This is Issue #143 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘DeathWatch’ then go to ‘#0 – A Beginning’ and read from there, or go find the issue # you remember, and catch up from there!
* * *
Having left Holden Olivier in a state of piss-soaked distress, Alec Garrett felt lighter than he had in years. With his office and rooms locked up and his various plants left in the care of other professors, he had only a go bag to his name. The gun was packed away in the bag; he hadn’t used one in years, and didn’t really plan on changing that — he’d only pulled it on Holden to make the man shut up for once. Rather than wear his professorial robes, he wore a set of dark fatigues he hadn’t put on in years.
They still fit as they had the last time he’d taken them off.
The drive to the airfield was long and silent; he parked his motorcar and made his way to the fleet of speedships meant solely for short range transportation of small amounts of military goods, bribed a young officer, and stowed away. The further he got from Holden Olivier, the calmer his heart beat — until he watched the descent into Base North, and there was a tightness in his throat that he could not swallow down as his eyes wandered over the familiar structures shrouded in silvergrey mist.
* * *
“Do you know why I asked for you?” the officer asked, sitting across the desk from Garrett.
Garrett was silent for a long time, looking down at his hands, afraid to answer; he’d known eight men who sat in this chair — and never came back. He’d heard the things said about the man across the desk from him, the Krieg who’d been sent to marshall the Alliance Ground Forces into muster. That’s all anyone ever called him. The Krieg.
“I’m speaking to you, Corporal Garrett,” the Krieg said.
It struck Garrett just how gentle that voice was, and he sank lower in his chair, feeling humiliated, not daring to meet the face of the man who spoke. He’d heard many a horrible tale about the Krieg, and what he did to the men charged with improper fraternization. “Certain… ah… assumptions have been made about… personal… inclinations. Sir,” Garrett began.
“You sit in that chair because it is thought that you had inappropriate relationship with another man in your squad,” the Krieg said. “Corporal Fields.”
Garrett clenched his jaw, growling, “I never touched him. Sir.”
* * *
He slipped out of the ship once it docked, and marched directly to the administration buildings; with his thousand metre stare firmly in place and his bag slung over one shoulder, Alec Garrett fit in amidst the other soldiers easily.
Walking down the long hallway, headed for the last place he’d ever imagined he’d be again, he felt that tightness struggling to rise, threatening to cause panic.
* * *
“Give me honesty, Garrett,” the Krieg said, sounding earnest. “You have served under me for how long?”
“Three years, sir,” Garrett said. “I never. Touched him. Sir.” How his cheeks burned. He stared at his hands, feeling tears sting his eyes. Fields had been called into this office — he never even came back to his room for his kit. Fields, who when illicit pornography had been found in his bunk, gave up the names of two others besides Garrett, in hopes his ‘loyalty’ would grant him special dispensation.
The Krieg got up, went and locked the doors of his office, and drew the shades. “I don’t care if you touched Fields. The squad cares, and that makes for poor unit cohesion,” he said. Before he sat down, he took a tobacco pouch from one of the cabinets in his office. He rolled a cigarette, and let those words sink in.
Garrett stared at the Krieg’s hands, and the way his tongue wet his lips before he sealed the cigarette. It was offered, and Garrett took it with a trembling hand. He stared at his commanding officer as the man poured them both a shot of something pale gold from a bottle pulled out of his desk. “Sir,” Garrett said, and then paused to inhale as the Krieg lit the cigarette for him. “I don’t understand.”
* * *
He paused outside the door, his fingertips on the handle, and listened to the voice inside firmly explaining in no uncertain terms why he would retain his clearance regardless of the Kriegic nation pulling out of the Alliance. He swallowed against the tightness in his chest, in his throat. The scent of that tobacco clung to this end of the hall; no doubt, the man behind the desk was having a cigarette right then.
* * *
“Can you convince your fellow enlisted that you weren’t involved with Fields?” the Krieg asked.
“Can I what?” Garrett’s head swam; all he could see was the bluegrey smoke wreathing everything — the taste of it hot and sweet.
“Can you lie?” the Krieg murmured. “Can you lie well enough that no one will ever report on you again?” The next thing the Krieg pulled from his desk was a pistol, cleaned and gleaming, all longbarreled and brass. He set it on the desk carefully, pointing at neither himself, nor Garrett. “Pick it up,” he said, looking at Garrett. “Pick it up, Corporal.”
Used to following orders, Garrett picked it up, sussing the weight and balance. He thumbed the safety off and on again, then looked back up at the Krieg, wondering what would come next.
* * *
Garrett pulled the pistol from his bag and ran his thumb over the safety, thumbing it off, and on again, feeling the weight and balance of it in his hand. He closed his eyes and left one hand curled around the pistol, the other on the handle of the door. He stood there for what seemed like hours.
Eventually, however, he realized the telecom conversation had ended, and on the other side of the door, there was silence. He took a deep breath and knocked.
“Come in,” called the familiar voice, and Garrett complied.
When he walked in, the assault on his memory was complete — the place looked nearly as he’d left it, full of papers, books on tactics, dissections of ancient battles, essays on the proper training and care of ground troops. The scent of polished leather and expensive leaf was mingled with gun oil and the faintest tang of ship fuel. The man behind the desk was nearly as he’d been left as well; his eyes were an iceblue, cold and bright, while the gold of his hair and beard had grown shot with silvergrey — enough to distinguish him, but the man Squad 414 had called The Krieg, now a general, still looked younger than Garrett thought he had any right to. Garrett couldn’t help but smile as he entered, and shut the door behind himself.
When he looked up, the Krieg’s expression shifted from bureaucratic frustration to sheer surprise. “…Alec?”
Garrett nodded, grateful his voice didn’t tremble as he answered, “Hello, Danival.”
* * *