The Sorriest Parade Ever
Fiction by Christopher T. Shields
Just when I think that I’ve seen every weird thing that this damn war can throw at me, the very next day I get surprised all over again. It makes life worth living because there's always something new. Take for instance the situation that I’m in now. Six hours ago I was pulling maintenance on my blower with my gunner, Stephens, when this uppity aide to some brass laden top comes strutting in to the service bay and begins to yell my name at the top of his prissy lungs.
The sound of my name echoed around the service bay and everything started to get quiet. No one knew this guy but everyone knew me. Curiosity began to slow the tasks at hand.
The other blower pilots were stopping what they were doing now, watching as this clean pressed suit marched down the double maintenance line of blowers, looking like someone owed him money. He was so clean that you might have thought that some general had just unwrapped him from a mold, taken from an order at the PX. Real soldiers got dirty, their fatigues became ruffled, soiled, torn. I’ve never been one for keeping shiny things shiny, I like the used look, call it a natural patina from having done the job it was supposed to do.
Honestly, I may have been the last one to look up, taking just long enough to use a shop towel to wipe some of the lubricant grease from my hands. I guess it was a combination of me liking the sound of my name carrying at top lung capacity throughout the shop complex and my own disdain for someone who obviously put a lot of effort into maintaining the presence of their wardrobe. The guy looked like a stuffed shirt, all bark no bite. I knew his kind, or at least I thought I did. It would come as somewhat of a surprise to discover that not only did this dog have a sharp little bite but he also had a pretty short leash. It was the hand at the end of that leash which I should have worried about.
“Private Mitchell Carey!” the shiny aide shouted again.
Stephens looked up from tightening a restraining bolt on the repeater feed mechanism in the top turret, both of his arms elbows deep inside the service panel leading to the arming and operational guts of the top turret.
“Private Mitchell Carey?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yeah.” I said, finishing up with the shop towel.
“Ha!” Stephens said, going back to his work. “I’ve got a ten spot on you. Go put your boot up his ass then wear him around for a while like the little glass slipper that he is.”
I grunted good naturedly as I finished wiping my hands. I stood up and strode over the top deck of the blower, staring down at the aide. I had purposely put a high intensity service bay light behind me, it cast my shadow over the aide and hid my features in a white aura.
"Private Mitchell Carey?" the aide asked, looking up.
“I’m a lieutenant, sir.” I told him. "At least, the last time I checked I was."
“You won’t be if I have to call your name again, pip. Now get down here on the double. I don’t like looking up at people when I talk to them.” The aide said in his best voice of authority. It did nothing to install any respect for him in me.
He wanted me standing in front of him when he talked to me? Fine. A blower isn’t that high up when her skirt is depressurized and I’m still young enough to hop up and down on a grounded blower with relative ease. I took a step off the top deck of the blower and landed on both of my feet, combat boots creating a dull thud on the floor, one that seemed to echo throughout the cavernous service bay. I march-walked five sharp strides over to the aide and did my best not to smile. Even on level ground, I was still a head and a half taller than he was. The War was hell, they must be recruiting at pre-schools these days. Well, well, well. It looked like the aide would be looking up at me when he talked to me after all. What a pity, that. I wiped my brow with a relatively clean part of the shop towel, saluted, then stood at formation attention in front of him.
“Lieutenant Mitchell Carey, sir. Reporting direct and center as instructed. Sir.”
The top brass liked pomp and circumstance, I guess it made them feel important. It was all a song and dance to me, just social lubricant to keep the heat off of me and like Stumpy, our head mech, I had gallons of the stuff to spare. If it greased the wheels of interaction or got me what I wanted during the day then I could turn it on with the best of them. My eyes fell to the aide’s chest then back straight forward, staring over the top of his head. I’m sure he could tell where I was looking.
The aide had a name, right there on his jutted out breast; Peterson. A name with a lot of metal beside it meant that, technically, this Peterson was my ranking superior though anyone who looked at us knew that it was a fact that existed only on paper somewhere and would be difficult to prove otherwise. Peterson; not exactly a top brass bearing name but then I guess there were other ways to get to the top of the ranks, other than the old fashioned way of honestly working your way there. This guy looked like he knew a few shortcuts on the path to wearing the patches and pins. Me? I never cared much for orders or those who gave them. You had to have weight to sling orders around and I never cared for the heavy stuff either, the kind of weight that came with rank and command. A handful of people and their blowers I could manage, a battalion or a sector? Forget it. Too much responsibility, the people became faceless, they became numbers and statistics and I could never remove myself that much from the human race to rise to the upper rungs of command. I prided myself in that fact and the realization that even though I was standing at attention, looking straight ahead over the top of this stuffed set of officer fatigues. Brass be damned, I thought. This guy was a push-over, just a spoiled aide to a higher up, someone used to throwing around what little weight his master bequeathed to him. Taking him down, kicking all the notches out from under him until he hit the ground on his chin, hard, wouldn’t even be a contest. Hell, Stephens could take this guy on a bad day.
“Lieutenant Carey.” The aide said, disdain in his voice at using my term of rank. “General Harrison has made you and your team available to General Braddock as of this date and time.”
Old bloody Braddock, by reputation among the ranks. Having Braddock call you out for a mission was like the Grim Reaper asking you to spit shine his sandals. It wouldn’t take you very long to figure out that you were being asked to do something that no one in their right mind would ever volunteer for which is why I guess that I was about to get a bunch of orders telling me I didn’t have any choice in the matter.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Inside, I stopped smiling, right then and there. Braddock had a well known reputation for getting the job done, whatever the job was, no matter how hard the job was. He accomplished these feats by using up any and all of his available resources while completing his job and he tended to use them up fairly quick. No regrets, he had other people write the t-mails back home to the grieving next of kin. It wasn’t his fault that you didn’t make it but it was his fault if he didn’t make it and more than likely, it was your fault as well even though you might not be around to enjoy the blame that got pushed off with alacrity. People and equipment were numbers to him, assets, resources, all expendable in his pursuit of personal glory and in making a name for himself. The high shining brass loved him because he did what he said he would do. The rank and file hated him because he saw them as nothing more than allocated resources to be used as he saw fit.
“General Braddock needs an ops rep from you within the hour. He wants to know where you and your team stand in regard to combat readiness. He has also asked me to find you and bring you to his bunker.”
Peterson started walking towards the personnel service elevator. I guess he expected me to fall in behind him.
“Why?” I asked.
The aide stopped, turned, and noticed that I was not where he expected me to be. He looked up at me, half sneer, half disbelief at my questioning his orders.
“Why? I would say to ask you some questions in person. General Braddock is the kind of person who doesn’t believe in leading from behind a desk.” The aide said with some pride in his voice.
I sighed. This Peterson was as much a work of art as he was an acolyte.
“No. Why did Braddock choose my team?”
The aide stopped and looked at me, then looked past me at the blowers and the crews. They all stared back at him, frozen in their jobs, making their own personal assessments of the shallow character and personal orientation of this stranger in their midst. I could tell that he fully expected to walk into the service bay, find me, bedazzle me with his metal and have me follow him like a puppy back to his master. This guy wasn’t combat material and Heaven help anyone that he managed to get put over out in the field.
“General Braddock asked General Harrison for the best lift combat capable team that she had available. General Harrison offered several names of team command elements to General Braddock. Your name was somehow at the top of the list though both the General and I each feel that we may soon have to question the criteria by which General Harrison judges just what is considered to be her “best” lift combat capable element.”
If Peterson was expecting that straight down the middle personal jab to rattle me, he was in for disappointment. There was a short pause as he measured my response and, finding me not taking his offered bait, he turned on his combat boots with a smooth transition and began walking again. My own pause was not enough to make me fall too far behind. In my mind, I began running scenarios on what I had done wrong and where I had screwed up. Either Harrison liked me enough to put me at the top of her list or she hated me enough to put me at the top of her list. At that moment in time, I really couldn’t be sure which it was.
Peterson started walking again, not waiting on me this time. He knew I’d follow him, if not because of his authority then because of Braddock’s. Stephens was looking up from the top turret, enjoying the soap opera being played out five meters from his position. I nodded to him, jerking my head to the side and back towards the open hatches of the cockpit. He stopped what he was doing, moved toward the front of blower, and then leaned over inside to retrieve my field jacket and service automatics in their holsters. He trotted across the top deck of the grounded blower, his boots ringing on the grating and purge vents as he double checked the clasps on the holsters.
“Heads up, Top!” Stephens said as he threw me my jacket and combat rig.
I caught it all bunched up, one handed, letting the combat rig slap the weight of the two service automatics against my forearm. I threw my field jacket over my shoulder and buckled on my double duty rig, slapping the Velcro attachment strips on the backside of the nylon flap holsters to the matching strips on the side of my fatigue pants. I pulled my jacket from my shoulder, turned it forward and upside down, slipped my arms in then pulled it over my head, using the downward motion of my arms to not only pull the jacket on but to seat it comfortably as well. I was dressed in my field gear by the time that the aide and I had taken fifteen steps. If he noticed what I did, he didn’t comment nor did he seem to care. We were headed for the forward service lift that would return us to the ground level. I didn’t bother to zip up the field jacket, it was April outside and warm enough for Neurope this time of year.
Everyone was watching us as we walked down the center isle, past the open drawers of the tool carts and the spares crates, past the stacked ammunition cassettes and the mobile diagnostic trolleys. No one made a sound, only the occasional beeps from some of the automated testing systems and the whir from the huge climate control fans carried through the bay. It was understandable. Some top brass’s lap dog had just strolled into a service bay, walked along the gathered blower pilots like he owned the place then called out their commander to follow him. It took balls to do that but then I was pretty sure that even if the guy hadn’t any balls on his own, the temporary pair he was sporting were on loan from old Braddock himself.
I don’t like silence, it’s the first sign of non-production and non-production is key to keeping a blower team down and grounded. Blowers were the finest things on the modern battlefield but they did need maintenance and repair and reloading and refueling and a host of other TLC that only a blower jock could give them. Blowers were family and we lived with them as such, each one had a name and a personality, each crew worked together, we were a team and teams did work to stay the way that they were.
I stuck my hand in the air, made two fingers and twirled them around four times before dropping my arm. Those who saw what I did knew what it meant, those who didn’t saw it would get my message by word of mouth. In the field, that was my signal to my team to rev up and get ready to move out on my lead. In the service bay, it was just my way of saying get back to work and put some thrust behind it. Slowly, the murmuring began, followed by the sound of tools and diagnostic units returning to use and the clink of ammunition being transferred to storage bays and pre-fed into feeder mechanisms. The service bay came alive again with people working on the blowers. It was the sound of a family working hard on the things that really did matter the most.
It was the sound of my family.
Now, I didn’t know what I was about
to step into or what was going to be asked of my team but I knew damn well that
we would be ready when we were called upon to do it and that we would be ready
long before we were asked to be ready. As head of our family that’s how I ran
things and my people knew it too. Unlike the guy I was following, I had risen to
my position through hard work and a lot of losses. My people looked up to me not
because I had some shiny metal on my fatigues but because they knew that come
hell or high water, I was going to do my best to get them in and back out of a
mission alive and that I would put my own life on the line if I felt it would
make a difference. I never wanted to be top kick on a blower team but that’s
where I’ve risen to, not by choice, not by sticking my nose up the rear thruster
of some big brass, but by mutual vote from my fellow pilots and by earning their
respect. They saw me as the old man of the blowers, I had more seat time than
any of them and truth be known, I had as much time in a blower as a few of them
combined. I taught them what I could, showed them how it was done in the field
and I worked with them to make them the best damn blower team I knew.
The sounds of the service bay came on strong as the aide and I closed the rack on the personnel elevator. I managed to push the ground floor button before he could then stood back at parade rest with my hands clutched behind my back. As the elevator rose towards the surface, I caught a last glimpse of my team and our blowers.
We would be ready on time that much was sure but for what, who knew…
The April afternoon wind whipped at me as I rode on the back of the North American General Motors M390 all wheel drive carry-about. The tiny electric fuel cell powered service mule had been fitted as a personnel carrier, four seats installed on the modular flat bed on the rear, and by the look of the seats, I’d say that it got used fairly often. The driver was not quite as cleanly dressed as the aide was but the fact that there were only two seats up front meant that I had to sit in the flat cargo area on the back. No problem; the refit and duty switch had added in four extra padded seats with safety buckles, arranged in a two by two configuration with two facing forward and two facing rearward, back to back. I sat at the rear right, in line with the driver. I guess I didn’t want to be downwind of the aide. I spent the trip looking back the way that we had come, watching the service bay recede into the background, lost among the rest of the buildings of the camp. I saw GEVs slide past on part skirt and part throttle, just enough to float without throwing dust everywhere. A few balloon jobs and track layers joined the traffic flow, neither as fast in the field as my blower, a fact which struck me as a point of pride in my chosen MSA military service application.
My aviators kept the glare of the sun down as I took out a caffeine stick from the yellow and black crush proof pack in my sleeve pocket. Lipton brand, sweet tea flavor with just the hint of lemon, supposedly spun in the old Southern style. I chewed on it pensively, glanced down at the pack and noticed that I only had five sticks left. Whatever Braddock wanted us for, I made a mental note to lay in a supply of c-sticks before we left out. I pulled out my TI-PDA and sent Stephens an IM to lay in some provisions in the shared locker of our blower. He liked candy and sweets though after the climate control system went offline one time a few weeks ago, we both agreed that his penchant for storing chocolate had to come to an end. Flavored filtered water with supplements, caffeine sticks, caffeine patches, hard candy, a bunch of gum, and Old Traditions brand filtered cigs for Stephens (his open vice in the field, drinking was his habit off duty). Sometimes he carried a flask of whiskey in the blower, a reg I let him break only because he shared it when we both really needed a strong pull. When I asked him why he carried the flask, he shrugged his shoulders and asked why I carried a spare fire extinguisher mounted on the bulkhead near my combat couch. He had a point. Emergencies called for different venues and it was very good sipping whiskey, when it all came down to the line. Where he got it from, I don’t know and I didn’t care, just as long as he kept it coming.
Using the TI-PDA and its real-time
link, I double
checked through the stocks of our own blower and doubled some of the items in
stock. Small arms ammo, field kits for the Norinco snubmachineguns we both
carried, top off our NBC kits, our environmental filters, emergency kits,
survival packs, maybe a few party favors of the high explastic kind and other
day to day in-the-field basics that made us feel better when we closed our eyes
and said our prayers or had thoughts that we might have to bail out of our
blower and hump it on foot for a while. Stephens would have to pull from stores
but that wasn’t a problem. The service base wasn’t far enough out that the
quartermaster was stingy. Even if he was, Stephens and his little flask of
sipping whiskey seemed to win friends where no official paperwork ever could. It
was all about favors in the military. Sometimes, I thought that the military was
based around barter and that paperwork was just a silly disguise for how
supplies really were requisitioned and moved around. It wasn’t a theory that I
had investigated too deeply but on the surface it seemed to hold up to more than
just passing scrutiny.
Who knew where we were going or how long we would be. He IM’ed me back with a confirmation and a sit-rep on the guns up top. The feeder mechanism was working again. He was moving on to yanking the drive motor for the retractable high gain antenna array. We’d taken a pill in the armor a few days ago, it hadn’t penetrated but the dent it made was just deep enough to crush the drive motor mounted on the other side. Without our high gain array, we’d be deaf and blind on a few channels. Stumpy and his hull man, Nichols, were already on the BPC molder, reconforming the dimple smooth out before they worked on the drive motor on the inside of the armor. Chances were, they’d have to replace some crimped mounts and probably an entire wiring strand but if I knew Stumpy and Nichols, we were talking half an hour tops.
“10-20?” came Stephens short hand on the TI-PDA screen. He wanted to know where I was. Curiosity killed the cat.
“Sitting southbound on a northbound mule, headed for O-town.” I said as the speech to text editing translator picked up my spoken words, typed them on the screen as fast as I spoke them. I reviewed what I had said and mashed the orange XMIT key, sending my reply.
O-town. Officer town. The part of the camp where the high shining brass chose to sink their bunkers, link their tunnels and make decisions that only had bearings on their careers and the lives of people who they had removed their selves from long ago. Sometimes it was hard to think of the high shining brass as even being human any more. Sometimes it seemed that they had forgotten what that meant.
“Make sure any hole you walk into has an exit you can come out of.” Stephens texted and I laughed, nodding to myself.
It was the old proverb of the mongoose; never follow a snake down its own hole. You felt like a mongoose when you went to O-town, there were lots of trenches and holes and military police. Who knew what really lay down those dark holes, in all of those networked and linked corridors five and six meters beneath the ground.
I guess I was about to find out the hard way.
“That’s a rodge.” I said to the TI-PDA as it typed my reply and sent it.
Cargo. I was nothing more than cargo for this ride, something to be fetched and brought back. That’s exactly how I felt and cargo was exactly what the aide considered me to be; baggage, a requested asset to be retrieved for Braddock, the man on the other end of Peterson’s leash. So this guy was Braddock’s errand boy, sent to fetch whatever Braddock needed and apparently Braddock needed me and my troop. So far I wasn’t impressed with his choice in staff but then rank never has impressed me much probably because I’ve got such an aversion to what it tends to pin itself on and stick to.
The little NAGM M390 mule whined through the various checkpoints of O-Town, barely slowing. I guess the aide had some clout after all. O-Town was clean, as clean of an area inside a service base that you could find. If there was an uptown part of the service base, then O-Town was it. The dirt streets weren’t even rutted in this area, everything looked slightly manicured, like great attention to detail had been given to how bunkers were sunk and if some grand plan on arrangement had been followed. Everyone moved like they had a purpose and if people were standing around talking it was because they needed to be doing so. I immediately didn’t like it. Harrison’s bunker wasn’t in O-Town and that was her own personal choice. She liked to be near her people which I guess is what caused me to like her despite the amount of shining brass she carried on her fatigues. Harrison didn’t try to distance herself from those she was in charge of, she didn’t try to treat her people like supplies.
The M390 pulled up outside of a low, slant sided ferrocrete bunker and halted. I slapped my safety harness open when I heard Peterson’s own harness clink open. I guess we were where we were going to go. The next few minutes were going to be interesting if they were anything. I followed Peterson into the climate controlled bunker, removing my aviators and zipping them into my jacket’s left breast pocket. The inside of the bunker was cool, the air was crisp, carefully manipulated with controlled humidity in the presence of so much electronic equipment. Holographic display tanks and high resolution variable ratio projected information screens marked all of the activity occurring in the sector on a second by second basis, updated from remote sensors, scanners, the few satellites that were still functioning in orbit high above and from direct data relay from units operating in the field. It was impressive but artificial, there were no control grips here, no collective pedals. The language spoken in this place wasn’t the same one that Stephens and I used. The sounds that the people here heard weren’t the same sounds that Stephens and I heard. The interior of this bunker, with its slow moving human automatons going about their predetermined duties, was about as alien to me as my cockpit would be to any one of them. I felt out of my world, a stranger in a strange land. Command wasn’t a place I felt at ease in.
Peterson moved on towards the back of the bunker to a service lift. I followed at a discreet pace, not even pretending to believe that I belonged or could fake it for any believable amount of time. I merely moved with him, fell in behind the wake that his purposeful stride created and let myself be pulled along in his wake.