What eventually came to be known as the Nasa Incident—a designation Gideon always thought too clean, as if it referred to nothing more dire than wearing one’s combat uniform to the Regimental Ball—was, to most of the United Colonies, no more than a blip in the wartime annals, at worst a smattering of crystal dust, swept quickly into containment, where it could pose no threat to the well-tuned machine of the Colonial Infantry.
But when he let himself think about it, even Gideon had to admit the—incident—hadn’t lasted long.
Minutes only, he’d remember; a handful of minutes to see half his team dead and the rest, along with himself, in detention.
It had been shorter even for Gideon, who’d missed the last of that handful of minutes after a shot of plasma took out a nearby cypress, a small chunk of which had struck him in the head.
He’d woken to the prodding of a boot, and a voice, high-pitched from nerves, demanding he rise and surrender arms.
* * *
At first Gideon didn’t understand what the voice was saying, a little because his ears were still ringing, but mostly because he was lying on his side, facing Corpsman Estelle Carver, also on her side.
Carver’s eyes were open wide, and staring, as if in surprise.
He figured she must have been at least a little shocked to find that big-ass splinter of cypress spitting from her chest.
The staring contest, such as it was, might have continued indefinitely, had not the sensation of someone pulling Gideon’s sword from its sheath likewise pulled his gaze away from the very young (and very dead) radio operator.
“Treason?” He heard himself echo the only word that had sufficiently penetrated the fog.
Then, by dint of sheer stubbornness, he got himself to his feet.
“Treason,” he said again, focusing on the also very young (but very not dead) Air Corps provost pointing a fully charged crysto-plas rifle at him. “What, and please, feel free to be specific, are you talking about? And where’s Captain Ravine, no…” He shook his head, which surprisingly ached (Tree. Exploding. Right). “Not Ravine,” he corrected himself. “Gorge—Chasm—Pitte,” he said at last with a dark sort of triumph before starting to move forward. “Where is Captain Pitte, because I want a word with the murdering son of a—”
“Colonel Quinn, you will stand down,” the prov snapped, stepping back and bringing the rifle to his shoulder, which might have been more imposing if the kid’s Adam’s apple hadn’t been bobbing with nerves.
As it was, the only thing keeping Gideon from ripping the weapon aside was the fact it was already live, and the prov’s finger was tense on the trigger.
“Fine,” Gideon said, rocking back on his heels. “I’m standing down. See?” He held his hands out at his sides. “This is me, standing down.”
The trigger finger relaxed, ever so slightly, and Gideon took that as an okay to look around, hoping against hope that he’d already seen the worst, with Carver.
The apiary was a mass of blackened stumps.
The soft Nasa air was thick with smoke, and sharp with the odor of blood, and the ozone-heavy stench unique to crystal plasma weaponry.
The thrum of bees, disturbed from their rest, and the distinctive creak of an airship’s tie ropes underscored the otherwise unnatural silence.
Amid the flickering hand torches, he could make out a score of airmen, moving through the smoke-filled night.
The only sign of his own company was Carver, dead at his feet, and a pair of boots, standing suspiciously empty, about a dozen meters away.
“Where is Pitte?” Gideon asked, looking from those empty boots to the provost. “Why did he give the order to murder my company?”
“Actually, I gave the order.” A voice emerged from the dark. “Although I fail to see how firing on soldiers embroiled in an act of treason could be considered murder.”
Gideon turned to his left to see none other than General Jessup Rand, he who had sent him to Nasa in the first place, stepping from the shadows.
“Treason,” Gideon repeated the word, again, but it made no more sense now than it had the first two times.
“What else could explain your presence here?” Rand continued, coming to a halt beside the provost, who became, if possible, more tense at the general’s proximity. “You and your company in Nasa, en route to Coalition territory?”
“That,” Gideon said, “is a complete load of draco sh—ow!” He swore and ducked as the provost, in a moment of panic, loosed a burst of plasma fire, singeing Gideon’s shoulder, and taking out one of the last trees standing.
Gideon straightened and glared at the kid, who, to give him credit, looked apologetic. Gideon turned his attention back to Rand. “You have absolutely zero—”
“Proof?” This time it was Rand who interrupted, raising a hand which Gideon now saw held a standard field pack—Gideon’s field pack—from which he pulled a scarred document cylinder from the map pocket.
By now there were more people emerging from the shadows—airmen, more AC provosts, and, he was relieved to see, Corpsmen Freeman and Patel, singed but alive.
While the gathering crowd watched, Rand slid a roll of onionskin papers from the cylinder. He gestured, and one of the Airmen came forward with a torch as the general unrolled one of the pages.
“I’m no engineer,” Rand said, holding the paper before the column of light, “but this looks a great deal like the specs for one of our plasma cannon. And this?” He pulled out a second sheet, “This is a map,” he looked up, “marking the location of several key UC weapons’ depots. Ah, and here are plans for troop movements, mission specs… I’d imagine this is worth quite a lot to the Coalition brass.”
He shook his head over the sheaf of papers, as if in shock, then rolled them back into the cylinder, which he tucked under his arm. “It’s a lucky thing I intercepted one of your correspondences in time for the Kodiak to intercept you.” Now he looked at Gideon, “Odile.”
At which point Gideon felt sure the ground was giving way beneath him, as it had Fehr so many minutes (Hours? Days?) past.
Rand was gesturing to the provost, who approached Gideon while unhooking a pair of restraints. “Colonel Gideon Quinn, you are hereby placed in custody—”
But Gideon was already moving.
In the end, it took three provs and the application of several shock sticks to get Gideon off the general, and not before Gideon left Rand with several broken ribs, a bruised spleen, and a shattered kneecap that would continue to ache every time the weather was damp.
Later, much later, Gideon was stewing in the Kodiak’s brig, waiting for the ‘ship to lift off, and wondering where the rest of his company had been stowed, when Rand came down to see him.
Gideon waited until the general dismissed the duty officer before rising from his bunk. He looked at Rand, and his new accessory. “Nice cane.”
Rand didn’t rise to the bait. “Colonel,” he said, glancing down the passage to make certain they were alone. Seemingly satisfied, he turned back to Gideon. “You are going to plead guilty on all charges,” he said simply.
Gideon stared. “I really don’t see that happening,” he said after a moment.
“First, I will pretend there was a ‘sir’ at the end of that statement, and second, I rather think you will,” Rand told him. “Particularly given the overwhelming evidence against you.”
“The manufactured evidence,” Gideon countered.
“And you would prove this, how?” Rand asked. “All your witnesses are either dead, or likewise accused. The Atlas, which you say transported you to Nasa on my orders, has yet to answer any of our hails.”
Gideon’s jaw, already clenched to the point of pain, twitched. “Dead or paid off?”
“That is a question,” Rand said, and then changed the subject. “Then, of course, there is all this.” He held up the cane, gestured to the livid bruise that was the right side of his face. “You’d be amazed how much weight aggravated assault and attempted murder can add to a case of treason. So much weight,” he added, “I am within my mandate to order a battlefield execution. Not for you, sadly. Your rank guarantees you the right to trial, but I can, and will, have every surviving member of the Twelfth Company shot at dawn.
“A terrible fate for those six soldiers,” Rand continued, leaning on his cane, as if weary. But there was nothing weary in his eyes as they locked on Gideon’s. “Especially if they were only following their colonel’s—their traitorous colonel’s—orders. And in case the lives of your enlisteds aren’t sufficient motivation,” he continued, “I’m given to understand you’ve a certain fondness for one Lt. Indani Solis, currently assigned to the Phalanx.”
“Wait,” Gideon said.
“The Phalanx, which I’ve only just ordered to the eastern front. So easy for a jump to go wrong in the middle of a firefight. Lines fail, weapons misfire… accidents happen.” He paused, studying Gideon. “I see I have your attention.”
“Yes. You… have my attention.”
“And you understand just how many lives are at stake, here.”
“Are they alive? Is Dani— Are they all still alive?”
“You doubt me?”
“What do you think?” Gideon’s hands slammed against the bars, and it was the most minute satisfaction to see Rand flinch. “Are they alive?”
“For now.” Rand’s response came out more as a hiss than as words. “But unless you take responsibility for the crimes of which you have been accused, what remains of your company will be witnessing their last suns rise in the next two hours, and it won’t be another full day before Lt. Solis makes her final jump.”
In the end there had been no choice, not for Gideon.
Even if a single scrap of evidence to support his innocence existed, he couldn’t let Rand execute the rest of his team.
So no, there had been no choice.
Even so, after it was done, after he’d sworn out his confession before witnesses, and signed his name to the document, and returned to the brig to await delivery to the court-martial, where he would receive his sentence, Rand returned to visit, once more.
Again the general stopped at Gideon’s cell, again dismissed the duty provost, and again turned to Gideon, who was, again, stretched out on his bunk.
He didn’t bother to get up this time. “Anything else I can get you?” Gideon asked the ceiling. “A pint of blood? My left hand?”
Rand said nothing.
He continued saying nothing for so long, Gideon was eventually moved to sit up and look at the man, and what he saw had the spit drying in his mouth, because what he saw wasn’t triumph, it wasn’t the gloating he’d have expected.
What he saw was a self-loathing so hungry, it seemed to have hollowed the general out, leaving him nothing but husk.
“What?” he asked, rising now, though he didn’t step closer to the bars. There was something in Jessup Rand’s eyes that prevented any such forward motion. “What?” he said again.
Rand seemed to shiver, as if coming awake. “Do you have the least idea,” he said, his voice as hollow as his expression, “the least idea what I’ve done because of you?”
Gideon, with six dead soldiers, had a pretty good idea, but there was that in Rand’s voice that prevented him saying so. Instead he asked a question of his own. “What did I do,” he asked, quietly, “that those six soldiers had to die?”
At which point Rand’s eyes hardened, and his body straightened, and the loathing of self gave way to a livid, living hatred of the man imprisoned before him.
Gideon had the length of his own caught breath to absorb the impact of the general’s hostility, before Rand turned and began to walk away.
“What did I do?” Gideon asked, finally moving to the bars.
Rand, his steps uneven on the grated deck, continued on.
“Damn you, Rand! Tell me why they’re dead!”
At which point the general did stop. “You should never have touched her,” he said, not quite looking back.
Then he continued on through the brig’s hatch, leaving Gideon alone, still grasping the bars of his cell for many minutes before uttering the soft denial.
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