His reflection in the mirror held a noble countenance with aquiline nose, and thick white eyebrows that hinted at the deep wisdom behind a grizzled brow – the kind of wisdom that can only be accumulated over years of experience.
A sharp contrast to his accusers.
Yes, Ensign Dock decided, he would be tolerably presentable for what he expected to be his final public appearance.
He stepped away from the bulkhead mirror and rummaged in his locker for his wardrobe’s pièce de résistance: a red and silver silk cravat.
That is, the trader had sworn on her life, and those of her brood-partners, that the material was silk. Dock didn’t believe that for a moment.
Whatever the garment was woven from, he tied it around his neck in front of the mirror. It looked good, the still-vibrant color contrasting in a satisfying manner with the navy blue of his ensign’s dress uniform. Strictly speaking, the cravat wasn’t allowed, but surely no one would begrudge him in the circumstances.
He straightened his back and admired his countenance one last time. In an irritating moment of weakness, he actually felt gratitude toward the youngsters for permitting him to retain his rank and uniform, right up until the end.
Dignity mattered to an old timer. Even the young would eventually learn that.
Dock sighed. Piloting fighter craft had been his lifelong dream. Foolish really. But that was all he had left to him: memories of dreams, and a last shred of dignity.
He squared his shoulders and lifted his head. Dreams and dignity. That was all he needed to die well.
“As the condemned man, I expected a few last visitors,” said Dock. “The curious, the bored, and the indignant would flock to view my final hours. And yet here I find myself, a mere seventy minutes until the court-martial, and my first visitor is you of all people. I confess I feel wounded. You’re not even Navy!”
“Nor am I curious, bored or indignant,” said McEwan, the twin who had emerged victorious against his brother. Regrettably. “I’m confused about you. I want to understand why I feel that way.”
“Not understand, sir. You wish to justify.”
“Let us not bandy words of evasion, Major McEwan.” Dock paused to regain his poise. He’d managed to speak the boy’s new rank without skipping a beat, but treating Arun McEwan as a legitimate officer wasn’t easy. “You don’t wish to understand me. You wish to reassure yourself that I am guilty. Guilty enough to die.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to understand you. I want to understand me… why my feelings about you are confused when they should be so simple. Tell me, traitor, why should we ever trust you? Why should we continue to provide you with the precious air you’re breathing?”
Dock challenged the young Marine by raising a single luxuriant eyebrow.
McEwan went off like a supernova. It took all of Dock’s resolve to pretend he wasn’t frightened by the violent brute.
“Frakk your bullshit,” raged the major, practically hurling his staccato words like thunderbolts. Typical Marine. “Your sentence isn’t my decision anyway.”
“Sentence? Surely you mean verdict? Aren’t we even pretending that I could be found innocent?”
The Marine glared. You could actually see his skin color darken, a side effect as blood rushed to his enhanced muscles, energizing them in readiness to bludgeon anyone who dared to annoy him.
McEwan spoke deliberately: “I mean the sentence if you’re found guilty.”
“Dear boy, we both know the sentence isn’t in doubt. Nor is the verdict.”
The color drained from McEwan’s face. Whatever restrained him from ultraviolence was thin ice, about to crack. Dock decided he’d better say something quickly. “I’ll tell you something, major. Rewind events a few months, and then try to think from my point of view. Humans as Marine officers… A new start under a progressive White Knight faction… That’s what your brother and Lieutenant Commander Wotun promised me. Does that sound unrealistic to you now? Nothing but honeyed words for the gullible? A thin veil to hide the ambition of those who would betray their comrades for any chance of advancement?”
“That’s about the strength of it. Yes.”
“Well, here’s the thing. Maybe you’re right, but what Wotun and your brother promised sounded far less extreme than the audacious promises coming out of your mouth.”
“Maybe, but you, Dock, were an accomplice to murder.”
Slumping his shoulders and casting his gaze down, Dock pretended the fight had drained out of him and into the deck. “You’re right. I’ve no defense.” Suddenly, Dock shot to his feet and glared at the Marine. “But neither have you!”
“Me?” The Marine’s voice was a menacing whisper. “Don’t you twist the truth, you lizard. We only fought back against you murdering traitors because we had no choice. We didn’t want to fight at all.”
“I didn’t plan the mutiny, and I never wanted it. The only difference between us is that you tried to stop the mutiny and I didn’t. And as for this courageous stance of yours… Consider what you actually achieved. The mutineers murdered six innocent people. You killed 2,630. Now, explain to me again why I’m the murderer and you’re the innocent.”
Dock held himself at attention, expecting a blow from McEwan’s fist. But instead his words seemed to answer whatever question the Marine had really been asking, because the major gave an ironic laugh and walked away.
Without even the common decency of saying a farewell. Typical.
The Marine guard outside his quarters stepped aside to let Major McEwan pass. The guard’s name was Ferdinand, and he had been part of Beowulf’s Marine detachment. He was a fully grown man who wore the scars of a hard life, not a soft-skinned boy like Arun McEwan. Presumably, Ferdinand had been loyal to Fraser McEwan, but no matter how many times Dock tried to engage the veteran Marine with conversation through the hatch speaker, all the Marine would yield was his name.
Strange how this hulking man of muscle accepted the boy’s authority so readily.
It’s a mystery, Dock decided, but life would be dull if every question was answered.
Besides, answers aren’t worth much to me anymore, he decided, as he fiddled with his cravat in front of the mirror once more. What he really needed was a brandy.
For a moment he weighed up the chances of being granted one as a last wish. Slim to non-existent, he calculated.
“That’s the problem with these youngsters,” he told his reflection indignantly. “They’re far too busy being earnest to appreciate the delights of a fine brandy. It’s such a tragedy.”
“Why did you do it?” asked the young woman in the pristine lieutenant commander’s uniform.
“Ah, our glamorous new XO.” Dock laughed. And she was glamorous too. With her fulsome lips and dark eye shadow that made her eyes gleam like white hot stars, former Leading Spacer Lubricant was a handsome young woman, if you liked that sort of thing.
Dock did not.
“Why ever did you stop at lieutenant commander?” he sneered. “Why not commodore? Admiral? Senior barge cleaner? From leading spacer to lieutenant commander in one fateful day, without even pausing for lunch. It’s preposterous!”
“I asked you why,” she growled. “What did those traitors offer you?”
He glowered at her, trying to make her look away, but there was steel behind those pretty young eyes. She did not flinch.
He sighed. “You don’t need me to explain anything. That not really why you’re here. Besides, why take time away from your fun? You and the captain are like kids given the access code for a room full of toys. Go enjoy yourselves.” He paused to scratch at his chin. “I’m disappointed in CPO Turbine. She outranks you – or did, and wasn’t part of my watch crew when the reserve captain took CIC. A very dependable chief petty officer with far more experience than you and your captain friend put together. Why didn’t Turbine take charge?”
“She isn’t your concern. All I want is to hear your explanation. Then I’ll be gone. You’ll only see me once more.”
“An explanation? Come on, you’re an officer now. Apparently. Show some backbone. What’s your real purpose? Come to gloat? Come to see the look on a condemned man’s face? Are you fascinated by death, the knowledge that whatever spark animates us is about to be snuffed out in the one who stands before you?”
Lubricant rolled her eyes, but only for a few seconds. Dock realized to his surprise that if he’d been given the chance to know her, he would have rather liked her. At least she was bracingly frank.
“Anyone ever tell you,” she said, “that you’re a posturing buffoon, Dock? Just get on with it!”
“I am not a child. Tell me the truth about why you’re here, lieutenant commander. If you haven’t the courage to do that, then you can fuck off and gloat elsewhere.”
Lubricant’s full lips contracted into a tight line. Her eyes slitted. Dock felt as if she were shooting a focused beam of directed disdain out of those eyes. He began to see why CPO Turbine might defer to this young woman.
When the lieutenant commander had given Dock the full force of her silent displeasure, she offered an explanation. “Captain Indiya’s heart is too soft,” she said. “I need to steer her decision about your fate. Steel her to show firmness. But I want to understand you first. What’s more, I don’t want to follow the example set by you mutineers and murder anyone who gets in our way. We’ll do things properly. If we’re to execute you, I want to stand before you and tell you why to your face.”
Dock gave an ironic applause. “Well, you’re fools if you don’t kill me. It would only prove you’re not fit to command. As the only legitimate human officer aboard, other than that groveling wretch Columbine, I represent the biggest challenge to your authority. I don’t have the slightest desire to command this or any ship, but that’s not the point. While the rest of my craven watch crew beg to be forgiven their sins, I remain a symbol of a rival line of authority. Well, what is your verdict, power-behind-the-throne? Decided to have me executed yet?”
She went pale, but only a little. “Yes,” she stated. “You shall be put to death.”
Dock spread his arms expansively, and then bowed with excessive formality. “There, the truth. Finally! My dear lieutenant commander, I would be only too glad to tell you anything you wish to hear of my tragic story. There is much to tell, though, I fear, I can only offer you the abridged version. It would appear I don’t have much time left.”
“The accused will stand.”
Dock did so with dignity, bowing subtly to the crowd that… well… couldn’t exactly be said to fill the seating in the briefing room-turned-courtroom. Four Navy crewmates (but not one from his watch crew), a Marine he didn’t know, and Major McEwan: that was the rather sorry extent of his court-martial audience.
He supposed the hour of his court-martial didn’t exactly help. It was 06:30 hours. He would be dead before many of his former crewmates had finished their breakfast.
Being careful not to betray any sense of haste, he turned his head to regard the desk from where the court-martial panel stared at him, confident in their power and moral superiority. The panel consisted of Indiya and Lubricant, and the reserve captain. Two precocious human children stuffed into officers’ uniforms, and a venerable alien who was so frail one felt that her every wheezing breath could be her last.
To stand before such a ramshackle court was beneath his dignity, really it was. If the situation were reversed, and Captain Wotun and Lieutenant Commander Ethniu were on a panel judging Indiya and Lubricant, the now-deceased Jotun officers would have afforded the occasion the appropriate gravitas. For all their faults, the leaders of the mutiny had a proper respect for the correct form of things.
Captain Indiya spoke quietly to the other two panel members.
Dock couldn’t catch what she said, but the meaning of her words came clear enough a few seconds later, when their smartfabric uniforms changed from Navy dress blue to matt black.
Uh, oh. This doesn’t look promising.
“Ensign Dock,” pronounced the new captain. “On the charge of treason, this panel finds you guilty. For this crime during a state of war, there can only be one sentence… death.”
Until that moment, Dock had breezed through the formalities of his court-martial, clad in the certainty that no matter what he did, he would be sentenced to death anyway.
To actually hear his sentence, though… that was another matter entirely.
He swallowed hard. Which was humiliating, and so he tried covering that with a cough. But that only made him gag. The cravat covered his shame, but only a little.
What would be the manner of his execution? The question was now burningly urgent.
Being ejected through an airlock without a suit was quick but agonizing. As for those Marine brutes… who knew what those monsters would recommend? And the captain would want to know what her handsome major thought. Oh, yes. Dock had seen the way she looked at McEwan.
The Marines would probably want to knife him in the gut, using their expertise in killing to ensure he took an excruciatingly long time to bleed out.
Please… let it be a firing squad.
Captain Indiya was watching Dock intently, enjoying seeing him squirm. He had no idea she was such a vindictive skangat. “However…” she said.
Dock snapped his attention onto the captain, and held his breath. So too, he noticed, did the shocked XO. Not so clever now, are we, Loobie dear?
“However,” repeated Indiya, “it is precisely because we find ourselves in a state of war that we are sometimes obliged to make distasteful choices. With regret, Ensign Dock, I find my crew short of experienced officers, and therefore your sentence is suspended indefinitely.”
Dock breathed once more. He began to believe he might actually live to see breakfast. But not if he riled his enemies. Despite the delight he felt at the XO’s fury, he tried to act in the manner he was used to when he faced proper Jotun officers, forcing his face to become utterly without expression.
“You are under probation,” the captain told Dock. “Indefinitely. I hold open the possibility that I may one day end your probation. But don’t count on in, mister. I’ll see you sweating blood before you earn your rehabilitation. That’s if you last that long. While you are under probation, any Navy officer who considers you to be acting disloyally is authorized to execute you on the spot.”
Dock didn’t like the sly look sneaking across the XO’s face.
“This court–martial is concluded,” Indiya announced.
Everyone rose. Once the captain had dismissed them, the crowd, such as it was, filed away.
Dock stood his ground. He wanted to thank the captain, but she was engaged in an intense argument with the XO.
Lieutenant Commander Lubricant looked up abruptly and pointed an accusing finger at Dock. “Why are you still here, ensign?”
“Because I wish to thank the captain for her generosity.”
“You’ve gotten your worthless life back – for now,” said Lubricant. “Be grateful and get out of our sight.”
Captain Indiya placed a restraining hand on the XO’s shoulder. “No,” she said. “I didn’t spare Dock in order to torment him. I want a fully functioning officer.” She regarded Dock for a moment. “Let’s be open with each other,” she said. “The XO is berating me for allowing you to live. She thinks me weak.”
The XO shook her head angrily. “You are. And you cannot show weakness, captain. Not now.”
The reserve captain cleared her throat noisily, a gurgling bundle of phlegm and hacking coughs. While she’d been sitting quietly, hunched over in her life-support chair, it was easy to ignore the old Jotun. But even at a grizzled old age, she remained a fearsome creature. Everyone held their tongue and waited respectfully for the reserve captain to speak.
“The mutiny in which Ensign Dock participated forced all of us to make stark decisions,” the alien officer said through her speech synthesizer. “Military life sometimes treats us like machines. Yet we are not. No matter how much we hide this from ourselves and others, our decisions affect us on a personal level. None more so than Captain Indiya who used Beowulf’s main drive as a weapon, killing thousands – many of them her comrades. That decision has consequences. Captain Indiya is not the same young woman she was before the mutiny.”
The Jotun bared her teeth. They were discolored and one was missing, but her fangs made every human there feel they were prey.
The reserve captain cleared her throat again and spoke, not using her synthesizer, but her own rasping voice. “Never label Captain Indiya weak.”
After the Jotun spoke, a lengthy silence filled the briefing room.
The XO had already told Dock to leave, and so when he felt the impact of the reserve captain’s words had died away a little, he bowed and hurried away. As he left, he overheard Captain Indiya telling the XO to keep a close watch on him. That she shouldn’t hesitate to shoot if he stepped out of line.
As soon as he was out in the passageway, Dock thought for his life.
If I’m going to survive, I need new allies… a way to prove my worth to the captain. Just as… just as she has just proved her strength and wisdom in that courtroom.
He tried to analyze what had just transpired. He knew, now, that Indiya and Lubricant were much more than little girls playing at being officers. He wasn’t sure what that made them, not yet, but he was certain that any attempt to ingratiate himself with them directly would backfire. Fatally.
What could he do?
Then he had it! That impressive Marine outsider would help him. Ensign Xin Lee. And he had a route in too, one that took his old dreams in new directions. Dock still had allies, though they’d deserted him this past day. They had informed him that Lee often argued that the Human Legion needed to embrace a more combined arms approach. Lee was right. Captain Indiya had studied fleet tactics, but knew nothing of how to fight outside of a ship’s hull. As for the other senior Marines, they seemed to have a near-religious belief that all you needed to win a war was the SA-71 carbine.
Dock opened comms to the Marine Liaison in CIC.
“Corporal Hecht here,” acknowledged the Marine on duty after a long delay, probably having to check Dock’s unexpected status first.
“Corporal, would you be so kind as to patch me through to Ensign Lee? Tell her… tell her I have a proposal for her. One regarding the establishment of an air wing for the Human Legion.”
A few seconds later, Ensign Xin Lee’s face appeared on the nearest general access console, which was set into the passageway bulkhead. Cruel eyes regarded him, simultaneously emanating bemusement and cool calculation.
Lee’s had been a whirlwind promotion, the same as Indiya, Lubricant and McEwan. But while the others showed strengths that hinted they may one day grow into those senior roles, Lee was already far beyond her rivals. Dock had stood his ground with the other youngsters, and even the old Jotun, but now he was in the presence of true greatness. The aura of destiny surrounding this young woman was so overwhelming that he had to fight the temptation to fall to his knees and bow his head.
“Congratulations on not being dead,” said Lee. “I don’t expect it’s a state you’ll enjoy for long if the XO has her way. Am I right?”
“Don’t sir me, Dock! That’s Navy speak. I’m ma’am to you.”
She nodded her approval. “Meet me in my cabin at 21:15 to discuss your proposal. In the interim, stay out of trouble. I expect you to grovel and lie if that’s what it takes to stay alive. Your dignity is of no interest to me. Do you understand?”
“Good. There’s no formal line of command connecting us, of course, but I’ll work on that. Doesn’t matter anyway, because we know different. From this moment onward, you belong to me.”
Dock swallowed hard. He didn’t doubt it.
~* THE END *~
Ensign Dock, and his friends, allies, and foes will appear in ‘Renegade Legion’, the third book in the Human Legion series.
Text (c) 2015 by Tim C. Taylor. All rights reserved. Image (c) TsuneoMP / Shutterstock.com