Dekker stood behind Sergeant Preston, watching his coms tech brush his fingertips over the switches and buttons on the main panel in the communications control center.
“Can you sort this out?” Dekker asked.
“Yes sir,” Preston said. He touched one of the panels, his finger barely gracing its surface, as if he were studying a display in a museum. “This here is the UHF panel.” He moved his hand along the panels, pausing to touch each one as he spoke. “LF, HF, TACAN, IFF -“
“Alright, Sergeant. How does any of this help us with the STI?”
Preston ran his hand over the panels again. “None of this helps us directly,” he said. “I’ll need to do some work on it.”
“What kind of work?”
Preston’s hand stopped at the power switch. “Well, first thing -” He held his breath for a moment and flipped the switch. A green light next to it glowed. Needles on gauges fluttered and red LED displays came to life. The monitor in the center of the console flickered and then revealed a slew of green dotted text scrolling up the screen as the system’s computer ran its power up tests.
“Well, that looks pretty good,” Dekker said, letting out his own breath. “Now what?”
“This is all designed for ground and air traffic. Nothing here is designed for a satellite uplink.”
“Can you rig it?”
“I think so, sir. I just need to figure out the best way.”
“Let’s try the fastest way, Sergeant.”
Preston turned to look at him. He rubbed his chin and started nodding. “Alright sir. I’ll need a minute to think this through.”
Dekker patted him on the shoulder and said, “I understand. I want a briefing in 30 minutes.”
“Aye aye sir.”
Dekker stepped away and paced to the hatch leading to the compound. He stepped outside to see one of the Marines standing guard scanning the sky with a pair of field glasses.
“What do you have there, Corporal?” he asked.
Still watching the sky, the sentry said, “Something inbound from the air. It looks like one of ours.”
Dekker’s headset chimed. “Enforcer Six, Skywatch, over.”
“Sir, we have an inbound contact requesting to talk to you.”
“Let me take a look, Corporal.” The sentry lowered his field glasses and handed them to Dekker. “Say again, Skywatch. Somebody wants to talk to me?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Do you have an ID?”
“Sir, they’re squawking the General’s command code.”
Dekker’s head jerked back as he lowered the field glasses. He handed them back to the sentry and walked across the compound to the main gate where the weapons company was starting to prepare its defense. He clasped his hands behind his back as a shimmer of sunlight swept across the bottom of the approaching jumpjet’s wings. The Marines standing around the gate turned their heads as its turbines threw up a vortex of dust. Dekker narrowed his eyes, but did not turn his head, allowing the grit to sting his face is it swept across him.
The turbines whined to a standstill and the canopy hissed open. Even before the passenger stood up to dismount the cockpit, Dekker recognized General Lane’s face. The General climbed down the ladder, testing each step as if he wasn’t sure he could hold his own weight. After the last step, he didn’t hop down but instead planted one foot at a time on the ground. He held on to the ladder for a moment longer and then turned to face Dekker. Lane started to walk towards him, his face creased with the strain of trying to hide a limp. He was pale and his eyes drooped with pain. As he drew closer, Dekker saw the sheen of a bruise on his left cheek. Even so, General Lane managed the same smile Dekker had seen when he had received his orders to chase down the Paladin – orders that now seemed to come from another lifetime.
As if Dekker wouldn’t notice any of it, Lane kept the smile, a beaming mask of pleasantry that was as out of place as the General himself. When he was close enough, Dekker raised his hand in a salute. Lane cocked his head, broadened his grin and returned the salute. Behind him, the jumpjet lifted off and scurried back the way it had come. Dekker tapped his headset and said, “Skywatch, let him go. We’ll call it a parley.”
As Dekker let his hand back down, Lane siezed it with a firm grip. “Ben, how the hell are you?” Dekker shook his hand, keeping his gaze glued on Lane’s eyes.
“Fine, sir,” Dekker said. “I’m glad to see you survived the First Brigade’s attack on the compound.”
“Yes, well, I guess I’m a little worse for the wear,” Lane said, still smiling.
“You managed to escape?”
Lane’s eyes shifted away for a moment and he let out a grunt. “Not exactly.” His eyes moved to the Marines standing sentry at the communications center and then swept the compound. “We need to talk.” He jabbed his thumb behind him. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“I’m in the process of setting up a defense, General. I can’t leave my post.”
“Captain Brandt can handle it. It won’t take long.” Still, the smile.
Dekker felt his brow starting to shift as he realized the General didn’t know what had happened to his XO. He caught himself and forced a blank look. What else did the man not know? “Time grows short, General.”
Lane’s smile quivered. “I’m a little surprised at you, Ben. You’ve gotten – ” Lane narrowed his eyes. “-testy.”
Dekker started walking away from the complex, slowing his pace to compensate for Lane’s limp. He thumped the heel of his left boot against the ground as they walked, forcing himself to keep looking forward. Neither spoke as they put distance between themselves and the complex.
“Where have you been, General?”
Dekker stopped and turned around. General Lane was breathing as if they had walked a mile even though they had been walking for only a few minutes. The smile was gone and he pressed a hand against his ribs.
“Yes,” Lane said, trying to suppress his wheezing. “Because of you.”
Dekker’s face grew hot. He started to take a step towards Lane and stopped himself. “Me?”
“The Paladin is still out there somewhere. And you’re here -” Lane swept his hand towards the complex, “- defending a dead com center in the middle of nowhere.” A wince fluttered across his face as he adjusted his hand on his ribs. “When you should be tracking him down.”
“The situation has changed since then, General. And I haven’t been able to contact you.”
“You have orders, Colonel.”
“Orders?” Dekker spat the word. “Orders that took us out of position so the Terran Guard could overrun the compound while their Second Brigade roams free.”
“Colonel – “
“Orders that have left me with the only credible force to help the Paladin defend against an attack that you and I both know is coming.” Dekker took a step towards Lane. “But I wonder if you know why.”
Lane tried to scoff but he winced hard and clutched at his rib cage instead. He shook his head, a smile creeping back onto his face as the pain subsided. “They are attacking the one thing they’re still afraid of, Colonel. The one thing that has kept this ceasefire from holding. The one thing you were supposed to take care of. They are attacking, Colonel, because you failed to follow orders.”
“You didn’t come here to lecture me about orders, General.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Then why are you here?”
General Lane eased his hand away from his ribs and squeezed his eyes shut. He tugged at the bottom of his field utility blouse and sucked in a breath through his nose. He opened his eyes, the smile draining away as he fought to hide his pain behind a commander’s scowl. “New orders, Ben.”
General Lane took a step forward, blinking hard to hide another wince of pain. “Yes, really. Assuming you’re still a member of the MEF. If not -“
“Then there really isn’t much you can do about it. Sir.” Dekker stared at his commanding officer. If the wind had come up and toppled him over and covered him with sand, Dekker would have walked away and there was nothing anybody could have done about it. Would anybody have even cared? The man standing before him, shrouded in pain, slave to something that Dekker still couldn’t touch, wasn’t even a Marine. Not anymore. He knew that much. But he needed to know more. He needed to know who this man wearing the uniform of a Marine general was, and why he now stood in the desert sun acting as if he were still somebody who understood what a real order even was. Was he the same man he had always been? Or had he become something else?
“What are your orders, General?” he asked.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s right or wrong at this point. The war’s over. You need to stand down, Ben. I know you can’t see it right now, but you’ll be saving lives. There are still colonists left and they’ll be treated humanely. I might even be able to have you keep your commission and retain at least a token command. You’ll be comfortable. All you have to do is let the Second Brigade do what needs to be done so they’ll know that it really is over.”
“And what would that be?”
“Let them take care of the Paladin. All you have to do is not get in the way. They’ll handle the rest.”
“And what happens to him, General? He won’t surrender. Ever.”
“The price for peace, Colonel.” Lane slid his foot forward and placed his hand on Dekker’s shoulder. Dekker resisted the urge to slap it away. “It was his choice, Ben. All he had to do was come home.”
“And if I refuse?”
General Lane shook his head. “A full battalion of Terran Guard is already on its way, Ben. But you probably know that already. Out of respect for you and your men, I convinced them to let me talk to you first.”
Lane’s eyes were drooping again, but not from pain. They were pleading with him. Were they pleading with him to save Dekker’s Marines? Or were they pleading for the General’s own life?
“You see, Ben,” General Lane continued, “I’m here on a mission of mercy.”
Dekker brushed Lane’s hand away from his shoulder. “Yeah? Tell that to the people who were on Dirt Hill.”
“No. Like you said, the Terran Guard will be here soon. You can surrender to them if you want. Again. Until then, stay out of my way.” He poked Lane’s chest hard enough to make him stumble back. “And keep quiet. Cross me and I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
He walked past the General, knocking the man aside with his shoulder as he passed. It didn’t even occur to him to look over his shoulder as he left the man who had once been his commanding officer standing in the Shoahn’ sun clutching at his ribs.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence