I was in hell.
I wanted to vomit. My head pounded. I don’t know if it was the booze last night, the chicken wings, or the beating I got from the MPs. Zeke was a total wreck, with black eyes, a fat lip, and several egg sized lumps on his head. The MPs had had some sport with him, and one had a broken nose to show for it. Both men were all grins though; some guys just love to fight. And the more blood and lumps - the better. Shitty was still wearing the ridiculous flack jacket, and Sarge looked murderous. You could tell Zeke and Shitty were headed for the woodshed with him, but he wouldn’t even look at me. He was furious with them… and utterly disappointed with me. I don’t know which is worse. I jumped as the office intercom buzzed.
“Show them in, please!” Oh shit, I thought. This is it. We’re all gonna die.
Colonel Warner sat behind his desk with an open file, silently reading while we waited. Zeke began to fidget and squirm in the silence. “Oi, Colonel, I can explain-“
Warner held up his hand for silence. Somehow Zeke stifled himself. Presently the Colonel closed the file and pushed it away. “At approximately 21:30 last night, Zeke Hudson procured an antique Colt 45 ACP handgun at Earnie’s Bar & Grille. Under the influence of alcohol, he then turned the gun on Private Sinclair Ashton, and shot him with it?” Zeke sat motionless and stared at the floor. The Colonel turned his withering glare on Sinclair. “My friends call me ‘Shitty’, sir…. And it wasn’t exactly like that…”
“Shaddup!” He then turned his murderous gaze on me. “The firearm belonged to Corporal Jim Ferguson who, in conduct that can only be described as criminally negligent, lost control of the piece while he drank his face off on the other side of the bar?”
I wasn’t going to fool Warner and knew it. Nor would I insult him or demean myself by lying to him. “Yes sir.” I said miserably, looking him in the eye. He closed his eyes, leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose. I wondered if his headache was as bad as mine. Without looking up, the Colonel addressed Sarge. “What is your role in this shitshow Sargeant Holden?”
Sarge struggled for words, gave up, and shrugged. “I was there, sir. I could and should have prevented it.”
Warner slumped further into his chair. He shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do. You assholes are going to do time. There’ll be a court martial, and then you guys are headed for prison. I was barely able to ignore that incident with the Japanese sword 6 months ago… but I can’t sweep this under the carpet. There’s too many eyes on us, and the public would…WILL shit a brick when they find out about it. I’ll have internal affairs up my ass, the mutts at the Pentagon will have to get their pound of flesh…”
The intercom buzzed. “Colonel Warner, I have General Zutz and an associate here for you.” Warner massaged his temples, opened a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Maalox and a plastic cup. “Please get them a coffee and make them comfortable. I’ll finish up here and be right out.”
“Begging your pardon Colonel, but the general would like to confer with you right away - he says it’s about that incident last night..” Warner slammed the Maalox, threw the cup in the garbage and thumbed the intercom. “By all means, send them in please.”
“Always a pleasure to to see you, General,” Warner said as the two men shook hands. “Did you get that antique Japanese sword I sent you a couple months back?”
Zutz smiled and nodded. “I did,” he said, “And I never did pay you for that piece, Colonel. We’ll have to hash that out before I head back to Washington on Tuesday. But I have it on display in my office - it’s a magnificent conversation piece. I can’t possibly thank you enough.”
“What brings you out to us this morn, General? I have to admit, I wish you hadn’t heard about this incident or had to be involved with it. These arseholes have embarrassed the entire military with their conduct.” I felt like a heel as the men seated themselves.
“Colonel, with your permission,” the General paused and frowned, searching for words. “Colonel Warner, may I please relieve you of all responsibility and involvement in this incident? I would consider it a generous and personal favour.”
Colonel Warner was obviously caught by surprise; he looked at us as if we might know something. We all stared back vacantly. “It’s irregular, General, but … yes of course! By all means! But may I ask? To what purpose?”
The General smiled the way old men do when they set to evil or foolish endeavours. “Excellent! Thank you Colonel, I owe you one. As to the the purpose, there are several, actually. One is to prevent your involvement in an unfortunate misunderstanding. Perhaps my good friend here can fill you in?”
I was so caught up in my own problems that I didn’t notice Zutz’s accomplice. It was Earnie - the owner of the establishment where our chit show began. “Good morning Colonel Warner. But as the General said, there’s been a dreadful misunderstanding, and I thought - with your permission - that I’d clear things up once everyone settled down and had a clear head.”
“By all means, Earnie. If you have anything to add, please feel free,” Warner said.
Earnie looked around nervously and began.“Every odd Friday night at the club, we do stand-up comedy acts. We clear a space on the floor, the wanks stand up, tell funnies and try to make the crowd laugh. Zeke and Shitty were doing a short comedy skit with harmless props. They were shooting loud blanks to simulate gunfire, sir. The boys took the floor and said their punchlines, and fired some harmless blanks into the air. The MPs heard the shot, and proceeded as good coppers do… but unfortunately misunderstood the situation. It was an honest mistake all the way around, but one we can all have a good laugh about now that we know what actually happened.” We sat in stunned silence.
Warner sat still as a rock, looking like he had swallowed a piece of shit. Without a word, he reached down into a desk drawer, and placed the Colt on the desk for all of us to see. “A harmless stage prop?” he asked. Again he reached into his desk, and brought up the vintage box of Winchester Super X ammunition. “Blanks…?” he asked. Finally, he brought the Maalox out and didn’t even bother with a cup, and drank deeply right from the bottle. “Seriously, General? I oughtta put you two guys in jail too!”
The General grinned in delight. “Excellent then! We all understand each other! As you say, Earnie, it’s all just a humorous, harmless misunderstanding. Colonel, I am going to take that pistol and the blanks as part of my investigation,” he said, scooping them into his briefcase. He then pulled out a couple papers and placed them before the Colonel. “These are my written, direct and signed orders relieving you of all involvement and responsibility for this incident and these men, who are now under my direct command and supervision. Is there anything else we need to close this incident for you, Colonel Warner?”
Colonel Warner was looking over his orders as he spoke, “What about the base MPs, General?”
Zutz frowned and thought. “Yes, their involvement in this affair was simply outstanding. I’ll send the MP CO a complimentary email for his handling of the affair, and ask if he might make himself available for an interview with Espirit de Corps. They and their readers will enjoy an in depth piece on the intrepid constabulary and their doings.”
“Well, General Zutz. I dunno whether to thank you or curse you out. What is your interest in these assholes?” Warner asked.
The General smiled that evil old man smile. The man was a hero in his own right, known for his record as much as his adroit politics. In the inevitable conflict between feckless political leaders and the military, he had taken more than a few political scalps to the applause of both the defence and civilian sectors.
“Colonel Warner, are you familiar with these four arseholes?” the General asked. Colonel Ward shook his head blankly. “No. Should I be? They look like four hung over morons…”
Zutz smiled, reached inside his jacket, and pulled out a cigar. Ward found an ashtray and the conversation resumed. “Really, I am disappointed in you. Let me introduce you properly: Sargeant Holden? Dink Ferguson? Shitty Sinclair? Zeke The Freak? Ring any bells?”
Colonel Ward blinked. “The last guys off the Hornet? Out at Centauri? That was these four goofs? I never got the full story on that one General, most of it got classified and zipped up.” None of us spoke up, we were still in shock over the reversal of our fortunes and didn’t dare to speak and jinx it.
“I’ll give you the short version, Colonel. The Bloaters had just turned The Hornet into scrap. All hands were either dead or so close to it, it didn’t matter. For some reason we may never know, the Bloater dreadnought decided to move in and take a closer look at the warship it had just destroyed. But four men were still alive in the aft gun tub. The big rail gun was pretty much off line. The servos were wrecked, the targeting computer was gone, so it couldn’t move or track… but it could still be manually fired - IF the Bloaties gave them the shot. And - in a one in a million turn of events, they did just that.”
We didn’t have time to swing the guns around, never mind abandon ship. One minute they were on the sensors, the next, we were soaking up rounds and coming apart, and the one after that, it was over and we were done like dinner. In the gun tub, we four had just gotten into our suits. Most of our mates died when a bulkhead tore away and we explosively decompressed. Once we assessed our situation, Zeke called it: we were gonna die on this gun. And we all silently looked into that chasm we were about to fall in to. One minute we were fleet spacers on one of the most formidable fighting machines made by man. The next, we were corpses on an orbiting cloud of space junk.
Shitty saw it first. “Sarge… the Bloaties are moving in… think they’ll spot us…?” The Sarge watched the big alien vessel moving in on us. “Zeke, can you get a vector on that? Is that fuck gonna give us a shot?”
Zeke was thinking in his head. “He may, Sarge. He just may!”
Sarge was all business. “Dink, if he walks out in front of us, can we get a shot off?” The firing mechanism was mostly mechanical. I removed a dust cover off the junction box, disabled the solenoid, and wrapped my fingers round the actuator. “No prob, Sarge. I can fire on your order.”
“Shitty, get on the hopper. It probably doesn’t work, but if it does, prepare to reload. Zeke, how are we looking?” Zeke was focused on the approaching vessel. “Quiet as church mice, fellas! We don’t wanna spook ‘em, now… they’re gonna be right in front of us in a minute, range is about a bow shot… you give the word, Sarge…”
The rest was ancient history. The Bloaties took it right up the chute, their fields collapsed and they got sucked into their own singularity. Half the wreckage of the Hornet went in with them, but we miraculously survived that too. The Gods of war gave us a victory of comedic proportions, and then left us to die slowly by an obscure star in deep space. We briefly celebrated our win, and then made ready to face our fate. Our suits were set to deliver O2 at a trickle, mixed with trace anaesthetics in hopes of keeping us alive long enough for rescue. Our transponders were turned on and would squawk at emergency frequency until their batteries gave out. After he made sure we were out and squawking, Sarge set his own transponder and set his suit to hibernation as well. We at least, would die peacefully in our sleep.