A short story by Samantha Maguire
Sergeant West stared hard at the private standing in front of him. The boy—though the idiots who wrote the laws judged him old enough to be a man—was young enough to be West’s son. Slight features, a nervous disposition, and an unwillingness to fight rendered him completely unprepared for the life of a soldier. He tried to stand tall, but his eyes darted around the small space of West’s office and he shifted from one foot to another as though dodging invisible blows.
Private Jenkins should never have been a soldier. Given an option, he never would have signed up. But the idiots who wrote the laws reasoned that the only way to win a war was to bolster army numbers, and the only way to do that was through conscription. So despite West’s attempts to yell into a dark void that was Command, he had taken a conscript into his unit.
The boy was told that he was a soldier, like a mouse that’s told it’s a snake.
“Do you understand what you’ve just told me?”
The private’s eyes widened and his breath quickened. His color darkened and nostrils flared as he first nodded, then shook his head.
“I don’t want you to think that I’m deserting,” he said. His voice was barely over a whisper. By the sound, it would have broken if he’d spoken with any volume. He continued to wheeze. He treaded on the edge of a panic attack, and if he kept breathing like that, he would faint.
But West made no move to calm him. There was no calming him at this point. The boy needed to be scared.
“I don’t think you’re deserting at all,” said the sergeant.
What the young mouse had proposed wasn’t desertion.
It was much worse.
It was mutiny.
“What did they promise you?”
The boy was no more a mutineer leader than he was a soldier. Someone had recruited him. Sweat broke out on the private’s forehead.
“I just don’t think—”
“If they promised you something, or if you behaved inappropriately under duress,” West said, cutting him off, “then that will aid in your defense.”
The same part of Sergeant West that kept him fighting in what looked like dire, hopeless circumstances, when he was pinned behind enemy lines with no escape, built a hypothetical defense for the boy. Another part of him knew that facing an army single-handed was easier than milking Command for sympathy. Even if the boy’s mother had been taken captive by the mutineers, even if Sergeant West spoke out in the boy’s defense and threw all of his goodwill and his reputation and his record and his peerless commendations behind the boy’s innocence, then the private would still be convicted and executed.
But West knew that he was only alive because he listened to that thin voice of hope, always allowed it to win the battle against the oppressive fear that strangled and froze. And West had never lost a soldier to despair. He prided himself on his mentoring skills. The elite of the elite, that was what he trained his squad to be. He was not prepared to lose one now, not even a mouse.
“What did they promise you?” the sergeant repeated.
Someone cried out in the hallway, and Sergeant West heard the sound of a body falling to the ground. The boy’s face tensed further until he wore a mask of sheer panic, the same expression he’d worn when he had stepped into combat for the first time alongside West’s unit.
West took advantage of Jenkins’ hesitation and his shock. He stood and turned with the speed of a man half his age and hit a panic button on the back wall. An alarm sounded and the white environment lights transformed to a menacing red.
West’s heart thundered in his chest. Adrenaline shot through his system. The rush was so quick and fierce that it was almost painful, but with years of training and thousands of ops in his past, he knew how to handle himself. The mouse, on the other hand, looked like he might piss himself as he had on his very first op.
“Get down!” ordered West, though the words didn’t seem to translate in the boy’s mind. His eyes just stared unblinking and unseeing at West, as though the sergeant were a snake coiling to strike.
The door opened and West had just enough time to dive behind the console before a bright flash of plasma shot over his head. He heard the private cry out, but couldn’t make out words. Maybe the boy hadn’t used language, but instead had vocalized his fear into a wailing, halting scream.
West took half a beat to repossess himself. His heart steadied, and the thundering stampede in his chest relaxed into a steady cadence. A familiar rhythm.
He reached for his gun under the console and a data tablet. He threw the data tablet to the right as a fire-drawing decoy just before he dove out to the left. Gun at the ready, he aimed at an empty room.
The young mutineer’s comrades had come for him, and he’d gone with them rather than die in the sergeant’s office. There would be no saving him now, but West still resolved himself to taking the boy alive. It was a big ask, an impossible ask, even, but he would have to try to rescue him. He couldn’t fail a member of his team, however unwilling. He reached for an earpiece from a shelf in the console and placed it in his ear. He pressed the button to connect him to Command.
“Sergeant West? Status?” came a voice over the earpiece. West recognized Captain Spade’s voice with a twinge of relief. Spade was a good man. He would understand when West did what he knew he had to do.
“Authorization 1-2-Charlie-9. Mutiny, sir,” the sergeant responded. “Recommend lockdown protocol. Please advise.”
“Do you think you can go after them?”
“Engage. All force.”
West’s jaw clenched. All force. No mercy for the mutineers. His gut seemed to sink down to his feet.
Carefully, as though walking into a bear’s cave, West kept his gun trained ahead of him as he quickstepped in a crouch to the doorway. Looking down one way and then the other, he saw that the corridor was cleared. Lights flashed and the siren blared as he stepped like a cat down the familiar passageways. Someone poked their head out of a room. A private from the regular army. West motioned for him to step back, and the soldier acquiesced.
“Lockdown protocol,” said a voice over the loudspeaker above. West looked up to one of the security cameras following him and nodded. He continued down the hallway, only half aware of Command’s eyes on his back.
“Found them, West,” said Spade over the earpiece. “Looks like you foiled them. They’re headed for the escape pods. Reinforcements will meet you there. Is that one of yours?”
West held back a wave of resentment. Despite his knee-jerk defensive instinct, he responded with as level a head as he could manage. “Jenkins, sir,” he said. “He’s a conscript.” As though that would make any difference to Command. As though they would agree that their antiquated draft was responsible.
“All force,” reminded Spade.
West turned to stare up at a camera, pouring all of his frustration and his anger into his stare at the artificial eye. He wanted to say, “I heard you the first time.” He wanted to say, “Do you think this is my first day?” But he held his tongue, and instead communicated all of the words he couldn’t say up to the camera on the wall. The lens said nothing, and the blue engagement light above it didn’t so much as blink.
The sergeant brought his attentions back to the task at hand. There would be more time to scream into an infinite void later. With an alarm blaring and lockdown procedures engaged, the mutineers would make for the quickest way to the shuttles.
Sergeant West would have liked the opportunity to cut them off before they got to the emergency bays. He would have liked to have been able to take them all alive. Jenkins for due process, if he could see to it that the miracle of due process was actually observed for once, and the rest for questioning. He would have liked to learn how deep their ring went, how many young soldiers’ lives they were intent on ending.
But there were three paths to the bays, each of them as efficient as any other.
There was no time to dawdle. He picked one, and stepped as quickly as he could with his gun ahead of him.
Every hallway looked like every other aboard the floating station, but West knew them all by heart. He could have navigated the station from one end to the other drunk and blind. As he approached the final hallway, he trained his ears, but couldn’t hear anything over the damned siren. As he opened his mouth to ask—the politer form of demanding—that the siren by silenced, he saw one of the shuttles depart through one of the viewing windows that encircled the outer rim of the station.
He reached the end of the corridor as the promised reinforcements moved in on either side. Two platoons both looked to West for a signal to engage.
Jenkins, in the last group of fleeing mutineers, ducked into a shuttle.
“Jenkins,” called West. “Daniel.”
The private hesitated, looking up at West. His face told his story. Every tense muscle a memory of a time when the kid had been beaten down, bullied, forced into something he didn’t want to do. There was a resoluteness to his expression that West had only seen on the faces of those who knew they were going to die and accepted their fate.
For the first time, the boy looked like a man.
For the first time, Sergeant West felt respect for him.
“Come on, son,” said West. If he’d been a softer man, he would have pleaded.
Jenkins closed the door behind him.
The private must have known what would happen. He stared back at West through the small viewport in the shuttle as it jettisoned out into the dark, following the other two.
The three beams shot down from the station’s tower simultaneously. With expert precision, they met their targets.
One quick flash, bright enough to force West and the soldiers surrounding him to cover their eyes, and it was all over.
West had lost soldiers in battle. He’d seen them fall amidst screams and groans and the chaos of a fight. He had lost three good soldiers on the Virginia when the plague had infected half of the crew. But West had never witnessed an execution. He had never seen one of his soldiers run. He had never lost to anything other than the painful turns of fate.
“Well done, West,” said Captain Spade over the earpiece. “I’ll forward the paperwork to your office.” The signal clicked off.
West stared out at the crumbs of debris that floated harmlessly against a backdrop of infinite space. No one would ever bully Jenkins again. He would never feel the torment of running into war and certain death. Even in death, it was unlikely that his name would be the butt of cruel jokes. Jenkins was too much the mouse. He would simply be forgotten.
“Yes, sir,” West responded, though no one heard him.
© Samantha Maguire, All rights reserved