Preveiw: Rescue on Gimhae - Chapters 1 & 2
Sergeant Seavers’ nose was still crusted with blood as he waited outside the Malta company commander’s office. He knew he was in for it. Fighting on the Varde-Skaj space station was frowned upon. Fighting with the 2nd Radial Marines was also a bad idea. Beating three of them might make him a hero to the rest of Secundus platoon, but it wasn’t going to put him in a favorable light with Major Hunt.
He hadn’t wanted to fight. He hadn’t intended to fight. But that dig — How’s your mom? — when everyone in the star-tossed galaxy knew Hospitallers are orphans from the lowest private to the supreme commander. Some Hospitallers never knew who their parents were. Maybe that was Sgt Seavers’ problem. If he hadn’t known his family, he might not have reacted so violently.
Ten years might seem a long enough time to get over the loss, but Seavers doubted he ever would. Having a bunch of surly Marines throw that comment in his face, didn’t help.
Seavers looked up at the company commander’s door.
“Guerrero,” said Seavers on seeing Private First Class Guerrero standing in the gap between door and frame.
“Major Hunt’s ready to see you, Sergeant.”
Sgt Seavers stood and tried to smooth his uniform. The light gray duty uniform only served to highlight the blood splattered across the front. The sonic cleaner would get it out just fine, but he was going to spend a half hour finding and sewing on two new buttons and his sergeant rank cord.
As there was nothing he could do about the buttons and cord for the moment, he nodded to Pfc Guerrero. Guerrero stepped out of the way as Seavers marched through the outer office and past the hatch into Major Hunt’s inner office.
Major Hunt wasn’t looking at papers on her desk or otherwise looking too busy to notice Sgt Seavers’ entrance. Instead, she was standing behind her desk, fists pressed into the synth-wood surface, her eyes locked on Seavers as he marched in. He stopped on the well-worn spot in the rug that gave some warmth to the windowless office in the heart of the carrier ship.
Sgt Seavers made sure to snap his right face turn as clean and neat as he could. “Sgt Seavers reporting, Maj Hunt.”
“What is going on inside your head, Sergeant?”
Major Hunt had been a drill sergeant long before she went to officer candidate training. When she wanted to, she could pull that drill sergeant voice out, like an angry viper dumped out of a burlap sack. Seavers had heard stories of boot privates peeing themselves in fear. He wasn’t going to piss himself. Seavers had good bladder control. But, he could feel his nose starting to bleed.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I got carried away.”
“Carried away?” Maj Hunt grabbed a tablet off her desk and waved it at Seavers. “A broken nose on Marine Sgt Washington. Twelve stitches on Marine Sgt Terry. Four stitches and a dislocated finger for Marine Cpl Venegas. I’d say you got more than carried away, Sgt Seavers.”
The major dropped the tablet. It clattered and skidded in Seavers’ direction. It came dangerously close to sliding over the edge of the desk. The tablet distracted him for a brief moment, as he wondered if he should dive to save it if it started tilting over the edge.
“How long have you been a Hospitaller, Sgt Seavers?”
He’d signed the contract at sixteen. “Four years, ma’am.”
“How long has our organization been around?”
Sgt Seavers opened his mouth to answer and was cut off.
“Two hundred, twenty-two years, Sgt Seavers. And what is the motto of the Hospitallers?”
Again, before he could reply that it was, “Auxilium. Auris. Defendere”, aid, comfort, defend, he was cut off.
“It certainly isn’t to go around beating up Marines.” She sat, leaning back, her hands tapping non-rhythmic beats on the arms of the chair. “There are many in the galaxy, Sergeant, in case you fell asleep in history class, who are uncomfortable with our existence. They don’t like large organizations capable of war on a trans-system level that aren’t under their control.”
Sgt Seavers hadn’t fallen asleep in history. He hadn’t fallen asleep in any class. In the beginning, when they’d brought him from the stricken terraform colony to the hospitaller orphanage, Marohu, Seavers hadn’t been able to focus. As he accepted and was accepted into his orphanage platoon, he learned to focus, to absorb the information coming at him.
So he knew the foundations of the Hospitallers two and a quarter centuries ago. He knew they were a private organization outside the control of the United Planets and Allied Planet governments. He knew they were a relief organization first and a military organization second. What he did not know was why he was getting a refresher course.
“And the United Planets doesn’t like it when their boys of glory get beaten up by someone they can’t punish,” the major said. She leaned forward. “So I have to do the punishing.”
Seavers kept still despite the trickle of blood beginning to slide off the side of his upper lip. He wanted to swear, to complain, to point out that the Marines started it. He wanted to do all the things he might have done as a boy in his old colony before every adult he knew was killed by the still unidentified disease. He wanted to, but he wouldn’t. That was what ten years of training in the orphanage and boot camp was worth.
“And I don’t want to, Seavers,” the major said. This time Seavers couldn’t suppress his reaction. His eyebrows scrunched with uncertainty, raising a smile on Maj Hunt’s face. “You didn’t see that coming, did you? No. At ease, Sergeant.”
He snapped into position, his hands overlapping on the small of his back. “Yes, Major.”
“How am I going to justify sending you to officer candidate training if you’re going to go around blacking the eye of the 2nd Radial Marines? Don’t answer. You’ve got great scores and great marks. The soldiers serving under you think highly of you. Your peers feel the same way. As do the officers in the unit. You’ve proven yourself a capable soldier and leader in the field, whether it was bringing aid to a stricken community or defending the defenseless against enemy attack. You are, in short, Sgt Seavers, perfect for officer consideration.”
Sgt Seavers felt a little dizzy. He checked to make sure he hadn’t locked his knees. He hadn’t. He also hadn’t considered officer candidate training. He knew it was possible. He’d seen sergeants and staff sergeants, when he was a private, get tapped for the program. It was just never on his heads-up-display.
“Thank you, Major?”
“Don’t thank me, yet,” she said. “Because now I have a problem. The colonel over on the Marine’s expeditionary force ship wants satisfaction. And I’m going to give it to him. In my own way.”
Two hundred years ago, flogging had been an acceptable practice in the Hospitallers. But those had been violent times with the 2nd radial arm of the galaxy still in violent tatters. Was that the kind of satisfaction the Marine commander would require?
“So, I’m not demoting you,” Maj Hunt said. “I’m not docking your pay or restricting you to the barracks deck. I’m not even going to flog you. Don’t think it didn’t occur to me. What you are going to do is babysit a Marine platoon to the terraform planet, Gimhae, of the Buson system. They are interested in what we do, and it is politically polite to invite them.”
“Take Marines, Major? On an inoculation mission?”
“Take Marines, Sgt Seavers, that’s right. You have something else you’d like to say?”
“Is flogging still an option? Ma’am?”
Maj Hunt laughed as she stood. “Nice try, Sergeant. You’re not getting off that easy. Now, we jump at 1430 for Buson. 0430, Ship time, you’re on a drop-ship with two fire teams from Secundus Duo squad and two MedSpcs. A platoon of Marines will boat over and join you for the trip down.”
“I’m sorry, Maj Hunt, I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but why aren’t the Marines taking their own drop-ship down?”
Major Hunt smiled. “Oh, I invited them. They’ve never done a HiHo. You’re dismissed, Sergeant. Go clean yourself up.”
“Yes, Major.” Sergeant Seavers popped to attention and pulled a crisp right turn before marching out of the commander’s office. Once past Pfc Guerrero, he allowed the grin he’d been holding back to shine on his face, cracking the drying blood by his lip. Pulling a high insertion, high open with a bunch of Marines onboard. This might be fun after all.
“Naw, it’s common enough ailment on terraformed worlds,” Medical Technician 2 Johnston said. He turned to the other MedSpc. “That right, Barton?”
MedSpc 2 Barton looked up from her position on the supply crawler. “The terra-bug? Yeah, every time.”
“If they knew it was coming…”
Sgt Seavers was listening with half his attention to Strickland’s conversation with Johnston. He was giving the other half of his attention to the far end of the assembly bay. His team was loading their drop-ship, the Juiz de Fora, which was close to aft. Visiting cutters and other forms of off-ship transport used the two empty bays at the forward end of the Jobert; the only drop-ship carrier Seavers had ever served on. This meant that when the Marines finally came on board, they would have to walk almost the entire length of the carrier.
They’d be walking right down the middle of hostile territory. He knew he wouldn’t want to perform the same action on a Radial Marine carrier, which was twice the length. Part of him wondered if General Gill had arranged it purposefully. There was no keeping secret a scuffle between Hospitallers and Radial Marines.
A smile threatened Seavers’ face at the memory of the standing ovation he’d received in mess hall three. Major Hunt’s comments about OCT terminated the smile before it could establish a beachhead. Knowing what the future could be had a powerful effect on his bearing and feelings.
Movement at the far end of the assembly bay drew his attention. A steady stream of people were exiting the port visitor’s dock. Sgt Seavers shook his head. It was the Marines, and they were marching out of their cutter, two columns, lockstep. Hospitallers, prepping supplies to go on other drop-ships that would be heading down to the planet, stepped out of their cargo hatches to watch the mini-parade coming down the middle of the bay.
“Here they come.”
Sgt Seavers turned to see his squad gather like an undisciplined mob.
“Murphy,” Seavers said.
The corporal turned her attention to Sgt Seavers. “Yes, Sergeant?”
“Get everyone back to work. There’s no need to stroke these guys’ egos.” He nodded once in the direction of the Marines who were now in three columns with a commissioned officer and senior non-commissioned officer marching off to the side.
“All right,” Cpl Murphy said. Her voice was loud enough for the squad to hear, but not loud enough to carry. “You heard Sgt Seavers, back to work.”
There were a couple muttered remarks that rustled up a few laughs. Seavers assumed that it was at the Marine’s expense. As long as they got back to work and the Marines didn’t hear them, he wasn’t going to give the comments any weight.
Along the loading bay, the crews working at the other drop-ships also returned to work once the Marines had marched past. Very few of them were in view when the Marines were called to a halt by the Senior Staff NCO.
“Platoon! Right face!” The Marines snapped a well-rehearsed right face. “At ease!”
When the officer showed interest in the cargo bay of the drop-ship and the soldiers negotiating the crawlers into position, Sgt Seavers readied himself. He marched ten meters across open deck toward the Marines.
As he approached, he noticed several things. One was a familiar looking Marine sergeant with a swollen nose bracketed by two black eyes. He also saw that the officer was a Marine lieutenant. He looked like he’d recently eaten something he didn’t like the taste of.
Sgt Seavers snapped to attention, his heels popping together smartly. He saluted and said, “Sgt Seavers, Malta Company, France Langue. Welcome aboard the carrier, Jobert, sir.”
The lieutenant gave a distracted salute in return. “Yes, of course,” the lieutenant said. “Lt Lawrence. Marines. The real military. Who’s in charge?”
“Silence!” The SNCO had barked his command. Likely, to quell the wash of snickering that followed the lieutenant’s remark.
“Sir,” Sgt Seavers said. “That would depend on what you mean. The Jobert? Malta company? The Hospitallers loading the drop-ship?”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
The fact that the lieutenant had not used his rank nor refer to him in any military way was not lost on Seavers. His commander had been right, flogging would have been way easier.
“No, sir,” Seavers said. “Seeking clarification, sir.”
“The people loading the drop-ship, start with them. Who’s in charge of them?”
“I am, sir. Sergeant Seavers, Secundus Duo squad leader, sir.” He noticed, at the edge of his peripheral, another Marine with a strip of synth-skin across the left side of his forehead. Seavers didn’t need a closer look to know it covered twelve stitches.
The lieutenant took a pause to glare at Sgt Seavers. Seavers was pretty sure the lieutenant knew who he was. His commander would have told him in advance. To keep from grinning at the lieutenant, Seavers recalled Maj Hunt’s words about officer candidate training. There was no need to lose that opportunity. Not even to see a Marine officer’s face turn red as a hydroponic beet.
“Wonderful,” the lieutenant finally said. “And who’s in charge of the drop-ship?”
“That would be Lt Mitchell, sir. Pilot. Ssgt Baldwin is the loadmaster.”
“Well, we don’t want to bother the pilot,” the lieutenant said. “Why don’t you toddle off and find Ssgt Baldwin and tell him to report in.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get her right now.”
Seavers liked how Lt Lawrence’s eyebrows had practically shot up out of sight under the edge of his helmet upon hearing that the loadmaster was a woman. The Marines had once accommodated female recruits. But long before Seavers’ grandparents were even born, a shift away from inclusion had begun. It was now an all-boys club.
They were going to love Ssgt Baldwin.
Seavers found Ssgt Baldwin in the lower hold of the drop-ship. She was supervising the tie-down of the medical supply crawlers. When he told her of the lieutenant’s order and his reaction, she did what he always saw her do: she laughed. It was claimed, though no one had witnessed it, that Ssgt Baldwin had been born laughing.
“Come on, Sgt Seavers, let’s go look at my newest boy toy.”
Smothering his own laugh, Seavers followed Ssgt Baldwin back out onto the loading deck. She more walked than marched over to the Marines. He could see some of them bending towards each other to whisper comments back and forth.
Ssgt Baldwin wasn’t what anyone ever expected. She had everything that would physically define her as a woman, but she was a blown-up version. She topped out at two meters even, and everything was proportional to that. Seavers had witnessed Ssgt Baldwin move pallets of relief supplies that would have taken two ordinary soldiers to move. She was, as some Hospitallers liked to joke, a miniature giant.
“Hey, Lieutenant.” She saluted as she came to a stop. She scanned the lieutenant before adding, “Lawrence. So, how can I help you, Lt Lawrence?”
The lieutenant was tall enough, but he still had to look up to make eye contact. “Permission to board, staff sergeant.”
Seavers looked down to keep his eyes from rolling. So it took a small giant to get the lieutenant to recognize Hospitaller rank.
“Absolutely, Lt Lawrence. I just need to explain the rules to your men. I noticed they’re all men.”
“Yes, they’re all men, staff sergeant. And they’ve all done drop-ship missions before. So if you can show us where to sit?”
“Oh, so they’ve all been on a Hospitaller drop-ship? That’s good news.” She had not taken her eyes off the lieutenant.
Seavers had. He could see a bunch of Marines chewing on a mouthful of frustration. They might not like how Ssgt Baldwin was treating their L.T., but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it either. And if any of them did, they’d learn how formidable the staff sergeant was.
“No,” Lt Lawrence said. “They have not been on a Hospitaller drop-ship.”
“Then it’s good I’m explaining the rules, Lieutenant.” She turned to the platoon. “Ladies and — oh, wait. That’s right. Marines and gentlemen, you are about to board a Hospitaller drop-ship. Now, we don’t have the nice new shiny ones you have. We have to make ours last. With that in mind. Do not kick, bend, poke, scrape, tear, or in any other way, bring harm to my drop-ship. If you do, I will stuff you into the airlock and hit the emergency eject. No one damages this ship, except me.
“Now,” she added, pausing to smile, “to make boarding easier, I have marked each of your seats with a strip of pink ribbon. Easy to see amongst all the gray, green, and black.”
She turned to Lt Lawrence. “Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.”
Ssgt Baldwin offered a salute that the lieutenant returned in a manner that exposed his true feelings about the situation.
“Master sergeant,” the lieutenant barked. “Load ‘em up.”
“Marines. Ten-hut,” the master sergeant bellowed. “Left face. By the squad, third squad first, march.”
Ssgt Baldwin moved aside, taking up a spot next to Sgt Seavers. As one of the Marines who’d fought him approached, Ssgt Baldwin said, “Hey, Sgt Seavers.”
“Hey, Ssgt Baldwin.”
She motioned with her chin to the approaching Marine sergeant. “Friend of yours?”
Sgt Seavers had no comment. The idea of being an officer candidate was growing on him.
The Marines, despite their grumbling annoyance with Hospitallers in general and two-meter tall ones, specifically, were quickly on board and buckled in. Sgt Seavers thought they all looked cute with the pink bows on the seat straps over their head, but he decided to not mention it. With the Marines safely buckled in, Ssgt Baldwin directed privates Gutierrez and Cruz to secure the loading hatch.
Once the hatch was secure, Gutierrez and Cruz joined Sgt Seavers and the rest of the Hospitaller squad. They were buckling in directly opposite the Marine’s 1st squad which was under Sgt Washington’s command. Seavers fought back a smile he wanted to share with Sgt Washington. But, as the entire Marine platoon was about to experience a HiHo, he decided it could wait.
Ssgt Baldwin felt differently, and as she came by, checking the Marine’s restraints, she gave Sgt Washington an extra long look before saying in a cheerful tone, “Nice nose, Sergeant.”
As the staff sergeant walked away, she said something only the Hospitallers nearest her could hear. They busted into a good-natured laugh.
MedSpc Barton leaned over to Sgt Seavers, sparing a quick glance across the bay for Sgt Washington. “Ssgt Baldwin just said, ‘I ought to get me one of those.’”
Baldwin was still laughing as she sat back in her personal seat that faced backward, down the drop-ship’s bay. Sgt Seavers bit the inside of his lip to keep his laugh buried deep. He reminded himself, once again, that he had a chance at OCT.
At the forward end of the drop-ship bay, Ssgt Baldwin picked up a wired handheld and started talking to someone on the other end. The chatter amongst the Marines and the Hospitallers made it impossible for Sgt Seavers to overhear what she was saying. However, as he’d been operating out of drop-ships since he was sixteen, he had a good idea what was transpiring.
The sudden increase in the drop-ship’s vibrations confirmed it. They were getting ready to unlock and undock.
Ssgt Baldwin started buckling her restraints with speed and expertise. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said. “And Marines. Let’s have some fun.”