Colonel Dekker tucked his cover under his left arm and pounded on the wall with the palm of his hand three times.
Through the closed door, he heard General Lane say, “Come.” Dekker took a breath and waited until he was sure his mind was settled before he swung the door open and stomped up to Lane’s desk. He clicked the heels of the black resin dress boots he had shined to a mirror polish. He raised his voice, as if the General were standing ten feet away instead of sitting behind the desk in front of him, and said, “Colonel Dekker reporting as ordered sir.” He stood as still at a statue and stared at the wall.
“This is the Marine Corps, Ben, not the SS. At ease.” Dekker didn’t move. General Lane came out from behind his desk, kicked the plastic chair on the other side at Dekker and said, “Siddown!”
With a steel edge in his voice, Dekker said, “Aye aye sir,” and sat down, sitting straight enough to keep his back an inch away from touching the chair’s back.
Returning to his seat, General Lane said, “We don’t have time for this shit, Ben. I know you think I left your guys hanging the other day, but we don’t need to go through all that again, do we?” The two men sat in silence as Dekker continued to stare at the wall. The image of the Marine he had put to sleep forever pushed its way into Dekker’s mind.
General Lane smiled like a politician. “You did a damn fine job, Ben. You should know that.”
Dekker wanted to believe the General believed his own words, but he knew better. Dekker lowered his gaze to General Lane and said, “Yes we did. And we would have done it better if we’d had some help.”
General Lane closed his eyes and nodded. Looking at Dekker as if they were discussing the weather, he said, “I know, Ben. You’re not the only one who makes mistakes around here. I screwed the pooch. Alright?”
Dekker’s mouth opened slightly and he cocked his head to the side. “That’s right sir, you did. But I guess I don’t have a lot of room to talk about it, do I?”
Lane raised an eyebrow. “Sure you do. Do you want to?” He folded his hands and leaned back.
“I guess not. None of us could have known about the Second Brigade.”
“But -” General Lane prompted.
“But somebody did.”
“I agree. And we’re going to find out who it is.” He beamed the politician’s smile again. “I promise.”
“Thank you, sir. Is that it, then?”
“I called you in here to talk about something more important. We may not have to worry about doing better next time.”
Dekker eased back into his chair.
“Had a visitor yesterday,” General Lane continued. He leaned forward, beaming. “One each General Godfrey of the Terran Guard.”
Dekker squinted. “The Red Bitch herself?” he asked.
“That’s right. She was bouncing off the walls about troop dispositions and the Highlands.” Lane turned back to pull the tablet from a desk drawer and slid it towards Dekker.
“I want you to take a look at this, Ben. Tell me what you think.”
Dekker picked up the tablet and tapped the screen. His pulse quickened as he scanned the text confirming everything Godfrey had said: the stand down, consolidated lines, retention of ranks and units, integration of command, and, most importantly, safe passage to the Highlands.
Dekker looked up to see General Lane smiling – again. “This ends the war. I think we’ll want to be careful here. Keep the battalions in place. Keep the Paladin someplace safe to make sure they mean it. But, if we can trust her – .” He frowned. “That part’s kind of tough.”
General Lane stood back up, keeping his fingertips on his desk and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought, too.” He walked around the side of the desk, watching Dekker from the corner of his eye. “But we have a problem.”
“Not everybody agrees. We have enough parity to make it work. I don’t think she can screw us too badly here, but you and I both know we can’t win this thing. “
“True. Who’s pushing back?”
Lane sat on the corner of his desk and sighed. “The Paladin.”
Dekker scoffed. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Major Walker is a man of his own mind.”
“It’s worse than that, Ben.”
Dekker heard a faint ring in his ears as General Lane stepped to the porthole overlooking the MEF compound and placed his hand on the wall. With his back to Dekker, he said, “I told the Paladin about this plan last night.”
“What did he think?”
“He went into a rage. I’ve never seen him like that before. He was furious, going on about how the Terran Guard are sworn to destroy us and every man, woman and child in the colony. He was frantic.” Lane shook his head and turned around, leaning his back against the wall. “And then he resigned his commission.”
“What?” Dekker asked, choking the word past the lump in his throat.
“Said he would rather fight alone and die to a man than give in to the tyranny of the Terran Guard.”
“No.” Dekker scratched the back of his head. “He’s a bit of a rogue, but he’s not insane. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Lane’s eyes drifted to the floor. “There’s more.” He sat back down behind his desk, propped his elbows on top and cupped his fist in his hand. “He stormed out of here, mounted his C -2B and started shooting up the compound.”
Dekker tried to imagine Walker mounted in the cockpit, leveling his guns. The picture wouldn’t come together. It was a picture that couldn’t come together.
“I sent out a detail to try and talk him down and he just gunned them down.”
The picture still wouldn’t form in his mind, but he had already heard the rumors. Listening to his commanding officer confirm those rumors brought a new reality to them. He tilted his head and whispered, “My God.” He rubbed his brow and let out a sigh. The two men sat in silence as Lane’s words swam through his mind.
“Where is he now?” Dekker asked.
“We don’t know. That’s where you come in.”
Dekker took a deep breath and put his hand up – a reflex, as if he were trying to stop an enemy tank barreling towards him with its gun aimed directly at his face.
“I know, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself,” Lane said.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“You know him pretty well, yes?”
Dekker shrugged. “Yeah.” He stared at the wall, remembering something from a lifetime ago. “He was my Combat Trials Instructor. After that, he chose me to command his infantry escort company. That was back in the days when the Cats had their own infantry and a detachment from the air wing. My God, we were a sight to see.” His voice trailed off as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“As I recall, that was a position of some prestige.”
“Yes sir. You could spend your entire life to become a regimental commander and have something to really be proud of. Serving as the Paladin’s Foot Guard – that was in a league of its own.”
Lane pulled his mouth into another smile, more forced this time. He was officially the MEF commander, but the truth was he was noting more than a regimental commander himself because that was all they had left.
“No disrespect to the MEF commander, sir,” Dekker said.
“That’s why I need you, Ben. You know him better than anyone and this ceasefire doesn’t have a chance with him starting a one-man war with the Terran Guard.”
“Oh, it won’t be just him, sir. His men are loyal to him. And him alone. If he goes up against the Guard, they’ll be right behind him.”
“Yeah, I know. Before that happens, I need you to find him and talk him down.”
Dekker felt the room closing in around him.
“I don’t see how that’s possible, sir.”
General Lane reached down to open his floor safe. Dekker watched Lane’s hands as they moved from the safe and placed the blue control grip on the desk. “You know what this is?” Lane asked.
Dekker’s heart stopped cold. “That’s an STI grip,” he said. “I didn’t think we had any left.”
“Neither did anybody else,” Lane said. “We found a satellite six months ago. I had some guys who used to work for Orbital Assets Command take a look and they confirmed it has one shot left.”
“Well, hell, that right there could make sure Godfrey plays ball.”
Lane scoffed. “Yeah, except the track is way the hell and gone in the middle of nowhere. Totally useless anywhere around here. But – .” He raised his eyebrows and slid the device across his desk. “If you can’t talk him down, you can maybe lure him into the track.”
Dekker felt the world crash in on him. He couldn’t breathe. His hand began to tremble and he let it dangle next to him, hoping Lane wouldn’t notice.
“You want me to kill him.”
“No. I don’t. I want you to bring him home. But if he won’t come home – .” He glanced at the device before saying anything more.
Dekker’s hand started shaking again as he picked up the device. He clenched his fingers around the grip hard enough to make his knuckles white as he tried to force his hand to stop trembling.
It felt heavy and cold as he stared at the faded blue plastic of the control casing and the cracked grip used to hold it in place while the operator punched in drop coordinates. He stared at the red trigger running the length of the grip.
“Call me for the codes if it comes down to it, Ben,” General Lane said, as if he had just given him an order to pick up provisions or conduct an inventory of his battalion’s supplies.
“It won’t, sir,” Dekker said. He set the grip back on the desk and pushed it towards Lane. “I don’t need this.” What he really meant was that he couldn’t. He could find the Paladin. He could talk to him. He could knock him out cold with a punch to the face and drape him over his shoulder if he had to. But he couldn’t even think about killing him without his stomach turning.
“I hope you’re right. But know this. The MEF and the colony are depending on you to stop him.”
Lane nudged the grip back towards Dekker.
“If you don’t,” General Lane continued, “I don’t think any of us are going to survive.”
He looked at the grip and then leveled his gaze on Dekker. “If it makes it any easier, Colonel, consider it an order. You’re at liberty to take whatever action is necessary to stop the Paladin. But you must stop him. Take it with you. Keep it with you. If you run out of options, call me for the codes.”
Dekker closed his eyes and picked up the grip. His hands still trembled, but he didn’t bother to try and hide it any longer. He opened his eyes and turned the device in his hand as if it were a loaded gun that he was supposed to point at his own head.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence