Lt. Simmons turned and started walking up the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Dekker asked.
She looked back at the slack body of the pilot – his eyes glossed over in a haze of agony. “I’m not going to stand here and watch this,” she said.
When Dekker looked at her, she could see something behind the darkness in his eyes fighting to be seen. His conscience was trapped somewhere behind them, looking back at her. There was nothing she could do to help that part of him escape. She only hoped he would do it for himself before it was too late.
“Very well, Lieutenant,” he said. “I had expected you to be stronger.”
She leveled her gaze and glared at him. “I am,” she said. Then she turned and walked the rest of the way up the stairs.
Once outside, she turned her face to the sun and let the heat flow over her, washing away at least some of the darkness she had tried to leave behind in the basement. Over time, she would forget the pilot staring at her wide-eyed, pleading with just his look for her to save him. She would forget that. She would forget the hiss of the chamber bouncing off the walls not quite smothering his screams. She would forget all that. But she swore she would never forget what had happened here. Some crimes went against her honor as a Marine officer. Others went against the Marine Judicial Code. And some crimes went against the essence of just being human. All three had been committed in that basement. She would not forget any of them.
She paced towards the battalion’s command troop carrier, shaking her hands as if flinging away an oily residue that refused to come off. When she reached the carrier, she found Brandt wiping down his sidearm with fresh oil. As he snapped it back into his holster, he asked, “How’s it going in there?”
She groaned a sigh and shook her head. “It’s not right,” she said.
“Lot of that going around,” he said.
“I guess they sent the right man for the job,” she said.
“Yeah. The man I just saw will have no problem when it comes time to shoot the Paladin and drag his body through the MEF compound.”
Brandt looked at the ground and then reached into the carrier to fetch a pack of rations. He broke open one box and handed the other to Lt. Simmons.
She waved it off. “I’m not hungry.”
“You’re losing strength.” Holding the box out, he said, “Eat, Marine. That’s an order.”
She snatched the box from his hand and tore it open without looking. “Fine.”
He let her graze on the dried contents of the package for a moment and then said, “Don’t be too hard on Colonel Dekker there.”
“We once held the Highlands, did you know that?”
She sat down and leaned against the carrier’s front tire. “Yeah, I know.”
“He was the Paladin’s Foot Guard back then.”
Simmons stopped mid-bite and shifted eyes her towards him. “What about it?”
“We’d received a report about movement just outside the Highlands and the Paladin moved in the Cats to take a look. Next thing they knew, rounds were landing right in the middle of the farmers working the fields. Terran infantry was headed straight for the Paladin. Dekker moved his men up to screen the Paladin and once the Terrans saw him guarding the Cats, they changed course and headed straight for the fields. Started mowing down farmers as they ran. Shot ’em right in the back.”
“What did the Colonel do?”
“He didn’t take the bait. Here’s the important thing, though.” He sat down next to her. “Command told him to set up a hasty defense and protect the farmers.”
“And what did he do?”
Turning to face her, he lifted his brow and said, “He stayed with the Cats.”
“What happened to the farmers?”
“Yeah, well, the Guard had a full company of infantry with another coming in right behind. They swept that field clean. Killed an entire colony block trying to force Dekker’s troops to respond.”
Simmons gasped. “That’s what, 500 people?”
Brandt picked up a sliver of rock and flung it across the ground. “About that.”
“So he just let those people die?”
“Oh, it’s worse than that. He let the Terran Guard take the Highlands. By the time command could get anything organized, the Guard had two brigades on line.” He flung another rock and waited for it so make a splash in the dirt. “We had more troops back then.”
“So what you’re telling me is that Colonel Dekker lost the Highlands and he let the Terran Guard kill 500 colonists in the process.”
“No, that’s not what I’m telling you.”
Simmons reached behind her and tossed the empty box into the carrier. Running her tongue across the front of her teeth, she asked, “Then what are you telling me, Captain?”
“Have you ever seen Cats fight infantry up close.”
Simmons looked out across the ground, thinking back to the battles she had fought in or watched from an observation post. “Well, no. They’re usually in the back.”
“Yeah. That’s because, as tough as they are, infantry can take one down pretty easily. Up close and personal, all you have to do is clamp on some good explosive or hook some wires into it and jam it full of electric current. Blow a knee out and it’s not going anywhere. Short it out and nothing works. Can’t even shoot back.”
Simmons tilted her head and scoffed. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. We brought twelve. We still have twelve.”
“That’s kind of my point, Lieutenant. While the Terran Guard was tearing up colonists, Dekker was screening the Paladin so his Cats could retreat to safety. Once they did that, they stopped the Guard cold. We couldn’t push them off the Highlands, but their attack was done.”
“So he sacrificed 500 colonists to save the Cats.”
“Think harder, Lieutenant. If he had left the Cats, we would have still lost the Highlands, and the Cats. It would have been worse.”
“What happened after that?”
“Reprimand. Transferred. Demoted. He was a Brigadier General. Now he’s a Colonel. But that’s not the thing. He sees it the way you do. He made a decision, disobeyed orders and 500 people died.”
Simmons let out a sigh and stared at the tower. “And we lost the Highlands.”
“And we lost the Highlands.”
She stood up, brushed off the front of her trousers and tugged at the hem of her field utility blouse. “But what does that have to do with any of this?”
Brandt stood up, leaned in close and jabbed his finger at the tower. “What he’s doing there, Lieutenant, is following orders. Because that’s all he knows how to do anymore.”
She turned and looked into his eyes. “That doesn’t make it right.”
He patted her shoulder and said. “Yeah but try telling him that.”
“I can’t be part of this,” she said.
He stepped over the the carrier hatch, eased it down and latched it. Leaning against the hatch, he said, “Me neither. That’s why we need to go find the Paladin.”
“I’m not going anywhere with him.”
“No. I mean us, Lieutenant. You and me. We need to round up Bravo One Nine and go find the Paladin ourselves before this gets past the point where it can’t come back.”
Simmons grinned. “That’s mutiny, you know.”
“Negative, Lieutenant. That’s a decision.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence