My employment with Willard Phule, better known by his nom de guerre of “Captain Jester,” has sometimes made me wonder if I have fallen under a legendary curse from Old Earth: “May you live in interesting times.” Two additional phrases are less well-known: “May you come to the attention of important people, and may you receive all that you wish for.” They apply all too well to my life with Omega Company of the Space Legion.
It was happy hour at the Officers’ Club at Rahnsome Base, headquarters of the United Alliance Military Command, and the barrooms were packed. In the luxurious back room reserved for general staff officers, there was scarcely an empty seat to be found. And the noise level was exactly what you would suspect from a group of sophonts who spent a large fraction of their time telling others what to do. Time-honored scuttlebutt around the base asserted that careers could be launched or destroyed right here in this room. To judge from the behavior of the officers present, the majority of them believed it.
The loudest of the blowhards on hand was General Blitzkrieg of the Space Legion. With a highball in one hand and a clear Neo-Havana cigar in the other, he sat in his favorite overstuffed chair by the trophy shelf, browbeating all who offered to question his preeminence. Normally, there were few who bothered-mainly because the effort was disproportionately greater than any possible reward for success.
Today, Blitzkrieg was holding forth on the utter absurdity of putting gormless civilians in a position of authority over professional military men. Since this was an opinion shared by every sophont in the building (except for the head bartender, who had seen the top brass in its cups far too often to have any faith in its competence), the Legion general was safe from contradiction on this particular subject. For that very reason it was one of his favorites.
“I’ll tell you how bad it’s gotten,” Blitzkrieg rumbled. “Now, if the damned bleeding hearts get their way, the Alliance Council will vet all promotions above the rank of lieutenant colonel. How’s that for bureaucratic bullshit? Who’s better qualified to judge a soldier than his own CO? There’s not an officer in the Legion whose work I don’t know a hundred times better than some meddling paper pusher or political hack…”
That statement was greeted by a nearly unanimous murmur of assent-only nearly unanimous, for once. This time, among the general’s listeners was a solidly built man wearing the deep blue uniform of Starfleet. Captain First Class John Arbuthnot shook his head. “That’d be hard to argue with,” he growled. “But everybody knows that’s not how it works. Talk all you want about the merit system, but the brownnoses always have the minimum-energy course to promotions. It’s true in Starfleet, it’s true in the Regular Army, and it’s damn near official policy in the Legion.”
“And what the hell do you know about Legion policy, Captain!” growled Blitzkrieg.
Another officer might have backed off at this point. But Captain Arbuthnot had an exemplary record, with meritorious service on a dozen ships, and was widely regarded as one of the most valuable members of the general staff. His one flaw was a stubborn refusal to let nonsense stand unchallenged-no matter who was saying it. That was why, after thirty years in the service, Arbuthnot was stuck at captain first class-a rank equivalent to colonel in the Legion or Regular Army. He’d seen one brownnose after another promoted past him, and he was a long way from being reconciled to it.
So Blitzkrieg’s slighting reference to his rank hit close to home. Captain Arbuthnot narrowed his eyes, and said, “Begging the general’s pardon, but I’d like to hear him deny that he’s given the ablest man in the Legion a deadend assignment babysitting a company of screwups.”
Blitzkrieg’s eyes bulged. “Deny it?” he roared. “Deny it? Damn straight I’ll deny it, because it’s a damned lie.” He stood up, looming over the Starfleet captain’s chair.
Arbuthnot was unfazed. “I’ll overlook the general’s last remark,” he said, in a voice that would have chilled the blood of anyone sensitive to tone. “He’s entitled to his opinion even if all the evidence is against him. But I’m entitled to mine, as well-and whatever the general thinks, I know what I know. I’ll stand by my original statement.” He tossed back his drink, then stood, gave a mock bow, and strode from the room, a smug expression on his face.
“Damned cheek,” muttered Blitzkrieg, and he sipped from his own drink. But suddenly it lacked bite-had the ice diluted it that quickly?-and the smoke of his cigar smelled stale. He stared around the room, looking for someone else to argue with. Nothing like a good fight to get the spirits up. But the other officers in the circle around him had somehow drifted away, and suddenly he didn’t feel like arguing, after all. He stubbed out the cigar, retrieved his hat, and stalked out, still muttering to himself.
The communicator buzzed, and Willard Phule looked up from the screen of his Port-a-Brain computer. “What is it, Mother?” he asked. From the displays, this was a Priority Three call: nothing urgent, but important enough not to defer, either.
“You’ll never guess, lover boy,” said the comm operator. “There’s a ship entering Zenobia orbit just now. It’s bringing just what we’ve all been waiting for.”
“That could be a lot of different things, depending on who you’re asking,” said Phule. Inevitably, he thought of the promotion he’d been assured the Alliance Senate had approved for him, but that had yet to be confirmed by his Legion superiors. Legion tradition mandated a real letter, on actual paper, to confirm promotions. It had occurred to him that General Blitzkrieg might have sent the promotion notice across the parsecs separating Legion Headquarters and Zenobia by some lowest-priority uncrewed freight carrier, chugging its way at sublight speeds from one system to another.
But that way lay insanity… he snapped back to the present. “Don’t keep me guessing, Mother,” he said. “What are we getting?”
He could practically hear the pout as she answered. “All right, big boy, if that’s the way you want to be. But just you wait-next time you need something from me, I might not be so sweet about it.”
Phule repressed a sigh. “Give me a hint, Mother. Person, place, or thing?”
“Silly boy,” came the answer. “Nobody could send us a place.”
“Uh, they could send us to a place,” said Phule. “A new assignment, get it? But I take it that’s not what we’re getting.”
“Right.” She waited. Then, after a long silence followed by a resigned sigh, “OK, it’s a person.”
“A person. Hmmm…” Phule tried to think of somebody he’d been waiting for, without success. “Uh, male or female?”
“Female, not that that’ll help you much,” said Mother, smugly.
Female, thought Phule. Who could it be? Not likely his mother, or his grandmother. Colonel Battleax had been his strongest supporter among the Legion brass, but she was hardly anybody the company had been waiting for… “Uh… Jennie Higgins?” he guessed. The ‘pretty young newstaper who’d put Omega Company in the headlines was a favorite with the troops-and a favorite with Phule himself, now that he thought of her.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” teased Mother, who knew of his interest in the reporter. “But you’re still way off base. Do you give up?”
“Yeah, I guess so, Mother,” said Phule. “Who is it?”
“Headquarters is sending us a medic,” said Mother. “How about that?”
“A medic,” Phule said. “Now, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t think a company-sized unit rated a medic. Considering what the brass thinks of us, I’m surprised they let us have an autodoc.”
“Considering the company’s safety record, I’m surprised they don’t station us in an emergency ward,” said Mother, dryly. “But there’s one more wrinkle you ought to know about, sweetie. Who do you think our new medic is?”
Phule frowned. “Good grief, Mother, how am I supposed to guess that? All I know is that it’s someone in the Legion, a female, and that she’s trained as a medic…”
Beeker, who’d been quietly working at his Port-a-Brain computer while Phule spoke to Mother, suddenly sat straight up in his seat, and exclaimed. “By Jove! You can’t mean… It couldn’t possibly be…”
Phule stared at him in confusion. “Gee, Beeks, do you know somebody who fits that description? I can’t for the life of me come up with any good guesses.”
“It’s not a guess, sir. It’s a near certainty,” said Beeker, swiveling his chair round to face his employer. “Perhaps you recall the circumstances of our departure from Lorelei. I came aboard the shuttle with a last-minute refugee…”
Phule turned an uncomprehending look on his butler. “A last-minute refugee?” he asked. Then his eyes opened wide. “Laverna?”
“Laverna,” said Beeker, nodding slightly.
“You got it, boys,” said Mother. “But don’t call her that; her Legion name is Nightingale.”
“How do you know it’s her, then?” said Phule.
“Silly, they sent her personnel file, with a holo,” said Mother. “I don’t care what name she’s using, there’s nobody else with that face.”
“Nightingale,” said Beeker, softly. Hearing the tone in his butler’s voice, Phule looked over at Beeker with raised eyebrows. A stranger might not have noticed anything. But to Phule, who’d had the butler in his employ for the better part of a decade, the softness seemed completely alien to Beeker’s normal brisk inflections.
“Nightingale,” said Beeker again. There was a faraway look in his eyes. That’s when Phule should have realized just how much trouble he was in.
In the open parade ground near the center of Zenobia Base, a dozen legionnaires stood chewing the fat. A heavy but muscular woman with first sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve of her black jumpsuit emerged from the barracks module and strode over to them. Several of the group glanced in her direction, but otherwise they ignored her approach until she shouted, “All right, squad, fall in. Let’s see if you can act like real legionnaires for fifteen minutes.”
To Sergeant Brandy’s surprise, the training group the captain had put her in charge of actually obeyed her order. This was unusual. There must be some insidious purpose lurking behind her trainees’ stolid expressions. They almost never fell in without some kind of argument or delaying tactic. She glared suspiciously-particularly at Mahatma, usually the head conspirator when the squad decided to show her its independence from military discipline. The squad seemed to think she needed some such demonstration two or three times a week… if not more often.
Brandy scowled. “I can tell you gripgrops are planning something,” she growled. “And unless you’ve suddenly gotten twice as clever as you think you are, you’re planning something really stupid.” That was an exaggeration-when pressed, Brandy privately conceded that some of the recruits’ stunts revealed a rare twisted creativity-but she didn’t want to give them any encouragement. They were doing just fine without her help. And if they’d focus the same kind of creativity toward their actual jobs… but in the Omega Mob, that was asking for too much.
A hand was raised: Mahatma’s. No surprise there, thought Brandy. For a moment, she considered ignoring the little legionnaire…but that would just be postponing the inevitable trouble. Best to get it over with. “You have a question, Mahatma?”
“Yes, Sergeant Brandy!” said Mahatma, with a beatific smile on his round, bespectacled face. “We have all heard that Headquarters is sending Omega Company a medic.”
“That’s the truth, I got it straight from Mother,” said someone else in the formation-Slayer, thought Brandy, who had learned to recognize the voices of the legionnaires in her training squad even when they muttered, or when several were speaking at once.
“Yes, we’re getting a medic,” said Brandy. “It’s a step up from the autodoc-a lot more personal treatment.”
“But the autodoc is very good,” said Mahatma. “I have used it, and so have most of the company. I don’t think anyone has complained that it didn’t heal us.“
“No, I don’t remember any complaints,” said Brandy. If past history was any indicator-and Brandy would have given good odds that it was-Mahatma was working his way slowly up to some still-unstated point. Just what the point was probably wouldn’t be clear until he got there. There probably wasn’t any way to hurry him, but still… “What are you getting at, Mahatma?” she asked.
The little legionnaire continued to smile, his round face and round glasses giving the effect of a bright-beaming sun. “If the autodoc does such a good job, there should not be any reason for us to get a medic,” he said. Heads around him nodded; Brandy had to give Mahatma points for persuasiveness. That, in fact, was the main problem of having him in her squad. She seemed to spend half her time trying to refute his points.
“Uh, the captain told us that this particular medic had requested assignment to Omega,” said Brandy. “So there isn’t any reason to go hunting for other reasons,” she concluded, realizing even as she said it that it sounded unconvincing even to her.
But to her surprise, Mahatma nodded. “Ah, very well, then,” he said. “If that is the entire reason, there is nothing to worry about.” And he shut his mouth and stood there. Brandy nearly fell over from the shock. Mahatma had to be planning something really obnoxious if he let her off the hook this easily…
Then she shrugged. Whatever it was would come along at its own pace, whether she knew it was coming or not. She looked down at her clipboard and went on to the first item on her agenda for the day. “One announcement,” she said. “The captain has assigned buddies for those members of the company not previously paired with someone. The following are now officially paired: Brick and Street; Roadkill and Lace; Mahatma and Thumper…” She ignored the exclamations from the troops, and finished the list. Then, not without some trepidation, she asked, “Any questions?”
Thumper’s hand went up. The little Lepoid was by a long shot the least likely to cause trouble on any given occasion, so Brandy gave an inward sigh of relief and pointed to him. “Thumper?”
“Sergeant, I don’t understand ‘buddies,’” said Thumper. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Mahatma-it’s not as if I don’t think you’re a good legionnaire…”
“Brandy don’t think so, neither,” said a voice from the back. The rest of the squad broke out laughing as Thumper tried to recover.
“The idea of buddies is to give everybody in the company somebody to fall back on when there’s trouble,” said Brandy. “The captain tries to pick somebody you can learn from, too. That’s why Sushi and Do-Wop are partners…”
“Huh!” said Street, his eyes widening. “Buddies is partners. Now I understand. I always wonder why they two be buddies. Now it all makin‘ sense. That Sushi, he got a lot to learn…”
“The sheer impertinence of that damned SFer,” rumbled Blitzkrieg. It was the morning after the Officers’ Club encounter, but the incident still rankled. The general had been stomping around the office and haranguing his adjutant, Major Sparrowhawk, for most of the morning. She’d barely had time to glance at her stock portfolio.
“I don’t know why you listen to that kind of thing,” said Sparrowhawk, who knew which side her bread was buttered on. “It’s as plain as the nose on your face-that Starfleet captain’s just jealous because the Legion’s grabbing the spotlight from his arm of the service.”
Blitzkrieg gashed his teeth. “I could deal with that, if it weren’t that imbecile Jester and his gang of incompetents who were getting all the publicity,” he said. “Jester’s idiots have managed to convince the media that they’re the best outfit in the Legion. Are those galactic newstapers blind? Or just terminally stupid?“
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a fair amount of both,” said Sparrowhawk. Then an evil smile lit up her face, and her voice dripped acid as she said, “Or, considering that Jennie Higgins and Captain Jester seem to be a very definite item, maybe it’s just another case of nasty little hormones at work.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Blitzkrieg, pacing. “The hell of it is, I’ve tried half a dozen ways to crush Jester-the despicable little snot-but he keeps bouncing back as if nothing important had happened. Part of it has to be his money-there are plenty of fools who’ll suck up to any jackanapes that’s got enough money, and Jester qualifies for that, hands down.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sparrowhawk, who actually had a great deal of respect for money, especially money sitting in one of her own stock accounts. She wished Blitzkrieg would finish his rant so she could pay proper attention to those very accounts, but she knew from bitter experience that it might take all morning for him to run through his list of gripes. She’d have to stay at the desk straight through her lunch break if she wanted to catch up.
“I’ve just about given up expecting the media to notice what an utter disaster Jester’s made of his company,” continued Blitzkrieg. “Why, if I didn’t have a hundred better things to do, I’d go out to Zenobia myself. If I watch him like a hawk, sooner or later the impertinent pup’s going to screw up so badly that not even his money can protect him. And then I can cashier him the way I should’ve done when he first came up for court-martial, instead of letting those other softheaded short-timers argue me out of it.”
Major Sparrowhawk sat upright behind her desk. “Well, sir, why don’t you?” she asked brightly.
“Eh? I don’t get you,” said the general.
“Why don’t you just go out to Zenobia and wait for him to screw up?” asked the adjutant. “You said it yourself, he’s bound to do it, especially if you’re there breathing down his neck with every move. And then you’ll be rid of him, and all your troubles will be over.”
“Rid of him,” said Blitzkrieg, in a dreamlike voice. Then his eyes lit up, and he smacked a fist into his open hand. “Rid of him. All my troubles will be over... Yes, you’re dead right, Major! All I have to do is wait for Jester to screw up, and if I’m right there, the poor little rich boy won’t have a chance to cover it up with all his money before I can bust him for it. What a brilliant idea! I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself!”
“Don’t worry, you will,” muttered Sparrowhawk, who was long accustomed to having her best ideas appropriated by her superior.
But the general was already off and running. “Let’s see…” he said. “I’ll have to find someone to cover for me in the staff meeting. That’s no big problem, they never talk about anything important. Colonel Caisson can handle that. And I’ll need a substitute in the Scotch foursome on Tuesday afternoons. Caisson won’t do-that duck hook of his will have him out of bounds the whole back nine. Can’t be anybody too good, though, or they’re likely to want to keep him. Hmmm…” He wandered through the door into his private office, his mind happily occupied with rearranging the details of his social life.
Major Sparrowhawk gave a deep sigh of relief and turned to her investment portfolio.