Marine Captain Jill Williams wished she would fail. Yet, as commander of the Marine Security detail protecting Harper Fenick, she would not allow herself to do less than her very best.
Plenty of people wanted him dead. He had earned it. Duty decreed she do everything she could to prevent that—even to taking a shot meant for him. She’d done that once already. The old wound in her upper arm itched briefly with the recollection.
But if he was killed when she was off watch, she would shed no tears…and maybe even have a celebratory glass of champagne. Privately, of course.
She stood on a small platform a little above the floor of the shuttle port and scanned the crowd of entourage and media and hangers-on, and more importantly, kept watch for anyone approaching the congestion. Three members of her team were doing likewise.
A maintenance man entered from the outside through the door marked “Authorized Personnel Only,” spared a long look in the direction of her charge and then limped over to a bench a dozen yards away from the crowd. He simply sat, paying no attention to the shuffling, swirling, and noisome mob.
She told herself that she should be surprised that she recognized him. But she wasn’t surprised. Their lives in university had been filled with each other. Untold hours had been spent watching him talk to her, watching him listen to her, imagining his face in the dark as they made love.
They’d lived together for almost two years, before and after graduation. Every day they had seen each other, romanced, loved, talked for hours about their dreams and goals and fears and hopes. Their hearts had become like one.
They had even talked about enlisting, but the inevitable separation—perhaps for years—was too high a penalty.
And then the war. The humanoid Garni had slaughtered three peaceful human settlements without provocation.
They had both enlisted then without hesitation. Women were accepted for combat duty as readily as men, and the two were assigned to officer training at Quantico. They saw each other regularly and their love continued; it even grew with the excitement of the new challenges.
Jill had watched proudly as he had soared to the top of his class. They had both graduated with honors and then were assigned, to their mutual delight, as training officers for new recruits.
And then, suddenly and with no warning or explanation, he was assigned to combat duty and shipped out. They’d had only hours to say their goodbyes. He hadn’t even known why the sudden new assignment.
She immediately put in a request for assignment to a combat unit, but had to wait the three weeks necessary to finish her current duties. She did not see him again.
Finally, after too many years, Earth won that war. Peace was not easy to achieve, though, and the costs were high, both during the combat years and after.
She picked her way through the crowd and approached the bench. He looked up as she neared, and she thought she saw his face register dismay. Then he looked away.
She sat down on the bench to his left, but not too close. She was careful to continue to scan the area of her concern rather than look at him. He might be a diversion.
“Isaac.” He tapped the picture ID clipped to his shirt pocket while carefully not looking at her. “Isaac Parker.”
She almost laughed. “Why Isaac Parker?”
He shrugged. “Why not? As you know all too well, James McCord is unemployable.”
“Yes, I do know. I’m sorry. James, you can’t possibly imagine how sorry I am.”
He looked over at the crowd around the over-expansive media mogul with the booming voice and plastic smile. “I’d heard you quit.”
“I did. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get out. I wanted to talk to you then, but I couldn’t find you. No one could find you.”
“Pariahs remain hidden. Men accused of the vilest crimes of history, convicted without trial by public opinion, tend to disappear—voluntarily or otherwise.”
There was silence between them for a minute. They had not yet met each other’s eyes.
“If you quit, why are you here, obviously working for him?”
“I don’t want to. I’m still a reservist. Orders.”
“You could have resigned.”
She finally looked directly at him, and he returned the gaze. “Would you?”
He looked away. “I don’t know. I wasn’t granted that privilege.”
Now that she had looked at him, she realized something. She had recognized him because of his build and the brief glimpse of his face when he’d looked her way despite the full beard and longer hair. He no longer looked like the man in the media pictures. There was something in those pictures that was now missing.
“Wearing makeup? The scar is well hidden.”
“I had it removed.”
“James! You removed a battle scar? God, you must have been desperate!”
“Isaac. Isaac Parker. An understatement. No one would hire me and crowds of any kind were a danger. When billions of people detest your very existence, you have to go to extremes just to survive. I still have the others.”
He looked at her, noting the long thin line that stretched from her temple across her cheek and jaw and halfway down her neck.
“I see you still have yours. You wear it proudly. As I used to wear mine.”
She couldn’t miss the bitterness in his voice at that last. Her eyes were not quite teary. “God, James, how you must hate me.”
He turned his head away from her and looked straight ahead. “I could never hate you, Jill. Never, no matter what. But I did wonder why.”
She sighed. “They offered me a spot on the Marine Security Guard. Raise in pay and promotion. I couldn’t very well turn it down. He was my second assignment.”
“I suppose he requested you specifically?”
“So I understand.”
“Double bastard. This time, he used his influence to persuade a general that I just had to return to active duty and be assigned to security duty for him. He’s afraid of you. He knows his worst enemy is still out here somewhere. He thinks if I’m near him, he’s safe from the man who has the most reason to hate him.”
“I don’t hate him, Jill. You should know better. We can’t afford to hate our enemies—it makes us inefficient.
“Jilly Willy, you should not be traveling with him. There are plenty of men from my team that would be willing to do anything to get him, and collateral damage be damned.”
She could not answer right away. There was a sudden catch in her throat from hearing the pet name he’d given her years ago. She swallowed twice and made a point of looking back to check on her team. They were all doing their jobs. She observed her number two observing her.
“I know. We get threats all the time…most of them from your old team. We check them out—every one of them. But, I suppose one day, one of them will make good on the threat. I can’t say I blame them. What he’s done is horrible, from their point of view.”
She turned and looked at him. “From your point of view.”
“Yes. Holding us up as baby killers and mother murderers. Hiding the facts to make us look like mad dog vermin so he could conduct his campaign of outrage. And then repeating the lies and expanding them and publishing our names and our faces so the entire solar system could detest us and revile us and our own brass scapegoat us. Not by chance, his media sales and his personal power greatly increased with the campaign.”
He’d kept his voice low, but the intensity had increased with each word. The last words were hissed through clenched teeth.
“It was those pictures, James. Women and children dead, their bodies in piles on the ground. They almost begged for someone to scream atrocity.”
“Funny thing about those photos. Many of those piles of dead Garni included a dead Marine, hacked to pieces or beaten to death with clubs. But those ‘genuine’ photos somehow didn’t show those dead Marines or even the weapons in the hands of the dead. Those official military photos were supposed to be unalterable, but his media techs apparently got around that.
“The Garni children and women fought as nasty as the males, and only the males could surrender. If there was no male to tell them different, the women and children could not quit attacking. We didn’t know that. Command didn’t know that. We were the first ones on their home planet. We killed their first wave—all males. We thought it was over. We walked into the village, alert but not expecting an all-out assault. I lost four of my team in the first minute. We had no choice.”
Jill knew. She’d fought on the Garni planet as well. But Command had learned from McCord’s disaster. All active Marines had read the official report of that first battle—a battle that was disastrous even though victorious.
Risking his own life, Captain James McCord had allowed a female to come close enough to him to kill with those long ceramic blades they used and while sustaining a serious leg injury rendered her unconscious so she could be questioned as to why they had continued the assault to the last child. Earth’s Marines and Infantry always left a male or two alive after that to order the women and children to surrender. It was estimated that his brave act had saved literally thousands of Garni lives, and probably hundreds of human lives as well.
And Harper Fenick managed somehow—no one admitted to knowing how—to acquire those classified photos and conduct a campaign of outrage against the “murderers and rogue Marines responsible for this horrible carnage” with special attention to their commanding officer, Captain James McCord.
In every media outlet he owned, on every planet, he published those photos, and superimposed in front of them were the photos of the men responsible—with James McCord’s face always front and center.
The majority of humanity, appalled by the photos and sick of the war, apparently didn’t question the authenticity of the photos…or even why the Marines had killed the Garni women and children. Fenick looked sincere and his melodious, stricken voice with his passionate delivery and dignified honest-looking face left no room for doubt, logic, or reason.
And James McCord and his squad, never charged with a military crime and in fact decorated for their performance in the field, were castigated by manufactured public opinion, found guilty of war crimes in the System media, and forced to take general discharges by a few political generals that caved to demands for a scapegoat; they were denied the honorable ones they deserved…or the option to remain Marines.
And now Fenick had launched his five-year anniversary coverage, reminding people of all planets about the horrors of the war and the horrible deeds of those “murdering Marines who had never faced the justice they deserved.” Again, James McCord was at the center of his manufactured outrage. Fenick’s media sales, which had declined last year, were already showing a satisfying increase.
She finally asked the necessary question. “Why are you here Ja—Isaac?”
“You can do better than that.”
“I work here, Jill. I have for almost two years. This has been my shift the whole time. Check it out.”
She reached up to her left ear and adjusted the session on her phone as she looked again at the media gathering. It was dispersing. Fenick had boarded the shuttle. A quick vocal command and the information that confirmed his story was whispered in her ear. Still…
“But why right here? It’s a big port. How does it happen you’re right here?”
He sighed. “You should know, Jill. Know your enemy. I hadn’t seen him in seven years. And then I saw you. I never expected to see you again, let alone talk to you.”
They were interrupted by one of her team. “Captain Williams, Mr. Fenick has boarded.” He looked pointedly at the man sharing the bench with his commander. “Who are you, sir?”
As he’d done earlier, the man tapped his badge. “Isaac Parker, maintenance.”
“Excuse me, Captain, but may I ask why the long conversation with this man?”
“You better ask, Tom, if you want to keep your spot. He’s an old friend. I’d hoped to have a moment to catch up.
“We’ve got another few minutes in the launch window and I’m going to use all of them. If Fenick doesn’t like it, he can have me fired.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll let them know.” He granted a nod to McCord. “Mr. Parker.” Tom turned briskly and walked back to the shuttle on-ramp and took sentry position.
“Jill, did you ever research his past?”
“Fenick’s. Did you ever wonder why he went after me and my team so savagely?”
“I suppose you were handiest. Those photos were from your engagement. Because of your heroism—and you are a hero, James—a scene like that was never repeated.”
“What’s your security clearance, Jill?”
“Five. It went up when I took this job.”
“Check his past. He was a Marine for a short time.”
“That’s hard to believe. He hasn’t got the guts for it.”
“Yep. That’s why the short time. Look it up.”
The captain looked at her watch. She winced.
“I have to go, ‘Isaac.’ I wish I didn’t.”
“Then don’t. Quit. Or just let them go and catch tomorrow’s shuttle. You’ll still make the Orion before it leaves. We could talk, have dinner. We deserve it, Jill. Both of us.”
It was tempting. She shook her head. “I can’t do either one. Orders are orders and I’m not ready yet to abandon my post, much as I dislike it. We do what we’re told. No one knows that better than you.”
“Jill, I shouldn’t tell you this, but now I must. I hear rumors you don’t. One of my team—I won’t say which one—has pretty much lost it. Desperation, bitterness, anger, all those things wear on a man’s mind. Eventually, he just goes nuts enough to do what he thinks he must for himself. This one is no longer sane. He’s been turned into what Fenick has accused us of being—a rogue murderer. He will see to it that Fenick dies, and I suspect very soon.
“Every minute you spend with that bastard could be your last. Quit. Right now. Or at least take a short leave from the danger zone.” He looked her in the eyes. “Please?”
She sat still for a minute. She reached over then and put her right hand on his left. It was the first time they’d touched since they’d said their goodbyes two lifetimes ago. She quivered inside with the touch.
“I can’t, James. Orders. If I spent any more time with you…private time…I’d never return to my post. Some things haven’t changed. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged and tried to show a wry smile. “Semper Fi.”
He sighed. “And some things have.” He stood up and she matched the move. “I won’t try again. Goodbye, Jill. I doubt we’ll ever see each other again. But this time has been worth it.”
“I hope you’re wrong, James. But I will get out of this duty as soon as I can. And when I do, I’ll look you up.”
She could not bear another touch, not even a perfunctory handshake. With mutual nods, they turned away. She walked crisply to the boarding ramp and preceded her subordinate to the shuttle. She dared not look back.
When she was belted into her seat, she reviewed all of the conversation. She felt again the guilt that had led her to resign from active duty almost a year ago.
She noticed the acceleration as the shuttle rode its magnetic drive smoothly into the air and headed for the starship that waited in orbit.
She hadn’t known the truth about those photos, although she supposed she should have. What Fenick had done to James McCord and his team was unconscionable. He spoke about morality and justice in his crowd-pleasing voice, yet used despicable means to advantage himself. And she had saved his life once and caused the imprisonment of the failed assassin—a man from James McCord’s old unit.
She wouldn’t have blamed James if he did hate her.
She spoke into her phone, and it spoke back. Her eyes grew wider as she listened, and her lips set into a hard angry line.
A year after she and McCord had become Marine officers, Harper Fenick had graduated from a university and then enlisted in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School and done well. Then he’d gone, as required, to the Basic School. One of his instructors had been Captain James McCord. Fenick had flunked out.
McCord himself had recommended a general discharge for Fenick. He’d gone on record that Fenick had “repeatedly demonstrated insufficient personal courage required to be a Marine, let alone lead Marines in a battle situation.”
And shortly thereafter, Captain McCord had been transferred to a combat unit in preparation for the invasion of the Garni planet.
Jill surmised from the evidence that his wealthy media-owning family had used their influence (and money) to have his discharge read as officially due to unspecified medical reasons.
She felt that was probably true. You need a backbone to be a Marine.
It was a campaign of vengeance. The son of a bitch. And she had saved his life.
James was right. She should have resigned.
The prestige and honor and pride of being a Marine were things she treasured. And she did proudly wear the scar and the ribbon that showed her to be a combat veteran. Yet she now realized that “Semper Fi” had become hollow. The Corps had not remained faithful to one of their most dedicated and most worthy simply because some top brass allowed themselves to be intimidated by a loud media voice…or paid off…or both.
She was part of the Corps. By association, she had betrayed James McCord as surely as the faithless generals that had refused to stand behind him.
She would resign. Right damn now. She composed her resignation letter on her phone, keyed in her signature, and before she could change her mind, she sent it. And then she relaxed. She would not make the trip on the Orion. Instead, she would return with the shuttle.
She supposed Tom would take over the duty, at least temporarily.
As if on cue, Tom appeared and took the empty seat next to her.
“Captain, there’s a problem.”
Tom was fanatically thorough. It was why he’d worked his way up to the number two position. “Go ahead.”
“I’ve checked every database. There’s no record that you ever knew any Isaac Parker. Plus, there’s no record that this particular Isaac Parker ever existed before two years ago.”
“That’s probably correct.”
“Who was he really?”
“Captain! And you did nothing? He’s Mr. Fenick’s worst enemy! What were you thinking?”
She turned icy eyes upon him, staring him down until he deflated and looked away briefly.
“Do what, Tom? He’s not a criminal, he’s not wanted for anything, and there isn’t even any kind of restraining order. He’s a free citizen, with as much right to be there as anyone else. He was never stripped of his citizenship rights, despite what that bastard Fenick lobbied for.”
His face was pale. “Listen to the first thing that comes up when you enter ‘Isaac Parker in history.’”
Jill spoke the name into her phone mic. She heard “Isaac Parker, aka ‘The Hanging Judge,’ was…” She tuned out the rest.
She realized which member of McCord’s team had finally reached the breaking point. She should have known. He was the only one of his team that had never expressed any kind of threat.
The pilot announced that the shuttle had achieved orbit and would rendezvous with the Orion in twenty minutes.
She felt that she understood. James could not stand the thought of another media attack, of another span of months or years seeing his face and the faces of his team in the media, connected irrevocably to phrases like “baby killers,” “murderers,” and “rogue Marines guilty of horrible slaughter.”
She could imagine him, at the port, saying his goodbye: “I’m sorry, Jilly Willy.”
Jill felt the first of the explosions by the motors. She had seconds to hear the approach of the destruction. Her eyes teared. “Oh, James, I am so, so sor—”
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