Begin The Tale Here With Chapter – 1.
Long hauls through space were everyone’s least favorite part about being an Imperial Marine. The eight-month journey to Muvuru certainly bore that out. It was certainly the longest trip through space I had ever endured. The ten-week trip from Earth to our Regiment’s HQ on Saint Ambrose was the most time I had spent canned up aboard a starship until then. The memory of it felt like a weekend jaunt compared to the time we spent searching for Muvuru.
Officers and marines with many years under their belts warned us a long stretch of travel aboard a starship, whose sleeping quarters made our regimental barracks feel spacious, would become a purgatory of tedium if we let it.
We did not.
Daily Mass and the Liturgia Horarum provided us with structure to regulate our days and nights. The scheduled, shared prayers enhanced the discipline that made for the smooth running of the ship. All of us took advantage of the free time between prayers as best we could. We caught up on our studies, our reading, sent holos to loved ones, spent long sessions at the gym, working out, sparring and fencing.
To relax, the hangars could accommodate make-shift volley and hoop ball courts. We also played cards and other games and watched the occasional holoflix.
On this particular trip, we also had us a boatload of civilians to interact with. On the Lepanto, we had two hundred and fifty civvies to be exact.
Fifty of them were prisoners, and they didn’t interact with anyone but their jailers and the ship Inquisitor.
The other two hundred were our guests, the majority of which, being pilgrims on their way to Earth when they were kidnapped, were somewhat familiar with our ways. They had mostly done their due diligence as thoughtful tourists and learned what they could about their destination beforehand.
Yet despite that, for them and the others, living among us was an awkward affair, especially those first few weeks while the battle group repaired its ships. The civvies were genuinely grateful to us for rescuing them from the pirates, but initially, most of them were also rather guarded around us and generally kept to themselves. Their initial aloofness struck me as an uneasy admixture of personal deference for their saviors and the general prejudice against our Empire so ubiquitous beyond our borders.
It all bemused us as we carried on with our duties and our lives. Here and there we gently prodded those passengers we came across into friendly conversation as Izzy and I had done with the three UDW boys, who having lost their parents developed something of a brotherly bond between them.
Aloofness gave way to curiosity before too long. Our guests finally opened up and began initiating the conversations, making polite inquiries about all manner of matters concerning both our Faith and our Empire. We answered their questions to the best of our ability and encouraged them to access our library files for any further research they cared to pursue.
Starting around the third month, a few civies could always be found sitting in the back of the ship’s chapel, curiously observing our liturgy.
Menenius, Timon and Kori sought Izzy and/or me whenever either or both of us found ourselves in the mess hall. When not with us, the boys could sometimes be found with the Operations Specialists, Hassan and Bourne or gathered under First Sergeant Hayes wing in our gym, studiously applying themselves to his self-defense lessons.
Other marines and ship’s crew formed similar fledgling relationships with our guests.
The most striking of these relationships was between a young couple, practitioners of a new noosophic cult gaining popularity on the Union capital world of Ursong and Chaplain Egan.
The couple all but adopted the Hospitaller by the time the repairs were completed. The trio became nearly inseparable. They could be seen at the mess hall, flight deck, chapel or walking along random corridors, always deep in conversations about noetics, philosophy, history and comparative theology.
Once we got underway, it was only eighteen weeks to Crimea Secundus, capital planet of the Austros Princedom. We arrived to a heroes’ welcome. Prince Kelemen arranged for three days of festivities which began with a parade down the Boulevard Royale of the planet’s capital city, Tauris.
We marched to a tree-lined and rounded meadow in the city’s heart. The green space was sprawled between and beneath two small, flat-topped hills from which the royal palace and the Cathedral of Saint Luke Valentin faced each other. Three tiers of stands were set up with the palace as a backdrop for the royal family and their court. The meadow’s perimeter was studded with food and drink booths and ringed with a few thousand spectators.
After the opening pomps and prayers, the medal ceremony commenced. I was surprised and thrilled to hear my name among the twenty-one Colonel L’Amour called forth from the ranks of Imperial Marines. Fifteen Princedom of Austros Troopers were called forth by Lord Zoltan. One by one, our actions cited for commendation were described succinctly and we were called forward to receive our rewards.
I was called right after Corporal Bucci received a silver cross and a promotion to third sergeant. In my turn, I too was honored for my actions in the ore wyrm pit. Colonel L’Amour likewise pinned a silver cross on my uniform and handed me a pair of corporals’ stripes.
The Colonel then shook my hand, as did lords Zoltan and Kolchic, Commodore Alba, Captain Obey, and officers of the other assembled companies. After a deep bow, we shook Prince Kelemen’s hand and kissed the gloved fingers of his princess.
We then faced our comrades who gave us the old three cheers salute. Then, at the prince’s command, we were dismissed and the brass band began playing. As it did, we, the decorated, congratulated each other. When Bucci and I shook hands, the new sargeant couldn’t help but tap my stripes with his and say, “Always one step behind me, aren’t you Zippy?”
I smiled, refusing to let him taint the experience for me. “And congratulations to you, sergeant.”
A short time later Sergeant Hayes approached me in private. “Congratulation to you, Corporal Zapatas.”
“Thank you first sergeant.”
“Do me a favor, will you?”
“Sure thing, sarge.”
“Please don’t make me regret greenlighting your promotion.”
I stopped and turned to face him. “Sarge?”
Sergeant Hayes tapped the silver cross on my breast. “You earned this fair and square, you did. Your actions in the pit were truly commendable but, we both know you should never have been in the pit. Don’t we, Corporal Zapatas?”
Sergeant Hayes would have had plenty of time to review the various feeds and records of the men under his command. I spent the first couple of weeks after the battle wondering when he might address my decision to stay in the battle against his exacting instructions. And then I stopped thinking about it, figuring he didn’t believe it worth mentioning. Alls well that ends well and all, I thought until looking into his searching gaze on that meadow amidst all the celebration.
I had no doubt about what he was going to say, but I asked anyway. “Are you talking about my temporary loss of full comms?”
“I’m talking about you disobeying my order to stand down if your armor’s reboot was anything less than perfect.”
Sergeant Hayes’ tone was calm and collected. His demeanor was friendly as ever but his gaze was intense, deeply probing like he was reading fine print scratched onto the inside of my occipital bone. I found it more disconcerting than the high decibel, spittle-spraying harangues of my boot camp drill sergeant.
“We were fortunate your compromised armor didn’t cause anything more serious than bumped shoulders with a Princedom trooper, but it could have easily become a serious problem for you and the men around you. You might’ve endangered the whole company.”
“Yes sir,” I said, my head dipping. “I’m sorry about that, First Sergeant Hayes.”
“I hope so corporal,” Hayes continued, his tone becoming gentler. “I understand why you did it. Believe me, Zapatas, I do. It’s an admirable thing, wanting to stay in the fight, backing your brothers to the end. A lesser man would’ve jumped on any opportunity to bail out of a fight like the one we had on our hands. I’m glad to see you are a better man than that. But you didn’t accept the Emperor’s invitation just so you could be a better man than most. You accepted his invitation to become an Imperial Marine, to become the very best of men. Is that not so, Corporal Zapatas?”
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
“Imperial Marines follow orders because obedience is the glue that binds us into a corps, a body greater than the sum of its parts.
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
“‘If you love me,’ said our Lord, ‘then obey My commandments.’ It’s the same for us, corporal. We demonstrate our love for the corps, the Emperor and the Empire by our obedience to the lawful commands of our superiors.”
“You’re right, First Sergeant,” I said nodding emphatically. “I should have known better. Disobedience of legitimate authority has been fouling things up since Eden. I will decline the promotion immediately.”
Sergeant Hayes put an avuncular arm on my shoulder. “Now, now corporal. Let’s not go overboard. If I didn’t think you deserved the promotion, believe me, I would’ve torpedoed the very suggestion of it. Just promise me that you will earn the next promo as fair and square as you did that cross on your chest.”
Hayes dropped his hand from my shoulder and offered it to me. I clasped it and said, “I promise, First Sergeant Hayes.”
He pumped my hand vigorously and said, “Good. Have yourself a good night, corporal.”
“Thank you, sarge.”
We stayed in orbit around Crimea Secundus for a month, allowing every one a turn at five days of shore leave. We also restocked food supplies, among which was included a large gross of kegs of a local pilsner we all took a liking to.
Our prisoners were entrusted to the local authorities who would subject them to trial and hold them until they were transferred to penance colonies. Our guests, the lucky few who had loved ones to be reunited with, did so with many happy tears. The others took what vicarious comfort they could from the joy of their fellow ex-hostages.
Chaplain Egan’s young couple bid him a fond farewell. They and about a third of their fellow travellers, took the Empire’s generous offer to complete their pilgrimages at no expense. The others availed themselves of the free ride back to their respective homes, never to venture into space again, we guessed.
We surprised the Union boys, Kori, Timon and Menenius with a choice of couples on Crimea Secundus who were willing to adopt them together. Their shared tragedy had formed them into brothers of a sort, and we thought it a shame to break them up. They were touched by the offer, young Kori so much so that he threw his arms around Captain Obey when the marine made the offer. The young boy wept for joy, his small face pressed against the marine’s belly.
The scene caused lumps to swell in the throats of all who witnessed it. A couple of days later, after they collectively settled on the couple they would adopt as parents, every eye glistened with tears as the boys and marines said goodbye to one another.
By the time we shoved off, back towards Regiment HQ on Saint Ambrose, I was feeling more content than I ever had in my young life. More than content. I was feeling sure of myself, more confident than I have ever felt about the path I chose for my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I never had any doubt that soldiering was my God-given vocation. What I was not nearly as certain of was my decision to accept the invitation to join the ranks of the Emperor’s Own. That free choice of mine, like all decisions, necessitated the rejection of certain alternatives. One such alternative in particular had been haunting me since joining the I.M. three years ago.
Jacinta Placidia was her name.