“Commander, what is your date of birth?” Captain ben David asked the woman knows as Commander Rachel Na Gael, looking up from the sheaf of papers in his hand.
“No idea. Spring, about 500 years ago as best I can tell.” The Commander did not look up from her work or cease decanting reagent into the test flask.
“Seriously Commander Na Gael, I need it for the files,” the Israeli adjutant insisted, ruffling pages in annoyance.
The back of her shoulders shrugged but Rachel still didn’t look around. “Pick something in spring and a year that you like. Makes me no nevermind.”
Ben David muttered something about normal people and hurried out of the lab.
The Following May:
Two men in khaki uniforms stood beside the laboratory’s windows watching a small woman as she waged merciless battle with the weeds that had invaded the rose garden.
The older man, a stocky redhead, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The heavier material of his new bifocals dug and he still was not used to it. “What do you think?” he asked his second in command.
Colonel Rahoul Khan considered the matter. “I think she’s recovering as fast as we could hope, sir.” That the woman was even capable of resuming her duties already astounded him, but then the English officer knew just how ruthlessly self disciplined his friend and advisor could be. In truth, it was that brutal self-control that had caused part of her earlier problem, he reflected, because it enabled her to lock herself so far away that she’d lost contact with reality.
Major General James McKendrick put his glasses back on. “I concur. It’s a damn shame she won’t talk to people, Rahoul.” They turned to go, and Khan opened the door for his superior. “So much of this could have been prevented if she’d just talked to someone.”
The object of their concern and ire sat back with an “oof” and regarded the pile of wilting weeds with a sense of pleasure. The garden had lapsed during Rachel’s descent into madness and now she had to undo the neglect. Part of her still flinched from the memories of what had happened but the Wanderer forced herself to study them and learn. She and the people around her had been blessed with no invasions or challenges during her incapacitation. Their good fortune couldn’t last much longer, so Rachel pushed herself to recover, to learn and work to prevent another collapse. She still was not sure that the humans truly needed her help anymore, except perhaps in an on-call capacity, but they obviously disagreed with her assessment.
At least they’d stopped hovering! The first few days after Rahoul Khan and the others had dragged her back from the abyss, she hadn’t been able to sneeze without someone trying to wipe her nose. Well, perhaps not that bad, she allowed as she hooked one end of her walking stick under the basket’s handle and dragged the beast over to the compost bin, but almost that bad. Rachel understood why the humans wouldn’t leave her alone, but it had grated to have her sanctum disturbed. Things had improved greatly over the past fortnight and she’d been left to herself all this afternoon. The Wanderer grinned: that no one wanted to find themselves coerced into hand weeding flowerbeds had something to do with her blissful solitude.
Or almost solitude, she sighed, looking over to see Knox watching from a tree branch. General McKendrick’s alter ego knew better than to approach within her pouncing range and maintained a healthy respect for her aim with acorns. That was the only thing he respected and in some ways Rachel would rather have been around the mischievous raven than have gone inside for supper. But duty called.
She cleaned up and after a bit of hesitation put on something other than her usual half-mourning. At first she’d worn gray uniforms as a way of honoring and remembering her service with Ingwe Adamski and the Adamantine Division. Then, after Anna’s death, she adopted the Terran humans’ tradition of wearing gray as a sign of perpetual mourning. Several hundred years later, it had become so much a part of her that she wore gray out of habit more than anything. But not tonight, she decided. Before supper tonight there would be a ceremony and she wanted to show her associates her delight with things. Rachel fished around until she found the light blue-green Azdhagi outfit that she’d been issued for a diplomatic event held in the Imperial public gardens in the middle of Drakon IV’s miserably humid summer.
Meanwhile, Rahoul Khan adjusted his not-quite dress uniform and wondered yet again why one couldn’t count wearing the thing as a church penance. He also wondered why the sudden rush on his promotion. He’d rather have waited until Panpit and their children had finished moving back from Austria, so she could be here. But no, and for the millionth time he puzzled why the military was that way. He’d been in for over twenty-five years and yet some things remained utter mysteries. The officer gave himself one last check in the mirror and then went to the main briefing theater.
The official change-of-command would take place in two weeks, Rachel mused as she made her way into her usual place, lurking in the back of the audience. “Ah, no, Commander,” Major Maria de Alba y Rodriguez informed the advisor. “You are sitting with the rest of the staff. General McKendrick’s orders,” the Spaniard said, pointing down the steps. “We need to fill in the row.”
Rachel counted noses and indeed came up one short. One she was delighted not to have to be polite to. Or more to the point, one she wouldn’t have to feel a number of other people forcing themselves to be polite to. Despite his protestations, a large percentage of the British Branch membership believed that Major Edward “Oatmeal” O’Neil had deliberately pushed Rachel to the breaking point and beyond. Rachel herself couldn’t be sure, but she’d not had the strength to argue with the officers and senior NCOs. She didn’t inquire what had become of the missing party, either. Instead she took a place at the end of the front row of seats.
The briefing went as briefings usually went when there were no pending threats or missions. Rachel’s mind drifted a little, then snapped back to the current here and now when McKendrick called “Colonel Rahoul Peter Khan, step forward. Commander Na Gael, if you will join me, please.” The Wanderer worked to maintain an appropriately serious and dignified demeanor as she walked up the low steps and took her place at the Scottish general’s shoulder. McKendrick read the usual words and Moshe ben David handed him a box containing the third diamond that when added to Rahoul’s current pair would show his new rank of Brigadier General. The redhead turned and smiled at Rachel. “If you will help me do the honors?” She really, really wanted to say something that would make Rahoul and McKendrick both blush, but opted for a modicum of self-restraint.
“Yes, sir.” The pin backs were different from those of the last insignia she’d pinned on, but the placing never changed and she set the lozenge in place and then stepped back, smiling. McKendrick saluted and then offered Khan his hand while Rachel smiled broadly. “Congratulations Brigadier,” she said; adding silently, <<You’ve done very well, my friend.>>
Rahoul blinked against a sudden irritation in his eyes at his mentor and now advisor’s words and emotions. The alien had been one of the few constants in his career and he wondered if she knew how much her words meant to him. “Thank you, Commander,” he replied in English.
She started turning to leave the platform to the general officers when McKendrick cleared his throat. “Not so fast, Commander Rachel Na Gael Ni Drako.” As the two men had planned, Rahoul stepped back a little, leaving the Major General and his xenologist front and center. She seemed mildly concerned and it was Rahoul’s turn to smother a comment. McKendrick looked out over the gathered men and women. “You all are aware that Commander Na Gael is the longest-serving xenology specialist in the Global Defense Force. In her many years of service she has demonstrated both unfailing excellence and a commitment to the men and women she serves with that exemplifies the highest standards of conduct, military or civilian. What you do not know is that per her contract, Cdr. Na Gael cannot be given any awards or recognition of her service, even when her actions go far above and beyond the call of duty.” Khan watched a ripple of surprise and anger flow through the British Branch at McKendrick’s words. “There was a good reason for that at the time she began working here. However, that time has passed.
“We still cannot give you official recognition however much you may deserve it, Commander Na Gael. However we can say this: thank you.” McKendrick stepped back as the men and women came to their feet, clapping and cheering. Rachel flushed deep crimson, then returned to her usual pallor as the wave of sound continued rolling through the briefing theater.
She lifted her hands in surrender and the noise gradually subsided. “All right, all right, I give in. I will not bite the ankles of the next person I catch ‘borrowing’ roses for their significant other, nor will I plant any aubergines.” Laughter replaced applause and she continued, “Thank you. But I’m just part of the team. The odd part, granted,” and she turned and flashed a wicked grin at the two general officers, “but only part of the larger group. None of us can do what we do without the others. But thank you. Now do I get my raise?” she finished plaintively, drawing more laughter as well as applause.
With no more business, General McKendrick dismissed the gathering. To both Rahoul’s and Rachel’s relief, everyone seemed to have pressing concerns elsewhere and only a few people lingered to offer congratulations and comments. As usual, the Wanderer vanished as soon as possible. “Thank you for sharing the limelight,” McKendrick told Rahoul later.
“You’re welcome, sir. I think that did her as much good as anything,” Rahoul said.
McKendrick nodded. “We take her for granted, in part because I suspect she wants it that way.”
“You’re right, sir. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s never sought recognition or acknowledgment.” Khan hunted up a memory. “Quite a while ago she told me that the G.D.F. gave her what she’d always wanted – shelter and a place to play in the dirt. It still seems to be true.”
“That sounds like her,” the older man agreed with a chuckle. “Even Knox won’t touch the roses!”
A few days later, Rachel was finishing her quarterly budget report (“and more money would be nice, please”) when the intercom buzzed. “Laboratory,” she answered.
“Ah, Commander? Sergeant St. John. You need to come out to the glasshouse, Ma’am.”
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” the Wanderer asked, puzzled by the request.
“I can’t tell, Ma’am, but you’d probably better see for yourself,” the transportation department sergeant advised.
That did not sound auspicious, Rachel groaned, and signed off, then grabbed her walking stick and hurried out the back door of the lab. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, warm and sunny enough to be pleasant and still early enough in the season that the mosquitoes, midges, and gnats remained at tolerable levels. The roses were well into the second bloom and Rachel smiled as she lightly brushed one especially precocious, creamy orange bloom with her fingers. It was a hybrid she’d developed, called “Magda” after a deceased friend. Then she remembered the glasshouse.
As the Wanderer rounded the corner, she picked up the pace because the doors were open and several dozen of the larger potted plants had been moved outside. And not by her, which could only mean that there was a problem. At least they were the hardiest plants, some of which needed to be relocated to the veggie garden any way. People were moving around in the glasshouse, another sign that all was not well. Oh no the woman thought as she drew closer, oh I hope it’s not something with the roof that means moving the greenhouse. The structure had been built over the heat exhaust vents for the underground parts of the headquarters building, both to trap the heat and to disguise the vents. However, if there was a problem, it meant clearing out and moving the glass-roofed and walled shed.
Rachel stopped to check the plants now basking in the sun, then hurried into the warm building. A dozen or so smiling faces met her and she froze as someone called out “Happy Birthday, Commander.” The surprise was total and the gathered soldiers laughed at the absolutely stunned expression on their colleague’s face as she beheld a large birthday gateaux, cards, and wrapped boxes taking up space normally occupied by herbs and veggies.
“I, what, um, I,” the woman spluttered as someone handed her a glass of sparkling fruit juice. She took it automatically and Major General James McKendrick and Brigadier Rahoul Khan smiled broadly. “But it’s not my birthday,” Rachel started.
“Oh really? How do you know it’s not?” McKendrick challenged.
“You told me that you don’t know when you were born and that I could pick a date,” ben David reminded her. “So I did.”
First Sergeant Anthony Lee nodded from his lean height. “And it’s about time you got some fussing over, with all due respect, Ma’am.”
Rachel shook her head, then grinned sheepishly. “I learned early on that one can argue with officers, but never, ever with NCOs. I give in.” The two general officers exchanged weary looks, then joined in the laughter.
Colour Sergeant St. John handed Rachel a cake knife. “The ordinance disposal people vetoed candles,” she explained, pointing at the large pastry.
Rachel did the honors and discovered a four-layer chocolate and vanilla gateaux. She soon found herself ensconced on a bench as the others helped themselves. Rachel couldn’t quite believe all the fuss but decided to enjoy it, as long as no plants got flattened. The gift packages contained jerky and dried beef, a gift certificate to a garden supply company, and two boxes of “extra-large flea collars?” Indignant, she glared around at the laughing humans, none of whom would admit to having any idea where the offending items came from.
Brigadier Khan and General McKendrick excused themselves after a few minutes, so the others could relax. Rahoul felt a pang at having to go but that was part of the price of rank. He would just catch her later. As they walked through the lovely afternoon sunshine, McKendrick asked, “Rahoul, how long have you known Rachel?”
“Twenty years or so, sir?” He chuckled, “Sometimes it feels longer.”
The Scotsman nodded his hearty agreement. “Maybe you can tell me, then. What is it about her that makes so many of the men and women here so fond of her? I’ve been watching it for almost three years and I still can’t put my finger on it,” he admitted. “She’s not particularly friendly, she stays well within the bounds of military etiquette, and apparently she’s flayed at least one junior officer alive with her tongue, although no one’s said anything within my hearing.”
“If she’s done that, sir, then that makes two. She quietly, eloquently and forcefully shredded a second lieutenant about five years ago after he called her an inappropriate name and propositioned her,” Rahoul said as he got the door for the general. The younger man thought for a moment. “I think it’s a combination of things, sir. She does have a sort of charisma and until last month even I’ve never seen her doubt herself in public. And she’s so very rarely wrong and freely admits it when she is. And there’s this, sir,” he added after a pause while they went in to McKendrick’s office. “Even though she comes across as distant and sarcastic, if people go to her for help, she gives it freely and a lot more patiently than you would think. Capt. ben David, Major de Alba, Capt. Cluj, Sgt. Lee, Sgt. Patel . . . they’ve all mentioned how she’s helped or encouraged them and I’d be willing to wager they are not the only ones.” She certainly taught me a lot over the years he added silently.
McKendrick considered his successor’s words. “And she keeps going. You can’t tell me that her injuries don’t cause her problems, even though she can hide it and compensates very well. She slept in the lab for the first week after we got back from Germany because she couldn’t manage the stairs.” The stocky man took off his glasses and smiled at the memory of finding her curled up on a pile of cushions beside her desk one night, sound asleep. Rahoul Khan shook his head at the thought. “Well, whatever she has, I wish I could bottle and sell it to other officers. I’d make my fortune and retire.”
Khan smiled. “You could probably buy a nice tropical island, as much as some people would be willing to pay, sir.”
“On a more serious note, you need to look at this,” and McKendrick handed the South Asian officer a sheaf of pages. The two men soon lost themselves in their work.
Meanwhile, in an old stone and wood fortress-house in the Austrian Tyrol, General Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg shut down his computer with a sigh of relief. He hated taxes, hated account books and detested paperwork. Many years ago he’d observed to his first wife that nowhere in draconic tales did one find a Minister of Finance or Tax Office. Magda, God rest her soul, had laughed at him. The aging HalfDragon finished organizing the requisite paperwork and filed everything away in his office. As he did, he found a yellowing envelope with what looked like scribbles on the front. “Where did you come from?” he asked quietly, instinctively glancing around for observers before opening it.
Inside was a flat hologram of three people in grey and black uniforms, all smiling and raising mugs of something. One was a well-built but not overly tall young human-seeming male with brown hair, blue eyes, and a broad smile. The male on the right was a two-plus meter tall reptile with brownish scales that shaded to green on his hands and the top of his head and whose flattened muzzle sported a grin. A small, laughing felinoid woman stood between them, her brown-black hair cut level with the bottom of where a human’s ears would be and her black furry tail wrapping around the front of her legs. “Blessed Saint Leopold! I thought you’d vanished,” Joschka breathed, staring at the centuries-old picture.
Before sunrise the next morning, Rachel was checking her e-mail and noticed a file with an attachment entitled “Remember when?” She opened the image and almost fell out of her seat. “Blessed Bookkeeper! We look so young!” Well, they had been. Captain Yori dar Ohrkan (newly promoted), Captain Rada Ni Drako and (newly promoted) Major Soliman Szilliar hoisted their glasses on the patio of The Runaway Comet, the Scouts’ preferred off-base bar. She was so lost in memories that she didn’t hear Rahoul Khan come in to the lab until he gasped in surprise.
“Yes, it is. I was two-hundred or so years old and if not bullet proof, I was at least damn near infallible.” She leaned back in her chair and grinned up at the human. “Gawd, but those were the days! I wouldn’t relive them for all the gold on this planet and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything in this Universe.” Rachel blanked the computer screen. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“You can show me that unarmed combat trick you use on larger opponents. The last time I tried it, I almost dislocated my shoulder,” he said, backing up to give her room to stand. She was already dressed for a workout and she selected a walking-cane from out of the umbrella-stand beside her desk.
“Very good, sir,” and she followed him out of the lab, wondering if he’d recognized the humanoid male standing beside her in the picture. Probably not, she decided.
For his part, Rahoul wondered if he should mention how much the man looked like a very young Graf-General Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg. No, it doesn’t matter and she needs her secrets.
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved