2949-03-02 – Tales from the Service: The Changing of the Guard
As the medical orderlies wheeled Colonel Pokorni out to the balcony beside her, Glorinda Eccleston tore her eyes away from the three burning spires of Mount Ishkawa on the southeastern horizon to look at her commander – or rather, what was left of him. She’d been there on the slopes of that mountain right beside him when the 12th Marines’ regimental command post had been hit. Pokorni’s armor-suit had saved his life from the storm of shrapnel and rock-splinters which had turned a trio of F.D.A officers into a rain of unrecognizable meat, but he’d still lost his right leg and hand.
Glorinda, wearing similar armor and standing less than three meters from Pokorni, had barely missed joining the unfortunate volunteer-soldiers in death; a jagged piece of rock had struck her in the side of the helmet and caved it in. A few more grams of mass, and the rock might have had the force necessary to crush her head, but she escaped the disaster at Ishkawa with only a concussion and a blown eardrum.
“Eccleston.” Pokorni’s voice, previously strong, calm, and commanding, seemed thin and weak, just like the man. He’d lost weight in the two weeks since his injury, and his broad-shouldered bone-structure seemed too big for the flesh stretched over it.
No, she realized, that wasn’t quite right – he'd been losing weight steadily long before they’d been airlifted off Mount Ishkawa with thirteen other wounded Marines. It seemed that every one of his men mangled or killed in the savage fighting on the mountain’s sloped had aged Pokorni a few more years. The Twelfth Marines had lost dozens of men up on those blazing heights, and Pokorni seemed to have lost something up there with them even before his own horrific injuries.
“Colonel.” Glorinda nodded. Fellow officers didn’t salute each other in the medical ward. A convalescent’s simple shift lacked rank markings, making each Marine in the overcrowded hospital complex the equal of his fellows. Glorinda, not quite a Marine, felt the need to defer to her commanding officer, even if it was only a matter of time before he was relieved of command of the Twelfth, his injuries making him incapable of operating an armor-suit.
“It’s still burning.” Pokorni gestured at the distant mountain with the stub at the end of his right arm, then stared down at the bandages where his hand should have been, as if still surprised to find the appendage missing. “That means we're still holding it.”
“Far as I know, we are, sir. But the Twelfth isn’t up there anymore.” The Twelfth Marines, or what was left of it, had been pulled out of the Mount Ishkawa encirclement four days after Glorinda and Pokorni had been wounded. The Sixteenth Marines – in little better shape but at least somewhat rested – had taken their place shoring up the vast F.D.A. force holding the mountain.
The colonel shook his head. “The Twelfth will be up there until the stars go out.”
Glorinda winced, remembering the faces of the Marines she’d gotten to know as Intelligence Liaison to the Twelfth’s commander who had perished on Ishkawa. She had been a relatively recent addition to the regiment – many of the officers and enlisted men had been with the Twelfth for five years or longer, since Pokorni took it over. Five years seemed so many lifetimes to Glorinda, who’d gone from Naval Intelligence attaché on a sleepy Frontier world to F.D.A. volunteer to Marine intelligence liaison in half that time, and who had her first taste of combat on Mereena barely six months earlier, but to the surviving men of the Twelfth, each of the dead lying in a broken suit among the rocks and hardy toxic lichens on that mountain was as close as a brother.
“General Bell came to see me today.” Pokorni shifted in his wheelchair, turning to look up at Glorinda. “He mentioned something, and I was hoping you could tell me about it.”
Glorinda nodded, waking her wrist computer and entering her Naval Intelligence codes. Despite being off the duty roles, her access to Intelligence subnets in the Margaux datasphere seemed to be intact. “I’ve got access. What is it he mentioned?”
“Something called Juno. He didn’t say, but I got the sense it was something your department cooked up.”
Glorinda tapped the four-letter name into a general datasphere search and scrolled through the results. Most were the names of people in the Intelligence database, and a few referenced locations named Juno on various Frontier worlds. “Sorry, Colonel. I’m not seeing anything. Are you sure that was the name?"
Pokorni nodded, then shrugged. “Must be above our pay grade.”
Glorinda doubted there were many secrets that were beyond the pay grade of a Marine regimental command post. Thinking that perhaps Juno was a person leading an initiative rather than the name of a weapon or project, she did a few more searches, and still came up with nothing.
Pokorni let the silence stretch, content to watch the flaming mountain in the distance. A fresh explosion bloomed on its near face, and the rumble of the blast, like distant thunder, took many seconds to arrive. Eventually, though, he spoke again. “Have they reassigned you?”
“No, sir. I’m cleared to return to duty with the Twelfth in five days.” She had recovered her hearing well enough, but the freshly healed eardrum wasn’t ready for the clamor inside an armor-suit in combat quite yet. An intelligence liaison who lost her hearing in battle and couldn’t hear commands or queries wouldn’t be much good to anyone.
“Hmm.” Pokorni kept his tone and expression neutral, leaving no indication whether he approved or not. “I told Bell to promote Singh. I think he’s ready.”
Glorinda had her reservations about the boisterous officer who’d replaced the deceased Captain Low in the regiment’s second-in-command position, but she knew no better officer was available. “The men like Singh, sir.”
Glorinda didn’t bother denying the allegation; she didn’t like him at all. She did however recognize the man’s competence and indomitable optimism; these were things the surviving Twelfth Marines would need very badly. Everyone could see that a final decision on Margaux would be coming soon – and unless the Navy arrived for one more battle in the sky above, that decision would not be in the favor of the besieged Confederated troops. “I will try to see things his way.”
“As you tried to see things mine?” Louis Pokorni chuckled quietly, pressing a button on his chair to summon the orderlies who would return him to his room. “I do think I’ve had quite enough of that mountain for one lifetime.”
Glorinda almost – almost – extended her right hand for a handshake but remembered just in time that Pokorni couldn’t take it. Something told her she wouldn’t see the man again before she returned to the Twelfth – his Twelfth, no matter who else was promoted to replace him. “It’s been an honor, Colonel.”
Pokorni, sensing her hesitation, merely nodded as the orderlies approached. “Good luck, Lieutenant, and godspeed.”
Colonel Louis Pokorni left Margaux on one of the small ferry operations (such as the one described in Tales from the Service: A Departure from Margaux) which move wounded troops out from the shrinking Confederated perimeter in the Causey Plana and bring in small-tonnage, high-demand supplies. The Navy spacers operating these runs take their lives into their hands every time they enter the besieged system, and while the Navy has not lost a major ship in this manner yet, several have been forced to abort and flee the system.
I was hoping to engage him in an interview when he reached the medical facility here at Maribel, but if he ever arrived here, there is no record of it. All my datasphere messages have gone unanswered. Unfortunately, this stalwart veteran of Mereena and Margaux seems to have unplugged from the datasphere. Wherever he’s been taken to recover from his wounds, I pray he finds peace for the ghosts which his close associate Ms. Eccleston is sure haunt him still.