As Marine protocol requires, I knocked twice and then waited.
I entered as ordered, walked to the mandated spot before the superior’s desk and came to attention and saluted.
“Colonel Thibodeaux, reporting as ordered, sir.”
Thibodeaux glanced up from what he was reading, returned my salute and ignored me for the better part of three minutes.
“I’m reading the after action report you dictated after you came to following your surgery.”
I’d decided before I arrived I wouldn’t change one word.
This time he set the tablet down and scooted back in his chair.
“Is there anything you want to change in your report?”
“You realize this will mean a full inquiry will be held.” The Colonel knew full well I did.
I respected Colonel Thibodeaux. Good Marine. Didn’t play games and didn’t waste his troop’s lives. I was about to find out if he was worth the high regard I held for him.
“Sergeant Sullivan, you’re a good NCO. Your records indicate you were a fine Marine, an excellent SP. One of the best in my regiment.”
“Thank you, Colonel.”
“Tell me, Sergeant, what is your professional opinion of Lt. Kilgore, Space Marine to Space Marine?”
“Inexperienced. Hardheaded. Thinks he’s better than most of us. Knows most of his stuff, but doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Too proud to ask for help or a second opinion.”
Thibodeaux laughed a single chuckle.
“Sergeant, I think that describes every 2nd Lt. who ever pinned on his bars in the long history of the Corps.”
“Yes, sir. I agree. Problem is, most 2nd Louie’s figure out if they want to survive to get promoted, they better listen to their sergeant. Kilgore is incapable of realizing the need to do so.”
“Strong words, sergeant.” Thibodeaux frowned that sort of frown Colonel’s use to intimidate even the toughest Marine. Normally would have had the desired effect, but I’m a stubborn man myself. I’d already made my decision.
“True words, Colonel. Kilgore has never been humbled in his life. Doesn’t know how to do it himself. Won’t learn until it happens to him.”
The Colonel stood up and walked around his desk before taking a seat on the edge of his desk.
“In your report, you state not moving the checkpoint was a critical error.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure you noted in my report, I informed Lt. Kilgore of my opinion. He disregarded it. Now nine of my SPs are dead.”
Thibodeaux simply stared at me.
I decided I might as well throw the match I’d lit on the pyre. My funeral pyre.
“I’m sure you noted the fact I disagreed with the withdrawal of the Space Marines. A contingent of at least a full company should have been left to provide additional support for sweeps and as a strategic reserve.”
I’d touched a nerve. It was all Colonel Thibodeaux could do to prevent his bird from tearing off my three stripes.
“You do realize, I hope, Sergeant Sullivan, I am often given orders I do not agree with. Even as the commanding officer, I have to obey orders from my superiors.”
“Yes, sir. I don’t hold you responsible. I hold the politicians responsible. I noted that fact in my report.”
Thibodeaux used his frown again.
“You realize your report, if not amended, is going to make this matter,” he paused to make his point, “worse.”
“Sir, no offense, but those nine dead SPs would be alive, and policing Gallantia now if Lt. Kilgore had listened. The fact the Lt. wouldn’t listen might, possibly, have been irrelevant if the premature withdrawal of the 3rd was not carried out.
Thibodeaux’s reply chilled me to my core. “Soldiers die in military conflicts.”
I answered just as coolly. “It is the duty of officers to first and foremost achieve the mission objective. Second, to do so with the absolute minimum loss of life, those lives that belong to the men the officer commands. Lt. Kilgore does not understand that principle. Nor, would it seem, does the idiot, Ambassador Clark.”
Thibodeaux’s face contorted, moving through a strange combination of expressions as he considered my comments. He evidently reached some form of conclusion as the intimidating frown made its presence visible. “Very well, Sergeant. Dismissed.”
We traded salutes. I did an about face and left before the Colonel started spitting plasma blasts at me. Things would work out for me, or my career, as a member of the Shore Patrol would soon be over.
I was putting a lot of faith in the honor and integrity of the military I served. I hoped it was faith well placed.
Colonel Thibodeaux stared at the door long after I departed as ordered. He picked up his comm and sent a link.
“Major, you were right. Sullivan didn’t blink an eye.”
He listened for a moment, nodding sadly.
“Put things in motion. Kilgore’s family will save him or not. Either way, we have our scapegoat.”
“How dare they! This Thibodeaux, this Colonel, he’s incompetent! Doesn’t the man know how to follow orders?”
Xu smiled, bowing to his superior. The aide cut his eyes with a triumphant glance at his rival Josephine.
“Sir, truthfully, the Colonel’s hands are tied. Due to an after action report by a Sergeant involved in the incident, an official inquiry must be conducted. The regulations regarding matters such as this are precise.”
“I don’t care,” Clark raged, pacing in his office aboard the Thermopylae. “This prolongs the time the incident is covered in the news cycle. Even worse, I will be dragged into the inquiry!”
With glee, Xu inserted the proverbial knife and twisted it.
“You did demand the 3rd be withdrawn.”
“So? It had to be done,” Clark raged.
“You did it against the advice of Colonel Clark.”
Clark stopped and stared at his aide, realizing the man was hinting at something.
“As per their custom, Colonel Thibodeaux demanded you put the order in writing.”
It took all of Xu’s willpower not to grin as the blood drained from Clark’s face. “I sign so many things,” the Ambassador sputtered fearfully, “How am I to know I left a record of that order?”
Xu made a show of sighing in frustration. “Ambassador, I must remind you. I regularly request you read the documents presented to you for signing. It would make my job much easier and your life less stressful.”
Clark collapsed into his luxurious overstuffed recliner. Snapping his fingers first, he pointed at Josephine. “Whiskey.” Xu smiled at Josephine as she complied with the Ambassador’s order.
“How do we rectify this situation? I must not be dragged into this inquiry, and I demand someone’s head be offered to appease the Secretary and the President on Earth.”
“Might I suggest we cooperate with the inquiry?”
“Cooperate? Why? That would require I be exposed politically.”
“Actually, the inquiry provides us with two individuals to offer up. One is a young 2nd Lt; the other is a mere NCO.”
Hope filled Clark’s face quickly at the possibility Xu could serve up two choices for sacrifice.
“The Lt. could be problematic. He is an Academy graduate and well connected. His father is the Ambassador to Raylon IV, and his mother is the heir to the Blomeheim fortune.”
“Kilgore! I despise that family!”
“It gets better, Ambassador.”
Xu had Clark’s complete attention.
“Young Lt. Kilgore is fortunate in that there is a Sergeant Sullivan who can be dispensed with.”
Clark not understanding Xu’s meaning frowned, his confusion apparent.
“Then why deal with Kilgore at all? Sullivan can be offered up, and that’s the end of the matter.”
“Ambassador that is precisely what we shall do.” Xu’s eyes twinkled with an evil delight as he explained his devious scheme.
“So, you see Ambassador, Sullivan will take the fall, but not after you’ve had a chance to humiliate Ambassador Kilgore and extract a significant contribution for your run for the presidency from the mother.”
Clark sipped his whiskey and nodded, smiling as he considered Xu’s suggestion.
“Xu, I believe you’ve earned a cigar.” The Ambassador motioned for Xu to retrieve the humidor from his desk. The aide offered the box to his boss first before taking one for his own pleasure.
“Now, off with you Xu. Smoke it on your own time.”
Shutting the door behind him, Xu crushed the expensive cigar in his fist. Josephine had remained with the Ambassador.
His teeth clinched, Xu muttered what he truly thought of his boss. “Pig.”