Chapter 23

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DUTYBOUND

The only clue Dekker and his Marines had was the scattered prints made by the Paladin’s Cat when it landed west of the compound. Any tracks that might have been made after that had already been swept away by the wind.

That had been twenty nine hours before. Since then, Dekker’s nineteen troop carriers had followed behind the two Bravo One Nine carriers as they scurried across the night desert floor scanning for any sign of the Paladin.

Dekker stared at the navigation monitor in front him, half his body numb from the gyrations of the carrier careening across the gullies and shallow folds of terrain sprawled across the desert. The suspension squeaked as the carrier traversed the uneven terrain. He had stopped looking through the windshield long before as the lights crawling over the unending terrain had put him into a hypnotic state.

Sitting in the driver’s seat next to him, Lt. Simmons kept the throttle in her left hand pushed forward while her right hand flexed the control grip to keep the carrier on course as they approached an abandoned bivouac tower where they would stop, finally, and rest.

“Two kilometers,” Dekker said. “Maintain this bearing.” He eyed Simmons, wondering how she could maintain the concentration necessary to pilot the vehicle over the monotonous terrain for hours on end.

“We’ll hold up there for a bit while you send a squad to pick up the freighter pilot.”

“I’ll go, sir.”

“You’ve been driving all night, Lieutenant. Send a squad. You need some sleep.”

“I’ll be fine, sir.” She tapped her chest pocket. “The miracle of chemistry.”

“Yeah, that will drop you right on your ass at some point. Soon.”

“PDI isn’t far, Colonel. I’ll rest up after that.”

“Lieutenant.” Dekker turned to face her, waiting for her to give him a quick nod acknowledging him. “Do you ever say ‘yes, sir'”?

She smiled. “Yes sir, it’s been known to happen from time to time.”

The glow of the headlights washed up against the hulking shadow of the bivouac tower, it’s composite spire piercing the sky. Simmons turned the carrier towards the entrance and yanked back the throttle, bringing the vehicle to a sliding stop. She leaned forward against the console deck and let out a long breath. She sat back and shook her head, kicking her short bonnet of red hair back and forth. Dekker suppressed a smile and shook his head.

“I hope I’m not around when you find your limits Lieutenant.”

“I didn’t get where I am by looking for them, sir.”

“Fair enough.”

Dekker unlatched his door and eased his leg onto the foot step welded to the side. He groaned as his muscles protested with a stabbing ache. He swung out of the vehicle and thumped to the ground, staggering for a moment before regaining his balance. He grimaced and shook his head, then took a deep breath.

The rest of the battalion carriers rolled in behind them and maneuvered into three company groups of six vehicles each, forming a semi circular formation in front of the tower.

Dekker stepped around the front of the vehicle as Lt. Simmons dismounted.

As she turned to head for the second carrier, he said, “Hold on, Lieutenant.”

She turned back around. “Sir?”

“We need to go over something before you move out.”

“Go ahead, Colonel.”

He placed his hand her shoulder and pulled her aside as he started walking away from the carrier. “Who do you work for, Lieutenant?”

“I’m attached directly to MEF headquarters.”

Dekker stopped walking and stepped in front of her. She looked up at him, her expression disinterested and receptive at the same time. He didn’t see it in her eyes – she was good at hiding a lie.

“And what are your orders?”

“To assist you with reconnaissance.”

Her eyes twitched once, then her face lapsed into a practiced expression of boredom.

“Do you know where the name for my battalion comes from?”

Simmons knitted her brow. “Actually, no.”

“The commander of the S-2 Special Intelligence and Operations Team should know the background of the officers she’s working with.”

Her mouth fell open – just enough to let him see her facade shatter. She pressed her lips back together and looked past him.

Dekker nodded, allowing just enough of a smile to show his amusement. “Well, one thing your Colonel Harris and I have in common is a healthy dose of uncertainty about all this. But even he doesn’t know about the Enforcer. It’s something they don’t keep records about.”

“Well, so you know something about me,” Simmons said. That doesn’t mean what you say is true.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. But neither do you know that what I say isn’t true. You need to listen to me now.”

“Alright, Colonel. I’m listening.”

“What you need to understand is that while our orders may differ, our mission is the same. We’re here to find the Paladin and bring him home.”

“Agreed.”

“What are your orders, Lieutenant?”

“As I said, to help you with recon.” He could still see she wasn’t telling him everything, but she didn’t work too hard to hide it this time.

“That’s good enough for now, I suppose.”

Dekker resumed his walk, his hands clasped behind his back. “I had to put down one of my Marines after the battle.”

“Sending them below can’t be easy.”

“No. I was down there. I pulled the trigger myself. I killed him.”

She glanced at him, her eyes searching for something in his now. “Why would you put yourself through that?”

“I need to make sure it still gets to me. There are some things a person shouldn’t get used to.”

“Sounds like your punishing yourself, Colonel.”

“Maybe so.” He stopped walking and turned to face her, making sure she was paying attention. “Here’s the thing. There is a difference between enduring the unthinkable when it results from your own initiative and when it happens as a result of following orders.”

“How is that possible?”

“When you follow orders, you can assign the consequences of your actions to duty. It’s a buffer between the horror of a man’s actions and his own soul.”

“Not sure I see it that way, Colonel. It’s the moral duty of any officer to take responsibility for their actions.”

“You’re young. You’ll get over that.” Her expression glazed over.

“But here’s what you need to understand right now. I’m tired of this war. I’m tired of killing Marines. The Paladin is my oldest friend and the only man I’ve ever trusted.”

“And now you’re hunting him down.”

“That’s right. And if bringing him home will end this war, then that’s what I will do. If this freighter pilot helps me accomplish that mission, then I will do whatever it takes to find out what he knows.”

“As will I, sir.”

“No, you won’t. You think you will, but you won’t. I have no doubt about your commitment to your mission and your orders, but you have to understand. I am still a man who can do the unthinkable in the name of following orders. The fact that it gets to me – the fact that I’m still not used to it – none of that will stop me. That’s what I learned to do as the Enforcer”

“Stop you from what?”

“Lieutenant, if that pilot knows where the Paladin is, we need to find out what he knows. It would be best for everyone if you found that out before he gets back here. It really would be best if I didn’t have to do it my way.”

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence