Chapter 17
Settling the Score

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Mon 22 Jul 121
Time: UST 1000

Dressed in his Class A's, Jack stood uncomfortably at attention. Seated across the room from him were five high-rankers, Colonel Vasquez among them. Besides the Colonel, there were two swabbies, a leatherneck, and some Chair Force lady.
"Take seat, Corporal," Colonel Vasquez told him.
"Yes, sir," Jack replied, sitting down in the chair behind him.
He noted that he wasn't told 'at ease' first, which meant he was probably expected to sit at attention, which was only a little better than having to stand at attention.
"Corporal Grisson," the old swabbie with one big stripe and two little stripes on his sleeve said, "before we proceed, I would like to introduce the members of this panel in case you are unfamiliar with any of us. I am Admiral Mfume, the battle group commander." He motioned to the swabbie on his right, who just had one big stripe on his sleeve. "This is Commodore Frazier, the captain of the ship, and next to him is Colonel Grozny, the commander of the 41st MEU." He then motioned to the Chair Force lady on his left. "And this is General Pfeiffer, commander of Joint Air Division 9, and of course you know Colonel Vasquez."
Folding his hands, the Admiral asked, "Do you know why you are here today, Corporal?
"According to the MAs, it's because I'm an asshole, sir."
This little crack actually got a faint grin out of the Admiral and Commodore Frazier had to stifle a chuckle. General Pfeiffer and Colonel Grozny gave him some killer death glares, though, and Colonel Vasquez didn't look too amused by it either.
That hint of a smile quickly disappeared from the Admiral's face as he said, "I hope you will take these proceedings seriously, Corporal."
Nervously clearing his throat, Jack replied, "Yes, sir."
The Admiral continued, "After reviewing the evidence and the testimony of all parties involved, the charges against you are being dropped. However, we would like to hear your account of the incident that occurred on 9 July in person and that is why you are here today." He made a gesture to Jack, inviting him to speak. "So, please, Corporal, tell us everything, starting from the beginning."
Jack cleared his throat again.
"Ah, well, sir, Ally, that is, uh, PFC O'Connor, she went on sick call that mornin'. She was havin', like, a really bad migraine or somethin'. She went ta the aid station, but it didn't help, so Sergeant Rahim--that's our squad leader--cleared her ta go ta Sickbay an' sent me with her.
"We got ta Deck 3 an' PFC O'Connor bumped inta this guy. Turned out he was an officer, an Air Force officer. Well, we both go to attention an' she's apologizin' when that crazy ba--er, I mean, the officer decks her, punches her right in the face an' drops her. I couldn't believe anyone'd do that, but, but he wasn't done. He started kickin' her an' I pushed him outta the way. He made a swing at me, but then he went right back ta her. I got him before he could get ta her, slammed him inta the wall--bulkhead, whatever. I tried holdin' him, but he pounded on me good an' managed ta get away. I caught him again an' got him in a chokehold. He fought hard ta get loose--damn hard--, but I was able ta choke him out.
"No sooner'd he went down, I go down too. I guess the MAs got me with a buzzer 'cause I came to in the brig. An' I'm guessin' that's all ya wanna hear, sir, 'cause I came to not too long before all the shi--er, um, stuff went down. Not a lot went on in my cell till the MAs retook the place, but I don't imagine any of that's relevant."
"Thank you, Corporal," the Admiral said, his eyes going back and forth between Jack and a DataPad on the desk in front of him. "And now we're going to ask you some questions."
"Ask away, sir," Jack replied, "but I don't think there's much more ta tell."
"Corporal Grisson," the Air Force lady, General Pfeiffer, said, "are you trying to tell us that Colonel Duvalier, the operations group commander for the 96th Fighter Wing, would just attack a person without provocation?"
Jack didn't like what she was implying, but he answered anyway.
"Well, ma'am, I suppose ya could call her bumpin' inta him 'provocation' if ya want, but it's no call ta hit anybody, officer or not. Hell, if he only hit her once, I don't know what I woulda done, but the way he was goin' after her, he's lucky all I did was choke him out."
The General didn't seem to like his answer, but he didn't like her question, so she could just go on being dissatisfied.
"Corporal Grisson," she said, "what do you think of the military?"
The question seemed to come out of left field, but before Jack could answer, Colonel Vasquez interrupted.
"I fail to see the relevance."
"I'm looking for some perspective, Colonel," General Pfeiffer replied. "These are serious accusations against one of my top commanders and I'd like to understand his accuser better." She was looking to Colonel Vasquez while she said this and then turned back to Jack. "Corporal, you are a draftee with a number of infractions on your record. You are hardly a model soldier."
Jack was really starting to hate this bitch. He wasn't the sort to get angry, not usually, but he was getting angry now. Still, he had the presence of mind to rein it in.
"What're ya tryin' ta say, ma'am?" Jack asked, barely able to choke out the words.
"It's a question of reliability," General Pfeiffer said. "The word of a draftee with a chronic discipline problem versus that of a decorated officer. Which are we supposed to believe?"
Jack clenched his fists so hard that his fingernails started digging into his palms. The Admiral said that the charges against Jack had been dropped, so they had to know he was telling the truth. If that was the case, why the hell was she grilling him like this?
Trying to be stone-faced but most likely letting his anger seep through the facade, Jack insisted, "I'm tellin' the truth, ma'am."
"Then let's hear some more truth from you, Corporal. Answer the question. What do you think of the military?"
Jack could feel himself getting backed into a corner. The look on General Pfeiffer's face told him she already had a pretty good idea what the answer was. He knew the truth wouldn't win him any brownie points, but lying now would undermine the credibility of his testimony.
Trying to blend honesty and diplomacy when anger and nervousness are tripping you up is no easy task. Still, he had to give it a shot and not take too long thinking up something to say that wouldn't put him in hot water.
"I can't say I'm much of a fan, ma'am," Jack said.
His answer was met with disapproving looks, but one of them, Commodore Frazier, actually looked halfway sympathetic. General Pfeiffer wasn't done yet, though.
"You've got a problem with the military, Corporal. You've got a problem with authority. You've got a bad attitude because you were drafted. Maybe you've had an attitude problem all along. Your father was a Marine and your mother a Navy brat. Plenty of complications that went along with it, I'm sure. That has to make for quite a stew brewing in that head of yours."
Why'd she have to bring up his folks? What did it have to do with anything? She should leave the psychoanalysis to the shrinks. And even though she seemed to be going way off on a tangent, she still wasn't done.
"Here's another possible scenario: Colonel Duvalier was an easy mark. PFC O'Connor colluded with you to set him up. She's a tough girl. She can take a few hits to sell your story and an officer's career goes down in flames."
Furious, Jack shot up, sending his chair tumbling back.
"That's a damn lie!"
Without a second's hesitation, Colonel Vasquez sprang to his feet as well, slamming his hands down on the table. "Corporal!" he shouted. "You will stand at attention!"
Jack snapped back to attention, but it took every ounce of willpower he had to stand there. He wanted to rush at the table and strangle that bitch right then and there. He'd taken a lot of shit ever since the government shanghaied his life, but this was too much. How dare she. How dare she!
God only knows what might've happened if he had to stay there much longer, but thankfully, Jack didn't have to find out for himself.
"I think we've heard enough," Commodore Frazier said. He looked to Admiral Mfume. "Admiral?"
"You are dismissed, Corporal," Admiral Mfume said.
"Pick up the chair on your way out," Colonel Vasquez added, "and report to Captain Robles."
"Yes, sir," Jack replied.
Jack did an about-face, stood the chair back up and then stiffly walked out of the room. He was in the clear now, wasn't he? Why didn't he feel any better about it?

* * *

Date: Mon 22 Jul 121
Time: UST 1027

When Corporal Grisson left the room, the assembled commanders looked at each other.
Colonel Grozny, who hadn't said anything during the proceedings, was surprisingly the first to speak up.
"That boy may have discipline problems, but he kept his story straight."
"And he has the most detailed and coherent testimony of everyone involved," General Pfeiffer admitted. "If only we had the security footage, this would be an open-and-shut case."
Commodore Frazier thought it as a bit hypocritical of her to say that given how hard she was on the Corporal. Maybe she was playing devil's advocate to test his story, but it was a shitty way to treat a person who was in the right. She certainly didn't put the thumbscrews to Colonel Duvalier when he was in here earlier. The Commodore couldn't just let it be. He had to call her out on it.
"You were pretty damn hard on him, Pfeiffer," the Commodore said. "I'd like to know what exactly was point of all that."
"I had to check his story for holes," she said. "If we can't put our confidence in his testimony, then our understanding of the whole incident would be thrown into doubt."
"Like we could trust anything that Duvalier said," the Commodore scoffed. "You know, Corporal Grisson isn't the only one with a spotty record. A string of fishy transfers, evals that are either negative or so unspecific that they don't tell you a damn thing... And somehow he still managed to climb the ladder without a hitch. And that's not even bringing up the fact that his old man is a convicted felon cooling his heels in Baaksaan for trying to screw over the government."
General Pfeiffer narrowed her eyes at him.
"Surely you aren't holding Colonel Duvalier responsible for his father's misconduct."
"I'm saying that sort of shit makes me way more suspicious than a kid with a bad habit of shooting his mouth off."
"I don't have to justify myself to you, Commodore."
Before they could go at it any more, Admiral Mfume intervened.
"General, it has been a stressful time for all of us and we are not likely to see much relief anytime soon. We are going to be pushed to our limits in the coming days and we do not need to be making any worse for each other. You went too far today. I expect you to exercise more discretion in the future."
"Ye--," General Pfeiffer started to reply before stopping to correct herself. "Ahem, aye-aye, sir."
Commodore Frazier could never get used to seeing an Air Force officer adopting Navy mannerisms so deliberately. Of course, General Pfeiffer didn't get her star by riding a PR wave like he did, so it probably shouldn't have surprised him that she made a point to ingratiate herself to her superiors. If you want to climb the ladder, it helps to be a kissass.
"You are all dismissed," the Admiral said.
And with that, they rose to leave the room. Admiral Mfume and Colonel Grozny went their separate ways and Commodore Frazier was headed to the bridge himself when he noticed Colonel Vasquez stopping to confront General Pfeiffer.
"You best keep a tight leash on that psycho," he growled, "'cause if he ever lays a finger on one of my people again, I'll personally cave his head in."
Not sounding the slightest bit intimidated, General Pfeiffer replied coolly, "Communicating threats is a prosecutable offense, Colonel. Honestly, you aren't so different from that boy."
"I'll take that as a compliment," the Colonel said defiantly. "Can't say I can return the favor, though."
"Good day, Colonel."
That seemed to be the end of it, for now at least. Commodore Frazier wanted to chalk it up to interservice rivalry, but the General was the type who let herself be hated by the people below to appeal to those above regardless of what uniform they were wearing.
He remembered what the Admiral said about not exacerbating the stress of this mission and knew he was going to have to step up and do his bit. No point in delaying either. He'd get Yuen to arrange a meeting of the department heads this afternoon. Things were only going to get worse and an ounce of prevention sounded a whole lot better than a pound of cure.