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Chapter 15



Ft. Indiantown Gap, United States of America, Sol III
1427 EDT September 13
th, 2004 ad


"Yes, Ampele?" First Sergeant Pappas looked up at the image of the operations sergeant displayed by his AID. The call had interrupted his attempt to reduce the mass of paperwork that had built up while he was on leave and he suppressed an illogical snarl; the recently promoted ops sergeant was famous for not wasting his time.

"Top, battalion PAC just called and we're getting another E-6."

"We're up to strength," responded Pappas as a knee-jerk reaction.

"No, we're down one, according to PAC, and technically they're right."

"If you're talking about Stewart's squad, you've got to be joking."

"I don't know what else we're going to do with him. He's senior to Stewart and all the other squads have staffs as squad leaders."

"Do we have his two-oh-one? And where are we on getting Stewart his Six?"

"The two-oh-one's still queuing from all the transfers, but PAC is 'very confident' that we will have it in hand by the time he arrives, and he has a hardcopy with him. And there is no way that battalion is going to board Stewart. He's barely out of basic!"

"So are you, and I got you your five stripes. Never mind, I'll take another hammer to the sergeant major. When the new guy arrives, send him straight in."

"Roger."

* * *

"Staff Sergeant Duncan," said the new NCO, from the doorway, "reporting to the first sergeant as ordered."

Duncan had been around—he was entering his twelfth year in the military—and he knew that when you reported to your company, whatever the procedure might say, you usually saw other NCOs before you were introduced to your new first sergeant or commander. Because they were very busy people with tight schedules, if you were ordered to report directly to one or the other on arrival, it usually meant trouble. And he really had no interest in trouble. Especially from the big son of a bitch that was his new Top.

"Come on in, Duncan was it? Pull up a chair." Ernie Pappas, who still thought of himself as a gunnery sergeant, could tell when someone was on pins and needles and suspected he knew why.

"No big problem," he continued. "If you're wondering why I asked to see you right away, just a couple of things I wanted you to be aware of. Termites in your new home, so to speak."

First Sergeant Pappas did a quick perusal of his newest NCO and came away with varying first impressions. For one thing, the guy was no rejuv. Pushing thirty probably, though it was hard to tell with his eyes. He had a battered look, kinda shocky, that reminded him of the Old Man when he first arrived, and a pin that he had only ever seen before on the captain, the one that meant that the person had been in nuclear ground combat. Despite how bad it was on Barwhon, the pin had only been earned in one engagement.

He held out his hand for the hardcopy personnel file clutched in the new NCO's hand. "Diess?" he asked, softly.

"Yeah. And I just got back from Barwhon," the staff sergeant replied, surprised. "How'd you know?"

"I've seen the pin before." Pappas let it lie at that and started reading the file. He skipped all the marketing bullshit at the front that was mainly for promotion boards and went straight to the military history file. Several items leaped off the page. After a few moments' scan he closed the file and smiled.

"What?" Duncan asked. He knew that his new first sergeant had seen something that made him adjust his first impressions, probably either the Article 15 just before Diess, or he had read through the lines on his most recent transfer. The smile could mean anything.

"Well, I have the old good news, bad news routine," said Pappas with a slight smile. "And I'll lay it out with the intermediate news first. I wanted you to know that your platoon sergeant is a female.

"Sergeant First Class Bogdanovich was an instructor for the Marines before they opened up the combat arms and she jumped at the chance to go to Strike. She is extremely competent and runs a helluva platoon. I doubt that you're going to have problems, but you're not prejudiced against women, are you? I'd appreciate an honest answer; I can shuffle things if you are."

Like I could say yes? thought Duncan. "No, that's fine. I've never worked with a female boss, but we were having them trickle in as I was leaving Diess. The ones who are professional are fine."

"You got a problem with some that aren't professional?" asked the first sergeant cautiously.

"Top, if one of my troops starts bawling because I told them they fucked up, that's their problem," said Duncan with a frown. "I do not coddle my male troops, I damn sure won't coddle any female ones. Yeah, I had a little problem with that on Diess, not one of my troops. She eventually decided that maybe Fleet Strike wasn't the place for her."

The first sergeant decided to take that one on faith. It sounded like a couple of incidents he'd heard about, but not in Bravo since they'd received their first group of women. Fleet Strike was composed of multiple countries' forces, some of which had a tradition of women in combat. It made no allowances for feminine virtues or perceived weaknesses. It was not that what was generally considered a feminine approach did not have merit, it was just that it had no merit in combat. The Fleet forces were slowly coming to terms with that fact, the American forces generally much slower than others. From Pappas's point of view, it was up to the Bogdanoviches and the Nightingales to prove that they had a place. There were no freebies in the infantry. Not with a war on.

"Okay," he said with a nod, scratching the back of his head with a pen. "I don't think you're going to have a problem with that. Now for the really bad news. We've already completed our FSTEP, and maxed it, so I'm understandably proud of our junior leadership and don't really want to mess with it.

"The only squad that does not have an E-6 squad leader is headed up by an E-5 who is so outstanding I'm considering offing you to keep him in charge." Pappas smiled to show he was joking. "Unfortunately, he is also so incredibly junior—he's practically straight out of boot camp—that you virtually have to take the squad."

"Well, Top," said Duncan, furrowing his brow, "you know that thing about a lazy man? If I can let my Alpha team leader run my whole damn squad . . ." He held up his hands as if taking them off.

"Sure, sure, I believe that. Anyway, I think you can handle Stewart. You'll find this out soon enough, but I came here from the Fleet Basic course at McCall with the skeleton of the company, and Stewart came with me. Nonetheless, he really is extraordinary. Wait'll you deal with him. Last but not least, I think you should know that I doubt I will be able to do anything about it even if you do have problems with Stewart. Or Bogdanovich, for that matter. Or even me."

"Why?" asked Duncan, sensing a trap.

"You know how I said I'd seen that pin . . ."

* * *

"Sergeant Bogdanovich," said the first sergeant as he walked into the Swamp, "meet your new second squad leader, Staff Sergeant Duncan. He was in the Old Man's platoon on Diess."

Natalie Bogdanovich hesitated fractionally as she extended her hand, then took Duncan's in a strong grip. "Welcome to O'Neal's Traveling Circus."

Duncan sized up his new platoon sergeant and was immediately impressed. Bogdanovich was a short, heavily muscled blonde with engaging blue eyes and her hair pulled back in a bun. Her fresh good looks were barely undone by a nose that was slightly crooked from being broken some time in the past. But the energy and enthusiasm she exuded quickly drew the attention away from that tiny defect. Duncan could feel a restrained power behind her grip that reminded him of Lieutenant O'Neal.

"I didn't even know he made captain, although I'm not surprised."

"Given the size of Fleet Strike," pointed out Gunny Pappas, "we were bound to get someone who knew him on Diess. There's not that many units."

"Well," Duncan noted with a grim shake of the head, "there were only twelve of us left and three are on permanent disability."

"How do you get permanently disabled?" asked the first sergeant. "Galactic Medical can fix anything that doesn't kill you outright."

"Psychiatric," Duncan and Bogdanovich said together, then looked at each other quizzically.

"Boggle did a tour on Barwhon, first," said Pappas.

Bogdanovich nodded, somberly. "It seems there's still some things they can't cure."

"Yeah," Duncan agreed quietly. "Although I think in the case of Private Buckley, they let him off 'cause they didn't want to put up with the stories." Duncan gave a grim chuckle.

"Private Who?" queried the first sergeant.

"What, Mighty Mite never told that one?" said Duncan with a smile. Two combat vets and Mighty Mite as a commander. It looked like this might be a good place to call home for a while.





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