Some things aren't as they seem. (A Science Fiction Short Story Contest Entry)
|“Damn I hate mornings,” I thought. “Especially when the morning starts at four....”
Reveille played at six hundred, officially, but after basic and advanced individual training, it was a habit. I’d always been a runner, and since it could get over 100 degrees at Twentynine Palms, it was the best time for it. It wasn’t like working out would get you out of PT when it was scheduled for the platoon though. It was this morning, so I didn’t bother to shower, and lined up at six hundred. It was so much different than boot camp though, and now that I was a regular, no drill instructor was yelling in people’s faces. We knew how to exercise and just went about it. We were probably halfway through the routine when a Humvee pulled up. That in itself isn’t so unusual, but something wasn’t right. First, the .50 caliber weapon was uncovered, and second, it was being manned. Unless there was some training going on, it just wasn’t something that was done except for extreme circumstances. Two men exited the vehicle, an officer and a military policeman, and approached our L.T. They spoke for a moment, then turned to the platoon.
“Jackson!” He yelled. “Front and center!”
That was me, and I hustled up to the men, “Yes, sir!”
“They’re here for you.” He told me.
“Pfc. Alex Jackson?” A captain asked me.
“You need to come with us.” He and the M.P. turned, headed back to the vehicle, and I followed.
I ended up in the back with two M.P.s, and my brain was working overtime to try and figure out what I had done. There was nothing. I hadn’t even left the base after A.I.T. Most of the people in my group had made a trip to Las Vegas, but I’d been many times, and I always got in trouble. But I was waiting for my duty station and wanted my first choice. We pulled up in front of the MCAGCC HQ, and that seemed like the worst of all possible destinations. Asking questions wouldn’t get me anywhere, so when we stopped I just followed along. I was escorted into a large office with the name of the battalion commander on the door. At that point, I gave up on trying to figure out what I’d done, entered, and saw the battalion commander with a burly man in a dark suit. I immediately stood at attention and held a salute.
“At ease, private. Take a seat.” The top man at the base said.
The captain was gone and the M.P.s were doubtless at either side outside the door. I sat across a desk from the two men and wondered what the hell was going on. They were stoic, and I smelled a faint odor of cigars, even though the base was supposedly smoke-free indoors. Speaking first would be a mistake, so I waited. The base commander, Lt. Col. Edwin, went to his sideboard and retrieved three tumblers and a bottle of scotch. The other man was dark-haired and tall, wore a dark suit and didn’t speak.”
“A drink, Jackson?” He asked.
“Sir?” I was still a bit out of my element.
“Do you drink, son?”
“Yes. sir.” I said, “On occasion.”
“Well, this will be one.” He poured three hefty glasses and handed them around.
We all sipped a bit and the air in the room hung heavily. Even the drink, a fifteen-year-old McCallen tasted sour on my tongue. It may as well have been battery acid. Something was very wrong, and they had the duty to tell me.
“Private, I can’t make this any easier, so I’m just going to tell you. Jon Stillman is dead.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “How?!”
“The official word is an automobile accident. James Grant was also killed.”
“Jim is dead, too? Damn. God damn.” I fought back tears. “Shit. Two of the Jacks are gone.”
“Jacks?” The lieutenant colonel queried.
“Yeah, We called Jimmy, Jon, and Jake... the Jacks.” I paused. “When our pal Andrew was with us, we’d say we had a full house, jacks over aces.”
“Cute,” He said.
“We were in junior high, you never thought up stupid shit when you were thirteen?” I replied. “Sir?”
The room went quiet, and I tried my best to gather myself. It was rough. Two of my best friends were dead. They had both enlisted in the Army, and they must have been out having a good time after they finished at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. But after tossing back my drink, something dawned on me.
“Sir?” I asked. “You said ‘official story’ what don't know?”
They looked at each other. “Well, this is about as classified as it gets. Special people only.”
“Pardon me,” I said, “But I need to know. Special or not.”
“Well, I suppose you have a right, and I’m allowed to tell you.” He began speaking.
He said we have objects in space, which I knew. However, I was unaware of what he told me next. We had three “dark” satellites positioned over the earth, and we were already at war in space. Not outer space, but he said whatever country won up there, could easily win down here. What he continued to avoid what I had to do with any of this. I listened to him explain that the positions of these killer satellites would be unseen by any enemy until they powered up. They had electromagnetic pulse capability to make enemy units useless, along with other weaponry. I waited because I had to wait, but when he was done, I finally got to ask.
“Sir?” I said, “What has this got to do with me? And what about my friends?”
“Let me ask you, private, what do you remember from your last trip to Las Vegas?” The Lt. Gen. was asking.
“Well, four of us all went together for a long weekend. All of us were headed to boot camp soon, and we had no idea when we’d get together again." I took a moment. "I suppose the answer to that is never, now…”
“Did you meet anyone special?” He asked after waiting for a moment.
“Well, yes sir.” I never blushed, but that would have been the proper moment. “Some stunning ladies.”
“We took them back to our suite. I think they were from a bridal party.” I said.
“They weren’t. And really, four of you took home four ‘stunning women?”
The way he said it made me seethe. I knew none of us -- except maybe Jimmy -- had much in the looks department, but we were solid muscle. None of us were tall, our hair colors were different, but we’d already buzzed our heads. I mean, he could insult me all he wanted, but if he said anything more about my dead friends, I’d be looking at a court-martial. But as my anger died another thought struck me. Somehow he knew those women weren’t in a bridal party. We had had some drinks with them, but none of us were lightweights. Yet, we didn’t recall much more of the night, and all of us had a new tattoo in the morning. The ladies, of course, were gone.
“So then, Sir,” I was no genius, but when the pieces lined up, I got it. “The women were your people, and this is about tattoos.”
“Very good. Your buddies were wearing maps. The kind that would locate those satellites.”
“What about Jacob?” I asked.
“The same. He is in protective custody. Whoever killed your friends will make the connection.”
“Is he safe?” He answered with a nod.
“The maps are on several people, we're almost certain they have all three. They want you.”
I had so many questions I couldn't tumble them out of my mouth fast enough. How did they find my friends? Why would they just want me? What in the hell was I supposed to do?! The commander held up his hand to stop me, and didn’t mention I hadn’t addressed him properly in awhile.
“Not everyone gets aught six eighty-nine.” He said. “Those who do get a serious background check.”
He was referencing my MOS -- Cyber Security Technician -- my first choice. “But none of them were…”
At my pause, he continued. “No, but when we saw you, we checked them, too. All of you were solid.”
“Solid.” I stared at him. “Yes, Sir. Solid as hell.... or they were. But why me?! It’s like I got them killed!”
I took the last swallow of my Scotch, and the suit -- still quiet -- refilled it. “You didn’t. I assure you.”
“So who did?”
“Well, we’re working on that, but even if we find them, you’ll never know. I am truly sorry about that.”
“Why you?” He continued, “Well, let me ask you. Do you know how a sextant works?”
“I’m a Marine. But I've known for a long time.” He waited. “You find the horizon and known stars.”
”And you can get your location. Keep a steady course, you also know where you’re going.”
“So think about those maps. The tattoos. Reverse the process. What else do you need for a sextant to work?”
I thought a moment. “Time. You have to have a fairly accurate time!”
He nodded. “And, if you’re reversing the process, a location. That’s what’s on your tattoo.”
“Then that’s why me,” I muttered. “And I thought it was just a big Celtic cross.”
“Well, it is.” He said. ”But it’s much more. For the next eight years, you’re the only key to the maps.”
“Great…” I was still talking to myself. “But why kill them? Take a damn picture!”
“It doesn’t work like that.” He replied. “You have to have the actual skin. It was easier than kidnapping.”
“So what exactly happened to them?” I asked with an almost defeated tone.
He waited for a moment. “Well, they got leave after basic and decided to go out partying.”
“They got pulled over by an Arizona trooper, and decided they’d rather scrap than get taken in.”
“Sounds like them.”
“Usually they call the base right away, but beat on a trooper? Well, not so much...”
He continued. “They were fingerprinted, and when they do that, they take pictures of body markings.”
“And you couldn’t stop that?!”
“It’s one of the databases we can control, but they didn’t contact us right away.” He replied.
It was hitting me hard. An information overload. There was more, and I knew it was coming. They had been left in a cell at a small station not far from the base. Two deputies and a dispatcher were killed along with Jim and Jon. The tattoos were skinned of them, and it was a small relief to know it was post mortem.
“I want to go get them, Sir,” I said through gritted teeth.
The suit finally spoke. “That can’t happen. It’s a huge risk. Besides, that’s my job.”
“And who the hell are you?!” I asked angrily, knowing no answer would be forthcoming.
“Stand down, Jackson.” The Lieutenant Colonel said calmly, “And give me your tags and I.D."
“Sir?” I replied. He just looked at me. I removed my dog tags and fished out my identification.
“You have new orders coming.” He said quietly as I laid them on his desk. He handed them to the suit.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He handed me replacements for both. “We need to move you.”
I picked them both up, loathe to put on new tags, but I did. I looked at the I.D. card. “So I’m Sgt. Johnson now?”
“You are. Johnson also has a degree from USC. You’re headed to Virginia for OCS.”
“Officer Candidate School? Who said I wanted to be an officer, Sir?”
“You did. You applied to the Naval Academy.” He replied. "It's in the file."
My life had changed forever, and as I was dismissed he said, “Oh, and Sergeant? Keep your shirt on…”