Preveiw: Chapters 1 & 2
There were a few parts of her job as platoon master sergeant that Shayma Hamdi did not like. This was one of them. However, she had no choice as discipline had to be maintained. And though other staff NCOs might have reported the incident to the CO and left, MSgt Hamdi couldn’t. They were her people and she would stand with them.
From the looks on privates first class Rice and Newman’s faces, they weren’t sure what was going to happen. Truth was, MSgt Hamdi didn’t know either.
She was having trouble with that lately, not being sure what to do. She’d been a Hospitaller for two contracts, twelve standardized years. Upping for another six years was supposed to be a no-brainer. So simple a 2nd Radial Marine could figure it out, as the joke went.
But she, the PFCs sitting across from her, and Major Burge in his office, were Hospitallers. While that was much like a Marine, it was also nothing like a Marine. Most Marines had family, for instance. Every Hospitaller was, is, and would always be an orphan, raised in the Hospitaller-run orphanages.
It meant that for as long as she could remember, Hamdi had been a Hospitaller. She’d chosen the field aid and combat arm of the organization. She’d been involved in tens of operations, delivering aid, comfort, and providing defense when needed. Things she’d played at in elementary school, practiced in high school, and trained for in her first years as a Hospitaller.
Like Rice and Newman, she’d been a Pfc at one time.
Hamdi smiled and shook her head. They knew what they wanted. Maybe a little too much.
The handle on the hatch to Hamdi’s right clicked and scraped. She looked over as the hatch swung inward. Corporal Sutton stepped into the open, one foot on either side of the hatchway.
“MSgt Hamdi,” said the corporal.
“Cpl Sutton. Major ready?”
Cpl Sutton nodded but her face wasn’t registering anything positive. “Yeah,” she said. “But you know he doesn’t like this kind of thing.”
“I know.” She stood. “Gentlemen, report in to the major.”
Rice and Newman stood. They gave each other a quick glance and then did a proper left face before marching over the hatchway and into the next room. They had to cross the small office that was Cpl Sutton’s to reach the major’s office. Hamdi often thought of it as stepping into the jaws of the jaws.
“You coming, too?” asked Cpl Sutton.
“Don’t I always?” MSgt Hamdi stepped into the smaller office just as the two PFCs stepped into Maj Burge’s office.
“Yes, you always,” said Cpl Sutton.
Hamdi paused in the middle of the room. In the office beyond, she could hear Pfc Newman reporting in as ordered. “You ever have something like this come through the office?”
Cpl Sutton shrugged as she returned to her desk and sat down. “Couple of times in the last few years. But, hey, it’s a big ol’ spaceship. It’s gonna happen.”
“In the shower?”
“You got me there,” said Cpl Sutton. She followed her concession with a laugh. “Major’s waiting.”
“Right. Thanks.” Hamdi hurried into the major’s office. They were three levels below the loading deck of the drop-ship carrier Arnaud, back just past midway from the fore. She had to focus to feel the thrum of the engines she’d grown accustomed to. If she had the time.
Inside the small office, Hamdi took the position to the right of Pfc Rice. She stepped to attention. “MSgt Hamdi reporting, sir.”
“Took you long enough, Hamdi,” the major said.
“Right.” He paused and Hamdi could see the major sizing up each of them, her and the two Hospitallers in her charge. “At ease.”
While the three Hospitallers snapped to the at-ease position, Maj Burge glanced at a tablet, using his ring finger to slide the digital page upward. Hamdi doubted he was reading the report she’d submitted. Likely he’d read it several times and was now only refreshing himself on the salient points.
Finally, Maj Burge set the tablet aside and layered his hands left over right. He rocked back in his chair. “There are three kinds of rules that we have here aboard the Arnaud. We have rules of safety. Rules of discipline. Rules of tradition. Let me ask you, Pfc Rice. Did the two of you have shower shoes on while taking advantage of your platoon’s empty shower room?”
There was a short pause before Pfc Rice spoke. “No, sir.”
He’d spoken so softly that MSgt Hamdi had to pull herself back to straight position. She’d been unconsciously leaning in, trying to hear Pfc Rice.
“So you broke three types of rules, Rice. Newman.” Maj Burge leaned forward, his elbows now resting on the arms of his chair. “All of them concern me, but one concerns me most: rules of tradition. Mostly because those are the ones that protect our butts when we’re in dangerous situations. Which, if you agree with me, MSgt Hamdi, seems to be happening a lot more often than it used to?”
It didn’t even take a moment’s contemplation. Hamdi answered, saying, “Yes, sir, it does seem that way.”
“When things get ugly down on some tertiary world, the absolute last thing I need is someone hesitating because their romantic partner might be in harm’s way. Is this a romantic partnership? Or just a one-time rub fest?”
Hamdi took the opportunity to look over at her people. Rice had looked to Newman. Newman’s face showed the flicker of a smile. Hamdi could see the side of Rice’s face and his cheek bunched, a soft smile likely forming on his face.
Newman turned back to Maj Burge. “Romantic partnership, sir.”
“Well, that makes things easy and complicated at the same time.” Maj Burge pulled the tablet back, front and center on his desktop, and again used the tip of his ring finger to flick sideways to expose other documents. “I would have been okay with demotions and barracks restrictions. However, if you’re going to be involved on a deeper level, there’s really only one thing to do.”
Maj Burge flicked two fingers across the tablet screen.
“You’ve both just received a blank transfer request. I’m not saying you both have to transfer out, but one of you must. I’d suggest a different battalion, but at least another company. There’s three on the Arnaud. You can try that, see how it flies. But if either one of you lets your relationship get in the way of doing your job, I’ll ship you both off to a ground barracks someplace uncomfortable. Clear?”
“Yes, Major,” both men said in unison.
“Good. You have until the end of the official ship day. If I don’t have one or two transfers in my tablet by then, I’ll arrange the transfer myself. Like I said: ground, uncomfortable. Dismissed.”
Hamdi and the two Pfcs snapped to attention, saluted and did a hard right face.
“Not you, Master Sergeant.”
Surprised, Hamdi stepped aside and watched as the other two marched through the hatch, and then ran for the corridor beyond the outer office. She caught a glimpse of Cpl Sutton who only shrugged her own ignorance to the current situation. With no clue as to what the major wanted, Hamdi returned to her at-ease position, facing the desk.
“Now, MSgt Hamdi.” The major leaned forward, his elbows resting on the desk, his forearms parallel to each other with the tablet resting between them. “What about you?”
It took Hamdi a moment to catch up. She’d been focused on Rice and Newman. They were both excellent at working with locals in a crisis. They were both dependable in a firefight. Maj Burge knew that, too. The point of his question caught up to her quickly enough, though.
“My decision, Major?”
“Yes, your decision, Master Sergeant.” He pointed at a chair. “Sit down, please.”
Hamdi knew better than to argue. She pulled a chair to the center of the room and sat, hands on knees.
“You comfortable, Hamdi? You don’t look comfortable.”
“Sorry, Maj Burge. I’m trying.”
“You work on it.” He pushed himself back from the desk, leaned in his chair, and thumped his booted feet onto the desk’s surface. “I, however, don’t need to try. Now, tell me what you’re going to do about your career.”
She took a few seconds before speaking. She pushed her palms along the tops of her thighs, feeling the rough material of her gray ship uniform against them. Finally, “I still don’t know, sir.”
“Sixteen years, Master Sergeant. Sixteen.” He tapped his left shoulder where a braided cord of gold and red looped from the epulate, under his armpit, and back up to the other side of the epulate. “You know how hard it is to get master sergeant braids?”
Most of the Hospitallers from her year at the orphanage were still sergeants and staff sergeants. Rarely did people move out of the Hospitaller military service. There was only up, and she was told that the best Hospitallers were tapped for promotions, some even tapped for officer candidate training. She’d turned down OCT. Never regretted it.
“Yes, Major. It’s difficult.”
“You’re darn right it is. I have friends who are still staff sergeants, still captains. Any of them would have been colonels or sergeant majors in any other military system. But we aren’t any other military system.”
That, Hamdi knew from being taught and from teaching, was because of the orphanage system. No one in the Hospitallers had been raised by their own family. Some, like Hamdi, had never known her biological family. Her earliest memories were of dorm parents and the twenty-nine other kids she shared the company dorm with.
That was how the Hospitallers began, looking after the orphans left behind by the Radial War. The wealthiest seven people had put it together, funded it. Now, almost two and a quarter centuries later, Hospitallers ran orphanages, hospitals, research facilities, several colleges, factories, and one of the most highly trained military forces in the arm. Some would say the best, but Hospitallers were more concerned about providing aid and comfort. Military action was always the last option.
“Sorry, Major. Just reflecting.”
“Were you reflecting on why you haven’t signed your new six-year contract?”
“Sort of, Major.” She smiled, feeling awkward.
“Right. So, still no definite answer?”
“I’m sorry, Major.”
Maj Burge sat up. He pulled the tablet closer and began swiping through the documents. Ten years, Hamdi had known the major. He’d been a lieutenant at their first meeting, and she still wondered at the use of his ring finger to operate the tablet. Everyone else seemed to naturally use their pointer finger. The middle finger if they’d lost the other. Never the ring finger.
“I’m sorry, too, Hamdi. We’re going to miss you on Panchala.”
Hamdi leaned forward several centimeters. “Miss me, Major?”
“You’re current contract ends in less than two months. The mission on Panchala is a ceasefire observation and maintenance. Local militias and the central government of the planet aren’t seeing eye to eye.” Maj Burge looked at Hamdi and shrugged. “But you won’t have to worry about that. You’ll be on your way to the nearest United Planets space station for processing.”
“Major, please, my people.”
“But they won’t be your people in two months, Master Sergeant.”
Hamdi’s hands were pinched between her knees. Why was this decision so difficult? Why could she not just say yes, and sign the contract? What was holding her back?
“Could I at least file a service extension request, Maj Burge?”
There was a heavy pause where Maj Burge permitted a smile to lighten his previously stern look. “You’ve heard of them, then, Hamdi?
Hamdi had heard. Over the twelve years of enlistment, she had heard exactly two people talk about them. One of them had been a nurse in a hospital who’d wanted to stay long enough to see a patient make it back to their unit. The other had ridiculed the whole idea, but then, he’d also been demoted from staff sergeant to private first class. And extension would have given him time to reach corporal before his next contract, but he’d been too bitter over the demotion to think logically.
So when she began to wonder what to do with herself, now that her contract was coming to an end, Hamdi had done some research. She knew quite a lot, now, about Hospitaller contracts and extensions.
“I’ve heard,” she said, “that I can apply for an open extension. One that states that I’m still enlisted until the end of a designated operation.”
“Such as the ceasefire operation on Panchala.”
“Yes, Major. Such as that.”
The major laughed. “Oh, Master Sergeant, I do wish I could just order you to sign the new six. You’re too clever and too good to let the galaxy have.”
The praise didn’t fail to put a smile on Hamdi’s face. “Thank you, Maj Burge. So do you think it’s possible?”
“The extension?” Major Burge turned his tablet so the words could be read by Hamdi. He slid it forward, his eyebrows rising as he did. “All it needs is your thumbprint, Master Sergeant.”
“It’s a ceasefire observation.” Cpl Vaughn shook his head emphatically. “There’s no way this operation will be over in eight weeks. The last one I was on was two standardized years. No way.”
“Vaughn’s got a point, Sarge.” Several of the enlisted had gathered around the triad of Cpl Vaughn, Cpl Young, and Sgt Walters.
The platoon was on the loading deck of the Arnaud. The deck ran the length of the ship and was the middle deck, like a slice of protein between to fat slices of bread. Loading ramps jutted out from a string of openings down both sides of the ship. They reminded Hamdi of hungry mouths, eager to be fed.
Everywhere there was ordered chaos. On both sides of the deck, platoons were loading crawlers with gear. Some were carrying equipment by hand, others used hand trucks. Two platoons forward and starboard of midship were already guiding crawlers into the drop-ship bays. Elsewhere, like here where Sextus platoon, Acre company was gathered in a friendly argument, standard issue plastic crates were still stacked, making it easy for Hamdi to reach the platoon unintentionally unseen.
Or, mostly unseen.
“Fine,” Sgt Walters said. “Ask MSgt Hamdi yourself.”
“Ask me what?”
Everyone but Sgt Walters jumped at the unexpected voice. Hamdi, standing between two stacks of crates, smiled at the wide-eyed group.
Cpl Young was the first to recover. “Hey, Master Sergeant. Sgt Walters insists the deployment won’t be long because you’re coming along.”
Hamdi shook her head. “Sorry, Walters, it’s going to be a while. The ceasefire agreement is six months with a mutual renewal for another six months.”
Cpl Vaughn crossed his arms and grinned in Walter’s direction. Several other Hospitallers thumped Vaughn on the upper back in a congratulatory manner.
Sgt Walters appeared unaware of the actions around him. He did seem confused in Hamdi’s opinion. But with good reason.
“But, you’re coming,” Sgt Walters said. “And no one deploys on a mission that goes past their exit date.”
“Not unless she’s signed her six.” Pfc Markham had maneuvered her way into the conversation. “Did you sign it, Master Sergeant?”
Hamdi could see the eager look on the faces of the Hospitallers around her. It reminded her of the orphanage and Foundation day when they celebrated the creation of the Hospitallers. A big cake was served at dinner, with three flavors of shaved ice to choose from. Then, all the children in the dorm would gather around their dorm parents, eagerly anticipating the present they would each receive.
“No, sorry,” said Hamdi. “I didn’t sign my six.”
Sgt Walters threw her hands up in an action of exaggerated exasperation. “Then how can this be a long deployment?”
“I signed an extension, good to the end of the mission.”
There was a long silence. Hamdi imagined they were all trying to wrap their heads around the idea. Like the major had implied, there were very few that knew about contract extensions.
But, as the implications of what Hamdi had said soaked in, faces bloomed with smiles.
“That’s great,” said Cpl Young.
“Dang right,” Pfc Markham added. “If we got to do a long deployment, there’s no better master sergeant to work with.”
Sgt Walter stepped over to MSgt Hamdi and offered her hand. “Can’t disagree with that sentiment. Glad you’re coming along, Master Sergeant.”
“You say that now,” Hamdi said. She grinned before adding, “But step on the wrong boot, and you’ll wish I’d stayed on the Arnaud.”
General laughter followed her comment, as did several dozen handshakes and murmured, glad-you’ll-be-alongs.
When she decided that she’d had enough handshakes, Hamdi looked around and then said, “So what is this? We’re going to be the last ones loaded? I don’t like losing.”
“You heard the master sergeant, people,” shouted Sgt Walters. Her voice would do any drill instructor proud, in Hamdi’s opinion.
With a few quick laughs and a final handshake, Sextus platoon, Acre company turned to loading their drop-ships. They’d been assigned the Fuerte Olimpo and the Jose Fassardi for this mission.
“Glad you’re coming with us, Master Sergeant.”
Hamdi snapped to attention. “Thank you, Lt Falcone. Glad to see you too, Lieutenant.”
Lt Falcone returned the salute. “Yes, but I’m only a year into my contract, I have to be here. You could have stayed shipside.”
“No fun in that, Lieutenant.”
“No, I guess there wouldn’t be,” said the lieutenant. “But you could have signed your six and been done with it. What are you going to do if the mission lasts six years?”
Hamdi smiled at the suggestion. “No mission has ever lasted six years, Lt Falcone.”
“Not in the history of the Hospitallers, but a protracted war could change all that.”
The idea was a bit disturbing to Hamdi. “You think that could happen here? On Panchala, Lieutenant?”
The lieutenant laughed. “I hope not. I’m just suggesting that things could go bad and you’d be stuck here for six anyway.”
“I see. Well, Lieutenant, either way, the time still counts as time served.”
“You’re right, it does.” Lt Falcone clapped Hamdi on the shoulder. “Let’s get these kids loaded for the picnic, eh?”
“Hospitallers at the back, can you hear me?” The cargo master’s voice boomed in the now cramped confines of the drop-ship named Fuerte Olimpo.
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!”
“Hospitallers at the front, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!”
Hamdi smiled at the interchange between her platoon and the cargomaster, SSgt Kimimela. Hamdi wondered nearly every time she sat in a drop-ship if eccentricity was a primary requirement for cargomasters. Not all bellowed like SSgt Kimimela. The cargomaster over on the Jose Fassardi was known for singing instructions in an operatic style.
One of the first Hamdi had ever encountered after basic training was quiet spoken. She’d looked almost too small for her job. But, despite her diminutive stature and mousey voice, she had a cutting wit that left Hospitallers on board for the ride crying with laughter.
“Hospitallers in the blast zone of my loud and booming voice, can you hear me?”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant!”
“All right, then,” said SSgt Kimimela. “No one ’s new at the this. You’re strapped in. Gear secured. Lunch bags ready? You know who I mean, Pfc Kimball.”
There was a lot of laughter that SSgt Kimimela had to shout down.
“There’s some of you who shouldn’t be laughing,” the cargomaster said. He was staring down at Cpl Redford. Redford blushed and held up his hands to stave off the accusatory glare.
SSgt Kimimela started walking toward the front of the cargo bay. He paused as he reached MSgt Hamdi. She looked him in the eye. She’d never lost her lunch on a drop, so she wasn’t sure what he was going to try.
“Hey, MSgt Hamdi.”
“Hey, SSgt Kimimela.”
SSgt Kimimela nodded, looking pleased. Hamdi was braced, ready for something that would ignite laughter across the cargo bay. Instead, the staff sergeant said, “Glad you’re with us, Master Sergeant.”
Hamdi didn’t have a chance to respond. SSgt Kimimela was already moving, giving a couple of high-fives as he went. Up front, he turned and plopped into his seat. With one hand he started pulling on his straps, with the other he snatched a handset of the wall and pressed it against his ear, speaking quickly quickly into the other end.
When he was done with the handset, he clicked the straps of his seat harness together, pulling to tighten them, and tucked away the loose ends. Once secured, he pulled a hand mic off the panel next to him.
Just before SSgt Kimimela keyed the mic, Hamdi felt the rumble of the drop-ship engines coming online.
“Hospitallers, can you hear me?”
Through the drop-ship bay came a boisterous response. “Yes, Staff Sergeant!”
“Good,” said SSgt Kimimela. There was a glint in his eye. “Let’s take a little trip.”
As if waiting for the staff sergeant’s signature statement, the growl of the drop-ship’s engines intensified. Around her, Hamdi could see Hospitallers making last minute checks of shoulder straps, looking for any loose gear, and making jokes to take the edge off their nerves. Hamdi understood that last feeling.
She’d been in only one close call on a drop-ship. That was in her first six-year contract. Drop-ships used a controlled freefall to enter primary and secondary world atmo. Tertiary and terraforming worlds, drop-ships used drogue chutes and heavy-duty parachutes to slow an engine-less freefall. Sometimes things went wrong.
Entering a secondary world atmo, the drop-ship Cpl Hamdi had been in lost one of its four engines and went into a mad spiral. The centrifugal force had been intense, shoving every Hospitaller against their backrest. She’d been sure there’d be no walking away from the impact. However, the pilot had been exceptional, and despite the loss of the ship and the lower cargo hold, every hospitaller had survived, even if they had to exit on a stretcher.
Maybe once every couple of years, a drop-ship failed. Considering the hundreds of drops made every month somewhere in the 2nd radial arm of the galaxy, the odds were against the worst happening. However, it could happen. That was enough to make every Hospitaller perversely entertain the idea that this drop was going to be the one. So, if they joked and laughed a little too sharply, it was understandable.
“Still sure about that contract extension?”
Hamdi looked across the bay, through a space in the loaded supplies, at Sgt Young. He had a broad smile on his face.
Before Hamdi could answer the hard clack of the drop-ship unlocking from the Arnaud shook the seats.
Hamdi smiled back and said, “We’re about to find out.”
Like the vast majority of drops, despite the vibrations that always seemed out of place, Hamdi had nothing to regret about her extension so far. The drop-ship touched down without issue.
At the front of the bay, SSgt Kimimela had dramatically leaped from his seat and was quick-marching down the aisle. Loudly, he said, “Told you it’d be fun.”
As he passed by, Hospitallers began to unbuckle their restraints. They stood and unlocked weapons from their brackets and gave them quick inspections.
At the aft end of the bay, with the help of two privates, SSgt Kimimela, unsecured the cargo bay hatch. After that, Kimimela lifted a dark plastic cover and punched a large red button that someone had drawn a happy face on. The whine of the hydraulics and the creak of the hatch hinges signaled the hatch’s movement.
Around Hamdi, Hospitallers were doing last minute checks on their gear and that of the Hospitaller in front of them. As this was not a combat situation, the Hospitallers at the hatch were more relaxed than in an active combat zone. There, the ballistic shields would have been unfolded to protect the people on point. The shields would drop when the passage was cleared. Here, on Panchala, four hospitallers knelt, weapons raised, safeties off, and nothing more.
“Gate down,” SSgt Kimimela shouted.
3rd squad moved out from the protection of the cargo bay, weapons at the ready, fanning out to provide cover as necessary. Sgt Cornish, who’d kept close to the ramp was watching his people, his head swiveling left and then far right.
“Look’s clear, Master Sergeant.”
“2nd squad,” Hamdi said.
Sgt Walters moved forward. “2nd squad, move out!”
2nd squad exited the drop-ship, fanning out just ahead of 3rd squad.
The process repeated until the entire platoon had taken up defensive positions that expanded to encompass the whole ship. When Hamdi and Lt Falcone exited the drop-ship, Hamdi could see the second drop-ship with the rest of the company fanned out around it.
“Lovely vistas,” said Lt Falcone.
Hamdi laughed as she looked around. They were just inside the boundaries of Kandas Raj, the regional capital. Like every major city on Panchala, Kandas Raj had been a focal point of the battles between local militias and the global government. Many of the buildings around their landing zone were battered, some nothing more than stubs jutting above the rubble.
“Charming, Lt Falcone, very charming. Not sure it’s for me.”
“Nice rubble, though.”
“Clean,” said Hamdi.
Indeed, the landing area had been cleared for the drop-ships prior to their arrival. The rubble had been pushed into low berms surrounding the ships. They were helpful in keeping the engine blast from washing through the nearest streets. The attention given to the landing areas had not been given to the adjacent streets where the broken bits of buildings had been moved just enough to provide essential passage.
A hiss in Hamdi’s headset alerted her to a comm line opening.
“Lt Falcone? MSgt Hamdi?”
Lt Falcone looked at Hamdi and nodded. Hamdi tapped at the mic button near her throat.
“Hey, Master Sergeant.” It was Cpl Sutton’s voice. “Maj Burge asks that you join him. The lieutenant, too.”
“Be right there, Corporal.”
“I’ll let him know.”
Hamdi closed the comm line and turned to Lt Falcone. Though he hadn’t talked, he had been on the line, too.
“SSgt Kimimela?” he turned to address the cargomaster still in the hatchway.
“Can you assist Sgt Young in getting the supplies unloaded? I’d like to get the supply crawlers out A.S.A.P.”
“Sgt Young? He scratched the paint on the last deployment, Lt Falcone.” Kimimela grinned after he spoke.
“I’ll remind him to be careful, Staff Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir. In that case, we’ll get the Fuerte Olimpo empty before you know it.”
Lt Falcone returned SSgt Kimimela’s salute and then headed to the berm. Hamdi followed. It was a low berm, easy to see over, but the rubble was unsteady. It took a couple extra seconds for them to make their way across.
Near the other roughed-out landing pad, Maj Burge, Lt Castillo, and several others were waiting. As they approached, Hamdi recognized the first platoon master sergeant, Archie Aguilar. She gave him a nod, which he returned in kind. They’d both grown up in the same orphanage, but different halls and he’d been a year ahead of her.
“Major,” Lt Falcone said and saluted as he and Hamdi approached within three meters of the waiting group. “Lt Castillo. Pleasant flight down?”
Hamdi saluted, too, waiting for both, Lt Castillo and Maj Burge to complete their salute before dropping hers. Her hand, though, went right back up as she realized a third officer was present. His rank was enough to bring Lt Falcone’s hand up again, too.
“Falcone, Hamdi,” Maj Burge said. He held out an introductory hand. “This is Capt Orlando Singh, engineer battalion.”
Capt Singh returned the salutes and then held his arms up and outward. “Welcome to Panchala.”