spoke.
“You have a bronze star, Lieutenant. It says so in your file, but I don’t see it on your uniform.”
The Major had been hunched over his desk when she came in, so Maker hadn’t gotten much of an impression aside from broad shoulders in his gray field jacket and a shining bald head. The question threw her off guard. “Er, no sir. I wasn’t aware that dress uniform was required today. Sir.” She resisted the urge to shrug.
His tone was mild as he continued, “VK10 was a hell of a mess. Aren’t you proud of what you accomplished there?”
“Not really, sir.” The words were out before she could think about them, and Maker winced. Given that the circumstances under which she was put in for consideration of a medal, the appropriate response should have been: sir, yes, sir, always proud to serve the Coalition, sir. That was the kind of thing that usually ended conversations about meritorious service. The Major was expectantly silent, and still hadn’t asked her to relax, and Maker was compelled to add something to the awkwardness. “I was just lucky to live through it, sir. We all were.”
“Lucky General Batma called that retreat and air strike, you mean. I hoped you thanked the other team on the ground. Who was that?” The question was casual, but Maker had been down that road before. With Yardley and countless soldiers and crewmembers. With the SIS. With Ben-Zvi after the woman cornered her during her last week aboard the Pershing. During her training at the Academy after re-enlisting. In the four years since VK10, she had gained a great deal of practice at dodging questions.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” she answered carefully.
“Huh. Well, must be my mistake.” The creak of his chair was loud in the small office. “At ease soldier.”
Maker relaxed – but only so much. Her stance widened and her hands went behind her back. She warily turned her gaze to the Major. Rumors were rampant among the rank and file, but Maker had taken Captain Yardley’s advice and kept her mouth shut. It had been a long time since anyone had brought up the mysterious Team Leader from VK10. Having the commanding officer of one of the premier Special Forces units do so made her extremely uneasy. She had come to the conclusion that Team Leader was part of an elite group of soldiers. Having one of his comrades digging into the official story put out by the Coalition about VK10 made her paranoia start dragging a chair in front of the proverbial door and boarding up windows.
The Major was stocky, built like a travel-sized version of Paul Bunyan. His complete lack of hair did nothing to soften his weathered face or the muscles straining the undershirt that was exposed by a loose jacket. His sleeves were rolled up to mid-forearm, revealing even more muscles and thick tattoos. She thought she could make out a skull, and at least one burning Culler corpse.
“The last translator that worked with my Raiders didn’t make it long. Neither did the one before that. So if you want to get through this assignment, follow three simple rules: do as you’re told, forget what you see, and don’t shoot any friendlies.”
“I can do that, sir.” Maker wanted to insert a joke about premature firing, but the Major’s expression advised her against it. Rodriguez would have enjoyed it.
“It’s harder than it sounds.” He tapped a few commands into his tablet and Maker’s bracer vibrated quietly. “That’s your duty roster. You have a Specialist that will be partnering you – try not to piss him off. The soldier outside will show you to your bunk.” Maker saluted and picked up her duffle from where she had dropped it by the door. “Welcome aboard.”
Look for Hellhound, Part II on Amazon soon!