Home > Chains of Command(9)

Chains of Command(9)
Author: Marko Kloos

“Not much for bullshit,” I reply, and she laughs.

“You think it’s all bullshit?”

“The training? No. ’Course not. Just sending these green kids out into the force like that. Giving them the idea that they know shit about shit. The time we have, we can barely teach them how not to be a danger to others. Graduating from boot camp with a fucking parade. And families applauding. That shit just makes them feel like they’re warriors now.”

“They did okay,” Sergeant Lear says. “You know what kind of material we get these days from the PRCs. Most of them would have failed boot before the Exodus just for attitude. But there are some tough kids in every batch.”

“Tough,” I repeat. “For PRC standards, no doubt. One thing to know how to take a punch and jack a hydrocar. It’s another level of tough altogether to keep yourself in the fight when you’re down to ten percent oxygen and three MARS rockets, and there’s half a dozen Lankies coming to stomp you into the fucking dirt.”

Sergeant Lear shifts in her seat a little and looks at the label on her beer bottle. Then she clears her throat and looks at me again.

“Sergeant Grayson, I wanted to ask you for a favor. I was wondering if you could give me a recommendation for my transfer request.”

“You put in for transfer? What do you have, three tours as drill instructor now?”

“This was number four,” she says. “Been at it for a year straight. I’m up for staff sergeant after this flight.”

“Senior drill instructor slot,” I say. “But that’s not what you want.”

She shakes her head and takes another sip from her bottle.

“Don’t tell me you put in for a transfer to a combat billet, Lear.”

I take her shrug as an affirmative response.

“Shit,” I say. “Thought you were the smart one. You want to go back into the Fleet right now? Shipboard duty? You’re MP, right?”

Sergeant Lear nods. “Master-at-arms.”

“Are you out of your mind? You know how many ships we’ve lost in the last year and a half?”

“Most of the Fleet,” she says.

“Most of the Fleet,” I repeat. “And that includes almost all the good hardware. They’re dragging fifty-year-old frigates out of mothballs and reactivating them with reserve crews and new sailors that have never done an Alcubierre transition. And they need all the atomic warheads for the Orion missiles, so most of the old shit buckets have empty missile tubes right now. You want to trade the fresh air and the weekends off for standing watch in a leaky relic that makes figure eights in orbit just to reassure the civvies on the ground?”

“That’s my job,” she says. “It’s what I trained for. Not this drill instructor stuff. I’m happy standing watch in a leaky relic. I’m a Fleet sailor. I’ve done my time on the ground in the fresh air. And home’s too far for two-day leave anyway, so I just sit here in the NCO club or ride out to Salt Lake on the weekends. I’m bored absolutely shitless.”

I chuckle, and she raises an eyebrow.

“Now that last part I believe,” I say. “You being bored. Not the soymeal paste about you rather being up there than down here. Nobody in their right mind likes watch rotation on a ship over weekends off and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.”

Sergeant Lear shrugs again, but this time with a slight smile.

“You got me there. But don’t you feel the same? I mean, don’t you itch to get back in the field again sometimes? Knowing that it can all turn to shit in a moment if you don’t do your job right?”

I glance at my beer bottle, and my left hand that is idly turning it with just the fingertips. The prosthetics docs at Great Lakes were able to make my hand look like a proper hand again, but the time after our dash back to New Svalbard had been too long, and the damage from the contact salvo too great. The little and ring fingers on my left hand move with the impulses my brain sends over the artificial nerve conduits, and they bend and flex like their biological counterparts, but I have no feeling in them whatsoever other than a coarse sense of temperature and pressure. The replacement is extremely well done, but I can still tell the transition between the real, living part of the hand and the artificial addition. The skin has the same tone and texture, but something about it is just slightly off, and always will be.

“No,” I say, and continue to turn the beer bottle. “I don’t itch for that. Not anymore.”

There’s something in Sergeant Lear’s expression that almost looks like pity for a moment. Then she lets out a slow breath and leans back in her chair.

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m nuts for wanting to go combat again. But I’m tired of this place. Another six months of this, and I’ll be a raging alcoholic.”

“You can’t,” I say, and lift the bottle off the table a few centimeters. “Not with this shit. Trust me on that one.”

I look at Sergeant Lear, and I’m once again struck by how young she is. Not really in the chronological sense—I only have five years on her at the most—but in appearance. She’s had four years of service, but she’s in a support specialty, not a frontline combat job. She looks tired, but so do all the other instructors after another twelve-week boot camp training flight of getting up at 0400, going to bed at 2200 or later, and lots of physical and mental stress in between. But she lacks the shopworn look of the grunts. She doesn’t have early gray hairs interleaved in that tightly strung ponytail of hers. She doesn’t have the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes. And she doesn’t have that hallmark of men and women who have seen too much awful stuff, the thousand-yard stare. She doesn’t look weary.

I sigh and drain the rest of my beer. Then I put the bottle down and drum a little cadence on the tabletop with my fingertips—three live, two numb. It feels like when your hand has fallen asleep, only without that painful prickle of feeling returning after a few minutes.

“Tell you what, Lear. If you want to put in for a transfer, I’ll endorse your request.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Grayson,” she says, the relief obvious in her face.

“I won’t give you the old saw about being careful what you wish for,” I say. “But I bet you a bottle of real bourbon that one day you’ll look back at this and want to kick your younger self square in the ass.”

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