Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass woke with a groan on the first morning after his return to Thorsfinni's World. His head hurt and his stomach began lecturing him on the need to mend his evil ways. He cracked an eyelid to see where he was, and immediately slammed it shut to block the murderous sunlight that stabbed into his brain. He groaned again, and lay unmoving while he tried to reconstruct what he'd done the night before, in hope that would give him a clue to where he was.
Right. It had been evening and he'd gone straight to First Sergeant Myer's quarters, where he'd found the Top, Gunny Thatcher, Staff Sergeant Hyakowa, Doc Horner, and both the FIST and battalion sergeant majors eating reindeer steaks, drinking Reindeer Ale, and playing cards. They'd all been shocked to see himexcept for the first sergeant, who acted like he was expecting him. Bass had joined them for an evening of eating, drinking, and general revelry. He smiled at the memory, but quickly stopped because the effort hurt too much. He vaguely remembered being taken very late to the transient barracks, where newly arrived Marines were quartered when they joined 34th FIST, before being assigned to units.
He listened, but didn't hear any of the normal sounds of Marines performing their duties in Camp Major Pete Ellis. Then he remembered: last night was Fifth Day on Thorsfinni's World. Which meant this must be Sixth Day morning, and nearly everybody was off base on liberty.
He shifted into a more comfortable positionwell, a less uncomfortable positionand assayed another smile; that one didn't hurt as much, so he let it linger. It was such a comfort to wake up without immediately worrying about fending off an attack from the Skinks, or the army of Dominic de Tomas.
Comfort. He sighed as he remembered the young daughter of Zachariah Brattle. Well, not that youngshe was a full-grown woman, after all, which she'd demonstrated to him beyond all doubt. That woman would make a wonderful wife for a warrior. He sighed again. But Comfort was still on Kingdom, probably holding down some important government post, and he was back where he belonged, with 34th FIST on Thorsfinni's World, and he'd never see her again.
Back where he belonged.
He swore, comfort and Comfort forgotten, and rolled up to sit on his rack with his legs over its side.
Right. Back where I belong. He'd been commander of Company L's third platoon for three or four years, ever since Ensign vanden Hoyt was killed in action on Diamunde. But he was a gunnery sergeant, a company level noncommissioned officer; a platoon commander was supposed to be an officer. And last night he'd been told that during the time he was thought dead, an ensign had been assigned to take command of his platoon.
He liked being commander of Company L's third platoon. Of course, he could get command of another platoon easily enoughall he had to do was accept a commission.
Charlie Bass liked having his own platoon, but had refused a commission every time one was offered to him. In his opinion, officers had to do too much crap. They had to have fancy mess uniforms, act like proper "gentlemen," and not "fraternize" with their subordinates.
Well, senior NCOs weren't supposed to socialize with junior NCOs and enlisted men either, but he'd never let that stop him from playing cards or getting drunk with any Marine he felt like.
And to be an officer he'd have to go back to Arsenault, where he'd gone through Boot Camp so long ago, to that damn finishing school the Confederation Marine Corps called the Officer Training College, and learn which fork to use and how to hold his pinky out while he drank tea from a china cup. He already knew everything a Marine platoon commander needed to know to fight and win a battle and bring his men back alive, with the mission accomplished. Hell, the only fork a fighting Marine needed to know how to use was the one in his mess kit. And holding a pinky out in combat was a good way to lose it.
But there was no way he'd get third platoon back even if he accepted a commission. It was Marine Corps policy that when a Marine completed officer training and got commissioned, he was assigned to a unit he'd never served with before. Charlie Bass knew his only alternative was to accept whatever gunnery sergeant billet in 34th FIST he was assigned to, wait for a platoon commander in the FIST's infantry battalion to get killed, then hope for a reshuffling of officers that would open his job back up.
He grimaced. Marines died, more often in 34th FIST than in almost any other unit, but he couldn't wish death on another Marine, not for his own benefit.
Groaning and huffing with the effort of moving, he set aside his sour mood and struggled out of the rack to go to the head for his morning shitshowershave.
A lance corporal wearing the armband of the duty NCO stopped him on his way back to his room.
"Gunny Bass? Some people want to see you. They're in the office," the Duty NCO said. Awe was audible in his voice and visible on his face. He'd heard about Charlie Bass. He didn't have much trouble accepting that Gunny Bass had somehow survived being captured by the Skinks and managed to escape from them. But to single-handedly overthrow a planetary government! Well, that went a bit beyond what he thought a Marine capable ofeven if the Marine in question was the Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass he'd heard so many stories about, and he had the assistance of a rebel army and a rebellious army general.
"Thanks, Lance Corporal," Bass said. "Any idea what's up?"
"Nossir I mean, no, Gunny."
Bass shot him a look. Enlisted men "sirred" sergeants major, but all other enlisted addressed each other by rank or the title "Marine." He saw how nervous the unknown lance corporal was and took pity on him. "Thanks," he said, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Keep up the good work, Marine."
"Aye aye, Gunny. Thanks, Gunny."
Bass was wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist. He decided that wasn't appropriate dress for reporting to the transient barracks office, so he stepped into his room and, so as not to jar his aching head and queasy stomach, cautiously pulled on a set of drab-green garrison utilities.
The office was a few steps away. Bass opened the door and entered. Top Myer and Gunny Thatcher were sitting on two unoccupied desks. It was indecent how chipper they looked. Then he saw Captain Conorado, Company L's commanding officer, and Lieutenant Humphrey, the company executive officer. He pulled himself to attention.
"Gunnery Sergeant Bass reporting as ordered, sir," he said to Conorado.
"Relax, Charlie," Conorado said, stepping forward to shake his hand. "Welcome back."
"Thank you, sir. It's good to be back." He repeated the greeting with Humphrey. Only then did he notice that all four men were in undress reds, a much more formal uniform than they normally wore, certainly more formal than they wore on the weekendmuch less the one he was wearing. "Undress reds" was a bit of a misnomer, as only the uniform's tunic was scarlet; enlisted men's dress uniform trousers were navy blue and officers wore gold.
"About time you decided to show up!" Thatcher snarled. But he smiled, so Bass knew he was just putting on an act.
"Actually, we aren't the ones who want to see your dumb ass," Top Myer growled. He picked up a garment bag and handed it to Bass. "This is your undress reds. Go back to your room and change into the appropriate uniform."
Bass looked at him, wondering what was going on.
"Here," Thatcher said. "Doc Horner said to give this to you, though I'm damned if I know why he'd want to cure your hangover after your behavior last night."
Bass took the thing Thatcher held out, a tiny box with a hangover pill. He wondered what Thatcher meant. He didn't remember doing anything more outrageous than anyone else the night before.
"Aye aye, Top. Thanks, Gunny." He turned to Conorado. "By your leave, sir?"
Conorado, blank-faced, pointed a finger at the office door.
What the hell? Bass wondered as he headed back to his room to change. The only reason he could imagine for them to wear their undress reds was an award ceremony. But decorations were always handed out at full-FIST assembliesand those ceremonies called for full dress reds. Besides, he hadn't done anything to rate another medal. His part in overthrowing Dominic de Tomas didn't count, since he hadn't done that in his capacity as a Marine. He dry-swallowed the hangover pill on his way back to his room and was already beginning to feel better by the time he started changing into his undress reds.
They were waiting outside the office when he returned.
"Let's go," Conorado said. He led the way out the front door of the barracks to where a landcar waited for them. "Go," he said to the driver as soon as they were in, and the landcar smoothly moved out.
"Where are we going?" Bass asked. Everybody looked away, but he wasn't left in suspense for long; the landcar took them to the headquarters building of 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team, only a few minutes' drive from the transient barracks.
Conorado again took the lead, and in moments they were in the outer office of Brigadier Sturgeon, 34th FIST's commander. Colonel Ramadan, the FIST executive officer waited for them. Ramadan was also in undress reds. He rapped on the door frame to the inner office and announced, "They're here, sir."
"Bring them in," Brigadier Sturgeon said. He was on his feet at the side of his desk as they came in. FIST Sergeant Major Shiro stood to the side of a row of visitor's chairs in front of Sturgeon's desk. The infantry battalion CO, Commander van Winkle, and the infantry battalion's senior enlisted man, Sergeant Major Parant, were also there.
Conorado came to attention in front of the brigadier and said, "Sir, Company L detachment reporting as ordered!"
"At ease, gentlemen," Sturgeon said. His lips quirked in a cut-off smile and he added, "I'm tempted to say, 'and you too, Charlie,' but that wouldn't be very decorous."
Every reply Bass could think of was even less decorous, so he didn't say anything.
Still looking at Bass, Sturgeon went on, "Everybody but you knows why we're here, Charlie. And you're smart enough, I'm sure you figured it out even before you got here."
Actually, he hadn't until just now, but he wasn't about to admit to the slightest bit of vincibility. So he said, "Ground I believe we've covered in the past, sir."
"Indeed we have, Charlie," Sturgeon said, "and you made me bend Marine Corps regulations every step of the way in order to keep you as a platoon commander." He went behind his desk to sit. "Seats, gentlemen, please." He cocked an eyebrow and added, "You too, Charlie."
Conorado, Lieutenant Rokmonov, and Myer sat on the sofa against the office's side wall, Thatcher sat on the sofa's arm. When Bass began to move to the sofa's other arm, Parant grabbed his arm and pointed at the chair between him and Shiro. Bass's lips pursed, since that chair put him dead center on Sturgeon's desk, directly across from the brigadier.
Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass felt more seriously outnumbered than he had when he faced Dominic de Tomas's Special Group.
"Gunnery Sergeant Bass, when you disappeared on Kingdom, we all thought you were dead," Sturgeon said. "Since our return to Camp Ellis, 34th FIST has received enough replacements to fill every vacant billet. One of those vacant billets iswascommander of third platoon, Company L of the infantry battalion. One of the replacements is an ensign who I can plug into that slot.
"Then you had to come back and complicate matters. Captain Conorado," he nodded toward Company L's commander, "wants you to resume command of third platoon. So does Commander van Winkle," he nodded at the infantry battalion commander. "I concur. That platoon has been outstanding under your command.
"But the billet is supposed to be filled by an officer, and I have an officer to fill it." Bass opened his mouth to say something, but Sturgeon raised his hand to cut him off. "I know, it's within my prerogative as commander of a remote FIST to assign a senior noncommissioned officer to permanently fill a platoon commander's billet. In the past I've done that through the simple expedient of never having an extra officer who would go to waste. But this time, believing that you were dead, I requisitioned an ensign to fill that slot.
"Well, we all want you in command of that platoon, but you've created a problem for me. So this time I'm making you an officer and that's that." He nodded to Bass, giving him permission to speak.
"You can't do that, sir."
"I don't care what you say, Charlie. I'm doing it."
"Sir, with all due respect, you can't. As you said, sir, Marine Corps regulations allow for the commander of a forward FIST to permanently assign a senior NCO as a platoon commander, but they don't allow for a Marine to be assigned to the Officer Training College against his will. Besides, the last I heard, 34th FIST was quarantined and nobody is allowed to be transferred, so I couldn't go to Arsenault even if I wanted to."
"You're absolutely right, Charlie. I can't make you go to Arsenault against your will, and I wouldn't if I couldif I did, I wouldn't get you back after you received your commission. And we are still under quarantine, so Arsenault is a moot point."
"Sir?" Bass said, confused. "How can you make me an officer if I don't go to the finishing school?" The pill Doc Horner had provided may have eradicated most of Bass's pain, but his neural pathways weren't quite up to snuff yet, otherwise he wouldn't have called OTC "finishing school" in front of the brigadier.
Shiro and Parant both sharply elbowed him in the ribs, and he bit off a grunt.
Sturgeon bowed his head to hide a smile. Stone-faced again, he looked up. "Gunnery Sergeant, yes, there is some etiquette instruction at OTC, but more than ninety-five percent of it is in matters such as leadership, tactics, weapons, combined armscourses you're well qualified to teach. Frankly, sending you to OTC would be a waste.
"Do you know what an Executive Order is, Charlie?"
Bass was startled by the abrupt change of subject. "Yessir. It's a law the President of the Confederation makes by fiat, without going through Congress."