Chapter 5
Mother Hen

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Armstrong ONB, Earth Sphere
Date: Fri 29 Mar 121
Time: UST 1531

Gunnery Sergeant Miranda Grisson relaxed into the position of at ease. She could stand at attention all day if she had to, but Major Knox was not that kind of officer. He had a reputation for leniency so long as things got done, much unlike Miranda herself, who was known and feared as a 24-7 hard ass.
Although this was the time of their scheduled meeting, the Major was preoccupied with the DataPads spread out on his desk, no doubt being sandwiched by all manner of forms from both above and below. While he was known for cutting everyone else a little slack, he did not grant himself the same luxury. He was an exacting man who did not let anything go down the line (or up it, for that matter) without stopping on his desk.
"You can take a seat, you know," the Major said, scarcely looking up.
Miranda replied, "With your permission, sir, I'd rather stand."
"Suit yourself."
The Major continued to poke and scrawl on the screens of the DataPads with his stylus. It was actually rather impressive of him to successfully divide his attention in so many directions at once. It was an invaluable asset for a field commander being wasted on the red tape of the bureaucracy. Of course, mountains of paperwork made up a far larger part of an officer's job than combat maneuvers.
More than ten minutes passed until the Major finally got to a stopping place. Sliding the stylus back into one of the DataPads, he folded his hands and looked up to Miranda.
With a slight grin, he said, "Sorry 'bout that. My Momma always told me not to keep a lady waiting, but we launch tomorrow and this shit's gotta get done before then."
Miranda did not like to be referred to as a 'lady'. As far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as male and female, only Marine and non-Marine. As much as it bothered her, it was not enough to prompt her to contradict her commanding officer, at least not directly.
"A Marine can outwait the stars if he's ordered to," she said.
Reading between the lines, the Major gave her a knowing smile. "Well, I'm not going to keep you quite that long. You've got an appointment to keep, Gunny."
"An appointment, sir?"
"You're probably wondering why your orders changed, why you've been swapped from Third Platoon to First."
It was a fine question.
"I had been wondering about that, sir."
"The last bird is coming in at 1600. It's got First's platoon leader on board. Lieutenant Tyrese Dixon. Fresh meat, straight from the Academy."
Miranda was disciplined enough to keep her feelings to herself, but inwardly, she rolled her eyes. Although she had not moved a muscle, her lack of any apparent reaction was all too telling to the perceptive Major.
"Yeah, I know," he said, answering the unspoken curse that echoed in her mind, "but we can't all be combat vets. I'd rather have him head up one of the detachments on the escorts, but ol' Two-star went over me and the Colonel's objections. Now, Staff Sergeant Muttalib's got a good record, but this is his first assignment as platoon sergeant. I don't need both the people runnin' First Platoon to be new to the job. Lieutenant Dixon needs an experienced NCO backing him up. That's why I got the Colonel's approval to swap you for Mutt."
She could not argue with his reasoning. In his position, she would no doubt have made the same move. Even so, it felt a lot like babysitting.
Continuing his apparent telepathy, the Major said, "Don't look at it as babysitting, Gunny. I need someone I know I can trust on this."
"Yes, sir."
It was all she needed to say. She had her orders and she would execute them. The Major was all too aware of this and did not dwell on the subject a moment longer.
"I'd go with you, but I've got a conference call with Marshal Graves at 1600. He couldn't come to the commissioning ceremony, so he wants to give his regards before we launch."
The Commandant himself? It was true that the Supreme Commander had attended the ceremony, but he did not have the same resonance for Marines as the Commandant, especially ever since Donovan Graves claimed the title.
Genuinely impressed, Miranda said, "That's quite an honor, sir."
"You're tellin' me," the Major replied. "It's not every day you get to speak with the legend." He glanced at his watch, stopping himself before they started swapping stories about the Commandant's mythical exploits. "You'd better get going. Hanger Two."
Miranda snapped to the position of attention. "Aye-aye, sir."
Miranda had to hustle to make it to the hangar on time. When she got there, the shuttle had already landed and begun disembarkation. Much to her surprise, there was an assortment of higher-ups gathered there, including Admiral Mfume himself.
She soon saw the reason for all the brass. The first man out of the shuttle was none other than Captain Blake Frazier. Captain Frazier was a Navy pilot who had happened to distinguish himself right around the time the war was beginning to come around in the Union's favor. The brainiacs in PR latched on and spun him into this big media icon, one of their Heroes of the Union. They could not have picked a better man for the job. He was both articulate and photogenic, brimming with charisma and confidence. He was the darling of all the folks back on the homefront, their knight, their gentleman warrior.
To be fair, there was more to him than just the smoke and mirrors set up by the Defense Ministry's spinmeisters. He was in all truth an honest to God, damn good pilot. More than anyone else, Miranda should know. Five years ago, her unit was pinned down on Titan and it was Captain Frazier, a commander at the time, who led his squadron of strike fighters to bail out the beleaguered Marines. He was the real thing, no doubt about it.
Captain Frazier had his arm around a young Marine officer as he went down the stairs from the shuttle. Still holding on to the Marine, he actually bypassed the Admiral and his entourage and headed straight for Miranda. His disregard for protocol almost made Miranda forget her place. She quickly went to the position of attention when he came close enough and saluted, absently realizing that he now wore a commodore's stripes. He must have gotten another promotion since the last time she saw him in the news.
"Good afternoon, sir," she said.
Commodore Frazier returned the salute grinning broadly, that million-credit smile that surely bagged him females by the dozen. Miranda did not know if he was trying to turn on the charm with her. She doubted she was his type and even if she was, he was wasting his time. Fraternization was illegal and she was not interested in any case. Maybe he was just trying to be friendly.
"Well now, Gunny," the Commodore said, looking at the Marine officer, "this must be for you."
The Marine officer was a second lieutenant whose only ribbon was the UDSM handed out to everyone on active duty ever since the war started. Fresh from the Academy. The nametag read 'Dixon'. So this was her new platoon leader.
She managed to catch all of this information without moving her eyes. However, to let the Lieutenant know she was acknowledging his presence, she allowed herself the brief lapse of glancing in his direction.
Lieutenant Dixon, obviously uncomfortable about being held by the Commodore, craned his head back to look up at Miranda, staring at her like a deer in headlights. It was something she was fairly used to. The Lieutenant was not a short man by any normal standard, but he was markedly dwarfed by her, the top of his head barely level with her shoulders. Like the rest of her family, Miranda was abnormally tall, even for the current day and age, only four centimeters shy of the upper limit for servicemembers.
Unlike most other people, Commodore Frazier did not appear to be the slightest bit intimidated by Miranda's imposing stature. He had an easy way with people and he treated her no differently.
"So, Gunny, I take it you're this fine gentleman's platoon sergeant."
"Yes, sir."
The Commodore gave Lieutenant Dixon a good shake. "You hear that? You're gonna be all right. This big honey looks like she could snap a Centipede in two bare-handed. God help the Shellies once you put her in a MediSuit." He looked back to Miranda. "Am I right, Gunny?"
Miranda could not help but smile, just a little bit. "I eat 'Pedes for breakfast, sir," she said.
"Outstanding!" the Commodore exclaimed jovially. "That's what I'm talking about!" He took hold of young Lieutenant Dixon by both shoulders and positioned him squarely in front of Miranda, like a father presenting his son to a coach. "Now, Gunny, I want you to take good care of this future general, you hear me? And, LT, if you've ever got a problem on my boat, you come to me any time, okay? After going through your chain of command, of course."
Together, both Miranda and Lieutenant Dixon replied, "Aye-aye, sir."
What the Commodore said to Miranda gave her pause. She had to ask.
"Excuse me, sir, but your boat?"
The Commodore was apparently used to the reaction. "Surprised? You aren't the only one. These Americas have got an aviation element bigger than most starbases. The CNO wanted to see what happens when you put a CAG in charge." As if to shake off any doubts, he flashed that smile of his again. "Don't worry, though. My XO was the captain of the Anchises his last assignment. If I jack things up, they'll swap me out with him in a heartbeat."
"I'm sure you'll make a fine skipper, sir," Miranda said.
"Thanks a lot, Gunny. I hate to leave you two hanging, but I need to go apologize to the Admiral. I'm sure he's pretty pissed about now. Take care and I'll see you around."
"Yes, sir."
With that, Commodore Frazier walked away, giving the two Marines a quick wave before jogging over to the Admiral. He was definitely an unorthodox choice for captain of the ship, for more reasons than one. Of course, orthodoxy rarely wins wars, so perhaps the CNO's wager would pay off.
As she was still in the presence of an officer, Miranda remained at the position of attention. It took Lieutenant Dixon a moment to realize what to do with the living statue before him.
"Uh, at ease," he mumbled.
Miranda complied and waited patiently for the Lieutenant's next move. When that was not forthcoming, she took the liberty of speaking up.
"Gunnery Sergeant Miranda Grisson, Platoon Sergeant, First Platoon, Echo Company, Second of the One Sixty-eighth BLT."
This seemed to snap him out of it, at least in part, but all he could do was stammer, "I, ah..."
Miranda finished the sentence for him. "Second Lieutenant Tyrese Dixon, Platoon Leader of the same."
The Lieutenant was still in the deer in headlights mode. Miranda was going to have to take a different tack.
Looking over to the luggage being unloaded from the shuttle, she asked Lieutenant Dixon, "Are those your bags, sir?"
The Lieutenant had to turn around to see. At least he was moving.
"Yes, they are," he said.
Miranda nodded to the Lieutenant. "By your leave, sir." When he nodded back, she called out to one of the baggage handlers. "Sailor! Take those bags and follow us."
"Aye-aye, Gunnery Sergeant!" the sailor shouted in reply.
Miranda looked back at the Lieutenant with a slight grin.
"Let's go for a walk, sir."

* * *

Before the Lieutenant could tense up again, Miranda took him to Hanger Three, got him in a MediSuit and led him outside the base. Technically, all personnel were supposed to stay on board the ship, but there was no official lockdown. Taking advantage of this ambiguity, Miranda had bent the rules about as far as they could be bent, but her new CO needed this and she was sure the Major would back her up.
The MediSuit was the workhorse of the Marine Corps' Mobile Armor Division, bringing Marines to the fight in just about any environment imaginable. It was only marginally larger than its operator to allow the optimal balance of strength and agility. No Sheolite trooper could stand toe-to-toe with a Marine in a MediSuit, nor could their lighter attack vehicles. There had even been a few instances of ballsy platoons that had taken down entire Fiend-class patrollers.
Echo and Fox were the MediSuit companies of the BLT and an armor-rated Marine did not go out in anything else unless specifically ordered to. The MediSuit was a Marine's second skin. Walking around without a suit was like being a flayed carcass. Once you were in its protective shell, you were no longer a soft, pink, quivering meat sack but a rock-hard killing machine. Inside the MediSuit, everything made sense. There was peace of mind even in the height of battle. Miranda had brought the Lieutenant outside in the hope of sharing that peace of mind with him.
Sticking to the sides of the base, the two Marines walked quite a ways until Miranda found the perfect spot, a place that offered a clear view of the sea of stars without any ships, satellites or random junk getting in the way. She did not say anything for a while, simply staring out into the countless pinpoints of light shining in the darkness. When she finally did break her silence, the Lieutenant did not seem to know how to respond.
"You see that, sir?" she asked.
"See what? The stars?"
Miranda shook her head, a gesture that was barely perceptible under a MediSuit helmet. "They're out there," she said, "waiting for us. The Shellies. This war's older than you, almost older than me. It didn't start when the Shellies declared war. No, it'd been going on a long time before that. They'd been hitting us, bleeding us for years."
"I know all about the war," the Lieutenant said, no small trace of bitterness in his voice. "I'm from Atlas. I was five when the Sheolites attacked. I lost my whole family."
Lil' Orphan Arby, Miranda thought. It explained a lot. Sure, other spheres had been hit, but the Arbies seemed to have gotten it the worst. She wondered how many kids just like the Lieutenant were now in uniform. However many it was, one thing was clear.
"Then you know the stakes, sir," she said. "They say we're winning, that we can start going on the offensive. This ship, this battle group, is the tip of the spear." She turned to face the Lieutenant. "That's a lot of responsibility. On you, me, all of us."
Lieutenant Dixon did not say anything. Miranda could not blame him entirely. Training can never fully prepare you for the real thing and the Academy was notably poor in that regard, especially the Academies on Earth. You would think that after twenty years of war, they would get better about it, but it did not look like it was happening.
The awkward pause had lasted long enough, so Miranda spoke up again. "Sir, the first thing I noticed about you is that you've got a bad case of the scared rabbits. You're right out of training, so you can't help that much, but we're gonna see combat and probably soon. You've got twenty-three Marines who are going to be looking to you for leadership."
More silence. Miranda hoped he was listening.
"The difference between officers and enlisted is that officers get stuck with responsibility from the start. Still, you're not alone, sir. You've got the chain of command, guys who've been there, done that. And then there's me and the squad leaders backing you up. We'll get the job done, you can be sure of that."
Still the Lieutenant said nothing. Miranda was starting to worry. Was he a lost cause? Would she be able to compensate for him or would he get her Marines killed? Before any more doubts could pile up, Lieutenant Dixon's voice finally crackled over the radio.
"Thank you," he said haltingly, "for doing all this. I, I know I've been real nervous today, but I do take my responsibilities seriously. I'm going to work really hard to do better, to be a worthy leader of Marines like you. I'm counting on your support, Gunnery Sergeant."
Miranda smiled. Maybe thing would turn out all right after all.
"Call me 'Gunny', sir."