Saturday Story: Changing of the Guard

Rada opened the panel in the wall, poked her head out and heard a gasp and the sound of breaking glassware. That’s not auspicious she thought, peering towards the commotion. “Uh, ah, are you Commander Na Gael?” a rather nervous voice inquired from the far side of the laboratory.

“That’s me,” the one-eyed female confirmed, easing forward and keeping her hands in clear view of whoever was working. She wrinkled her nose at the sting of formic acid fumes. “And shouldn’t we clean that up before it trips an environmental alert?”

“Oh yes, right,” and Dr. Ransar Chandrasekar carefully turned off the testing equipment and moved two flasks farther away from the edge of the lab table while Rada got the appropriate neutralizing agent and turned on the venting blower. After they got the spill contained and cleaned up, the scientist asked, “Aren’t you back early?”

“Rachel Na Gael” thought for a moment, then went to the desk by the main door, unlocked and opened one of the top drawers and checked a small black box with a green light on it. “I don’t think so. Today is July 18, isn’t it?” Both scientists looked at the wall calendar, then at the screen of the computer on the desk. Both items read July 18, and the Indian chemist shrugged. “Twenty-four hour shifts do that,” Rachel observed in a soothing tone, and the portly man nodded emphatically.

“Oh yes, Commander Na Gael, very much. And then a surprise inspection by Dr. Spaustet from Vienna, and a mix-up in staffing, and . . .” he launched into a litany of everything she’d missed in the past three weeks (or eight years, as she’d lived them). She listened carefully, making mental notes. Apparently whoever had been scheduled to rotate in as the new executive officer had proven “unworkable” at the last minute for some reason, and Vienna in a rare attack of wisdom opted to leave the current staff intact at least until the next year. That’s strange – they usually don’t do anything that smart even by accident the Wanderer observed tartly. Ah well, they’ll change things as soon as they realize what a good decision it was.

Dr. Chandrasekar wound down after a few minutes. “Are you certain that you are not back early?” he inquired again.

“Well, my leave papers said I was to come back on July 18, of this year, so no, unless things have changed while I was away.”

“They haven’t, Commander. I’ll tell Captain ben David that you are back,” Major Maria de Alba y Rodriguez said from the doorway. “Dr. Chandrasekar, do you have any results from your tests on those seed-things?”

There was a flurry of activity and Rachel slipped up to her quarters while the others were distracted. The room was a bit musty but otherwise the same as usual and Rachel dumped the contents of her bag on the chair beside the fireplace. She visited the WC and then changed into her “uniform” of grey jacket and skirt. The Wanderer-hybrid also hung her new body armor and helmet on their hooks on the wall, beside her gun-belt and within easy reach of her bed-nest. She put a few imported treats into the tiny ‘fridge and turned her cell-phone back on before returning to the lab.

Since Dr. C. was still working and did not want assistance, Rachel slipped out the back door of the lab and began checking on her precious roses. She pulled some errant grass and weeds as she worked back and forth down the long alley towards the big tree. About halfway from the building she stopped, suddenly noticing something very new at the end of the rows. There was a large item making splashing noises just beyond the tree. The woman carefully approached the addition and noted that the grass had barely started to grow over trenches that led from the thing toward the vegetable garden and glasshouse. “Where did this come from?” she asked no one in particular as she stared at the stone object.

Someone had put a fountain at the end of the rose alley. It was a very nice little fountain, roughly two and a half meters high with three levels and a pool about three meters across, made of warm brown and cream stone or tinted concrete. There was a second, small pool with a much lower kerb on the side away from the building and garden and it took the woman a moment to realize that it was for animals to drink from. That’s thoughtful she observed. Whoever had put the thing in had been very careful not to interfere with the roots of the giant ash tree.

“Trust you to come here first, rather than checking in as you’re supposed to,” an amused voice said from behind the hedge dividing the rose ally from the kitchen garden and hothouse.

Rachel turned and smiled. “I don’t care to disturb work in progress, sir, or to be underfoot.”

Brigadier General Rahoul Khan smiled in return and extended his hand. “Welcome back, Rachel.” When she changed her cane over to shake, the English officer pulled her into a quick half-embrace, then released her. “You look better.”

She nodded. “Thank you, sir. A while away did wonders.” She studied her friend and now commanding officer in turn. “Command suits you.”

The general smiled wider at the praise. “We’ll see. Things have been rather quiet recently.” He looked off into the distance at the tree-covered hills beyond the perimeter fence. “Rather too quiet for my taste, actually. But you will hear all that tomorrow at staff briefing. Go check in with Captain ben David and start catching up on the threat reports, Commander Na Gael, and I expect you at supper tonight. You are dismissed back to your duties.” Rahoul shifted from friend to superior and Rachel nodded her assent, pleased with the change she sensed in him.

“Yes, sir.”

The alien returned to the lab in time to help Dr. Chandrasekar clean up the last of his testing materials, then left him to write up his report in peace while she obediently limped down the corridor to the adjutant’s office and officially informed Captain Moshe ben David that she was back from leave.

The black-haired Israeli smiled as he made the note. “What did you bring me?”

“New body armor for me, with a carry handle attached to the back collar so you won’t have to work as hard when you drag me. Plus an attachment that lets you watch movies on your night-vision monocle without the colonel knowing. Want one?” She waited to see if he would take the bait.

“Really?” The sniper hesitated for a second, then shook his head and grinned. “You’re pulling my leg. Besides, I already have a rail mount for my mini movie-viewer.”

“That doesn’t surprise me one bit, Captain. You Israelis lead the planet in, how does RSM Smith put it? Oh yes, ‘corner-takeaway-ninja tactical accessories’ I believe was the phrase.”  Rachel leaned against the doorframe and grinned back at him.

“Just because my Uncle Avigdor patented the first rail-mounted tactical coffee mug doesn’t mean . . .” he started as the phone rang. Rachel excused herself as ben David picked up the handset.

She took her time walking back to the lab, poking her nose into the infirmary to let Dr. Albioni know that she was back and leaving a note for the senior NCO. Always stay on the RSM’s good side she observed. They know all the ways to get even, and then some. The alien twitched her prosthetic ears and began the return trip to “her lair,” as the laboratory wing was sometimes called. She noted several new faces during her trip. Staff rotations generally occurred twice a year – once in midwinter, and again at midsummer – unless there was dire need. Why it happened that way no one exactly knew, unless it was to make it easier for the bureaucrats to argue that “it wasn’t my/our fault” that transfer paperwork had been mis-routed, since there was so much of it all at once. It was another of the Global Defense Force’s quirks that Rachel would have changed, had she been in charge. Right, as if you’ve been able to change much about the Azdhagi Defenders in how many centuries?

Supper that night consisted of salads and catching up on the “news.” Rachel picked through an overly generous serving of vegetables, vainly searching for animal protein, while Major de Alba filled her in on the various news. “And Major O’Neil retired two weeks ago,” the Spanish communications officer (and acting executive) informed the xenology specialist.

“Really? That’s a bit early, isn’t it?” She took a sip of milk to wash down what had to her disappointment proven to be a carrot.

De Alba shook her head and swallowed a large fork-full of greens. “No. Apparently he’d been considering it for a while and his wife was promoted to a very nice position at Rolls Royce with full benefits.”

“I hope they do well,” the alien replied. As much as she despised Edward ‘Oatmeal’ O’Neil, she didn’t wish him active harm. Not that’s she’d be forgiving him any time in the near future, but the Wanderer didn’t want him to suffer. Much. All right, if he got hit by a lorry I’d probably smile a little Rachel forced herself to admit. Fate and justice and all that. But I wouldn’t push him too hard off the kerb.

“So what did you do for holiday, Rachel?” de Alba inquired.

“Oh, a little sight-seeing, caught up some correspondence, visited an old acquaintance, the usual sorts of things,” Rachel replied, mostly honestly.

“No saving the universe single-handedly?” Lieutenant Pedro Bustos’s eyebrows rose slightly in disbelief.

Rachel shook her head. “No. I leave that to my business partner. She’s the brains of the operation. I’m the pretty one,” she finished, deadpan.

Maria gave the alien a concerned glance but didn’t say anything. Instead, one of the new junior officers, someone from Asia judging by their coloring, asked, “What kind of business, Ma’am?”

Ouch, southern United States accent. Misread that one. Unable to waste a perfect set-up, the Wanderer explained, “We sell Girl Guide biscuits—cookies, I believe you call them. There’s a large market for them in what you call the Andromeda Galaxy.”

Major de Alba and an eavesdropping General Khan winced and shook their heads as the lieutenant’s eyes went wide. “Really, Ma’am?”

Should I? Rachel wondered, sorely tempted by the taken bait. Might as well: sheep need to be sheared every so often for their own benefit. She crossed her fingers out of the American’s sight, leaned forward and explained, “Oh yes. There’s quite a demand for them among connoisseurs. Granted, the exchange rates are a bit of a challenge, but you can make a quite decent profit if you time the market correctly.”

“Well I’ll be,” the young man said, sitting back in his chair. “Who’d of thought it.”

“And if you’ll excuse me . . ?” Rachel looked toward Rahoul, who nodded his permission while working very hard to keep a straight face. “Good evening ladies, gentlemen,” and she took her tray and glass to the washing-up area, where she left them.

Rahoul mentally sighed. Rachel was back to her old wise-assery, something that both pleased and irked him. Pleased because it meant that she was feeling all right again, and irritated because it could be very disruptive if he didn’t make her keep it within bounds. Something else to add to the list for the executive officer to do he noted silently.

At a different table in the officers’ mess, Moshe ben David noted Commander Na Gael’s departure and wondered if he should tell her why the originally assigned executive officer had been reassigned twenty-four hours prior to his scheduled arrival. Vienna had planned on sending Colonel Ali al Shabaz, formerly of the North African Branch, to Great Britain. That is, until routine research into the colonel’s files led to someone reading a note in one of Commander Na Gael’s reports from seven years before regarding events in Saudi Arabia and the role then-Major al Shabaz and his father had played in having the 58th Regiment removed from the investigation. That had led directly to the deaths of over a hundred Bedouin, the loss of a number of Saudi Army personnel and the need for the South Asian Branch’s involvement. Based on the report, someone in the military personnel assignments section at the GDF’s world headquarters had realized that having al Shabaz and Cdr. Na Gael in the same Branch would be a blindingly bad idea, and had so informed several people. As a result, the Libyan officer had been reassigned at the last minute to one of the Latin American branches.

Moshe wasn’t supposed to know all the background, except that the person who discovered the notation in the Commander’s report had called him to see if, based on his knowledge of Cdr. Na Gael, she had been completely honest in her documentation and analysis. At Moshe’s reply that the alien had probably understated things, the person in Vienna had started looking on her own, with the current result. Moshe slowly chewed his dessert and decided against informing the Commander. It wouldn’t make any difference, anyway.

 

“Be seated,” General Khan ordered, and his staff officers, plus Rachel and Regimental Sergeant Major Sheldon Smith, took their places at the conference table in the staff briefing room.  Seen from the door, the South Asian officer sat left of the center on the left side, an odd location until one noticed the display screen on the wall opposite him, along with the broad array of keyboards, data display devices and other interesting bits of technology set into the table’s dark wooden surface. To his right, Major de Alba filled the slot of acting executive officer. The foot of the table belonged to the RSM, who sat with his back not quite to the door. Captain ben David shifted restlessly in his chair across from Major de Alba as he tried to control his excess of energy. Beside him, Lieutenant Eri Daijin seemed quiet as a temple statue in contrast. She was acting logistics officer because of Major O’Neil’s unexpected retirement, after having been his primary assistant. The third acting staff officer, Captain Slobodan “Sheep” Cluj, kept glancing down at the displays, trying not to be caught skimming the morning threats report which he’d not taken time to read yet although he should have.

Commander Na Gael held down the “head” of the table. This was in part because she was left-handed, as Brigadier Eastman had been, and it kept her from crowding other people and vice versa. It was also because her equipment and papers tended to expand to fill all available space, and (although this was never mentioned aloud) because it gave her an unobstructed field of fire towards the door, just as the RSM angled so he had a straight shot towards the window.

“To begin with, welcome back, Commander Na Gael,” Khan started. The xenology specialist nodded in acknowledgment and he continued, “We’ll hold your report for last, since it will be the shortest.” He paused, “I trust.” The side of her mouth quirked up into a little grin but she didn’t speak. “Major . . ?”

As hoped, and as usual when action was not pending or being recovered from, the staff meeting went fairly quickly. “Unless something changes in the near future, Captain Thorsten Sigurdson will be arriving on Friday to begin serving as logistics officer,” Moshe announced.

RSM Smith made a note and looked over at the Israeli. “That seems quite rapid, sir.”

“His last posting was to the South African Branch, but he is just finishing three months parental leave. Apparently Iceland is quite generous in that area.”

General Khan scrolled through the display in front of him, then inquired, “Do you have any word on when Vienna will assign us an executive officer?”

“Soon sir, according to this morning’s e-mail. It seems there are two possible candidates, and Headquarters is being very careful on the placement of both. The Russians are also looking for someone.” Moshe frowned at the screen.

Sheep Cluj nodded his agreement. “That will be a tough slot after what happened to Colonel Petrovna.”

“Someone get eaten?” Rachel asked in a rather too-chipper tone.

“No,” Khan stated, a touch of steel and ice in his voice. Rachel bowed her head in acknowledgment of the correction. The rest of the meeting went smoothly and routinely.

“Commander Na Gael?” Khan inquired at last, looking over at his advisor.

She sat forward in her chair, back straight as always. “Dr. Chandrasekar’s tests on the apparent seed-pods proved negative. As best he can determine, the items are native to this planet, but have been somewhat modified genetically. Whatever changes were tried produced nothing—the seeds are sterile. He suggests keeping an eye out for more but does not feel that they represent anything threatening or extraterrestrial and I concur with his findings. There is nothing else to report at this time.”

Khan made a note and nodded. “Very well, Commander, thank you.” He looked around at the others. “Does anyone have any final questions or thoughts?” The alien raised her index finger and he acknowledged her.

“Yes, sir. Is there a reason for the fountain in the garden?”

The commanding officer sat back and let his executive reply. “Yes there is, Commander. As you recall, there has been some question about shifting to a completely independent water supply for the base.” At Rachel’s nod, de Alba continued, “the fountain is the final part of the new internal water treatment system. It re-oxygenates the water before it is circulated back into the primary system. Before you ask about winter, there is a bypass so the system won’t leak or freeze.”

“So no floating toy boats or coloring it for major holidays, or turning it into an absolutely magnificent beer cooler, in other words,” Rachel sighed, looking disappointed.

“Spoilsports,” someone else muttered under their breath. De Alba looked around but didn’t recognize the voice, so she didn’t pursue it.

Khan’s mouth twitched but he managed to keep a straight face despite his sudden vision of turning the thing into a giant suds machine. General officers can’t play pranks he reminded himself. “Very well. Since there is no further business, you are dismissed,” he said aloud, rising to his feet. The others followed and he turned toward Rachel. “Commander, a word with you.” She collected her satchel and cane and then followed him out of the room towards his office. Rachel fell in at his right shoulder, where she could see him, and trailed the general down the main corridor, the metal tip on her cane making a faint tap with every other step. It was a sound he’d been hearing intermittently for almost a quarter of a century, Rahoul realized with a bit of a start. Could it really be that long?

He waved her into a seat in what was now his office and studied the Wanderer-hybrid as she in turn eyed the new decor. Was that silver in her hair? It was: a few threads just off-center in her widow’s peak. She seemed to have regained the weight she’d lost during her illness earlier that year, he was glad to see. Rakoji da Kavalle, or as he knew her, Commander Rachel Na Gael Ni Drako, had become a friend over the years and Rahoul didn’t care to think how much harder things would have been without her presence. Despite her irritating habits she was calm and steady, a rock in a storm when things were at their worst. He sat back in his chair as she finished her inspection of the office. “Truth, Rada,” he started in Trader, her working language. “What is your status?”

The half-blind woman considered his question, her prosthetic ears twitching a little. “I’m at ninety-five percent, sir. I’m afraid that is all I will ever be, now.” She looked off to the side, then returned to meet his inquiring gaze. “That September hurt me more than any of us realized—me, you, Joschka, even Himself. I won’t collapse again any time soon, sir, but I’m going to need a fair amount of recovery time if we have seventy-two-hours of non-stop combat. God forbid,” she added quickly. Perking up, the scarred brunette continued, “I learned some better signals identification techniques and picked up a new set of body armor, as I told Captain ben David, with better optics correction for my monovision. Also found a little something for Mrs. Khan and for Robin and Sita, if it’s not inappropriate.”

“And for me?” Rahoul teased.

“I’m back—that should be gift enough for anyone,” Rachel smiled sweetly. Khan shook his head before smiling back. She sobered. “I want to get you better personal weapons and body armor, sir, but I can’t. I’ve pushed the bounds of technology back-transfer to the breaking point as it is.”

The English general leaned forward, as serious as his advisor. “That reminds me of something I’ve wanted to ask you for a while. The little bits and pieces that you’ve added to the lab or that you use in your paramedic kit: could they cause problems at some point?”

“Not for you, sir. If someone were to find them, and if that person really wanted to, I could get in trouble. However,” Rachel shrugged, “the people who would be enforcing the rules are already out for my blood, so it doesn’t change anything.”

“The Traders?”

“Affirmative.” Khan noticed the woman’s slight shiver and decided to change the topic.

“Are you comfortable being under my command and taking orders from me? And will you obey them?” He needed to know, and the sooner the better, if he needed to replace her.

Rachel relaxed and sat back in her chair. “Yes, yes, and mostly yes, Sir. As long as you trust me, will at least consider my suggestions before dismissing them as absolutely insane, and don’t scream every time I act first and report second, then I see no reason for things to change. If not, sir, then I’ll go into partial-retirement.” It was the same agreement she had made with his predecessors and it had worked quite well thus far.

Rahoul considered her words, then nodded briskly. “Very well. I assume the things you bought for my children do not have small parts or make loud noises?”

The xenologist recoiled, eye wide and expression one of offended sensibilities. “Are you suggesting that I would give someone else’s kitlings small wind instruments or things that might ooze, leak, piddle, or explode?”

“In a word, yes.” Khan laughed as she did her best to look innocent and harmless.

 

Colonel Desta Selassie was a striking woman, Rahoul thought as he shook hands with his new executive officer. A touch under two meters tall, Col. Selassie looked at ease in her uniform, confident and ready for whatever weirdness awaited her at the British Branch of the Global Defense Force. Her close-trimmed black hair accentuated her black eyes and high cheekbones. The colonel’s résumé included fluency in English, German, Amharic, and Arabic, a master’s degree in electrical engineering and secondary training in computer science.

Their conversation only confirmed Rahoul’s initial impression. Selassie didn’t come from a military family, nor had she been planning on a career in the military. That was until, “Rocks don’t walk and don’t shoot, sir. They killed our cattle and captured or killed half my village. We fought back but didn’t have the weapons or knowledge to stop them. It was the Southern European Branch and the Ethiopian Army, with the help of God, who stopped the things. And there were women fighting beside the men from Europe! I’d heard of women warriors, but not soldiers, sir.” And now she was here. Rahoul was glad to have her.

“I assume you’ve had the tour of the place?” he asked at last.

She nodded. “Yes, sir. I must tell you, this is the strangest Branch headquarters facility I have seen.”

The general glanced around his office and nodded. “It was and is. Apparently there is quite a tale involved, but the only person who knew the entire story passed away a few months ago. I believe the original intent was to hide in plain sight.” He still couldn’t quite fathom what Brigadier Eastman and the architects had been thinking or drinking at the time.

The Ethiopian woman added, “Everything does seem very well done, sir, although the sergeant, I believe Lee was his name, said that we couldn’t see the laboratory facility because of work in progress.”

Khan woke up his computer and called up the live camera image of the lab door, noting that the light above it was green. Major General McKendrick had gotten tired of not knowing the status of the laboratory until someone walked down to check the light, so he had a camera installed. All it showed was the door and the light, nothing else. “You need to memorize this,” he said, turning the screen so she could see it. “Green light means that nothing is going on that can’t be interrupted, even if the door is locked. Yellow means work in progress that shouldn’t be disturbed but it’s not dangerous, although the door may be locked. Red light means that something potentially hazardous is going on and Commander Na Gael should not be disturbed unless it is a dire emergency. If the light is off, there’s nothing in progress aside from staff work, or the Commander is off duty.”

“And if there’s no light?” The slight smile and twinkle in the colonel’s eye warned Rahoul that her sense of humor might rival Rachel’s.

Rahoul turned the screen back. “Then you will have heard a loud noise from that end of the building and evacuations should probably be underway.” He got to his feet and she mirrored him. “Let’s go. You can see the place and the safety features, and meet our xenologist.”

They started walking towards the lab but stopped when they heard a commotion from the far end of the hallway. In Rahoul’s experience that never boded well and he braced himself for the slam of the concealed blast doors swinging shut to contain whatever “minor excitement” was erupting. Instead, a large, black, one-eyed jaguar-like cat charged down the hall towards the Khan and Selassie, its fur standing on end and its fangs bared. The animal didn’t make a sound or check its speed as it hurtled past the startled officers and galloped around the far corner. “What was that?” Salassie gasped.

“That was the xenology specialist, Commander Rachel Na Gael. Who had better have a very good reason for rocketing through the building as if her fur were on fire,” Khan replied, torn between worry and irritation. RSM Sheldon Smith strode up, as calm as the xenologist had been rushed and carrying a bundle of grey cloth and one of the xenologist’s walking canes. “Smith, do you know what’s going on?”

“Yes sir,” he affirmed. “Someone decided to play a little prank on the Commander. It was not funny in the least and potentially very dangerous. She determined who did it, and I’m going to find First Sergeant Lee and then try to dissuade her from attacking the perpetrator.” Despite his words it was apparent that the senior noncom was in no great hurry to intercept the fleeing feline.

“Prank?” Selassie’s eyes were wide. None of her other assignments had tolerated pranks or practical joking on base.

“Yes Ma’am. Someone thought it would be amusing to change the labels on some chemical bottles, among other things. Commander Na Gael managed to vent the lab and neutralize the reaction, but she almost lost her hand when a flask erupted. And that’s with safety gloves on.” Smith didn’t seem to feel that Rachel’s reaction was too extreme and Khan was inclined to agree with his assessment. “She promised not to use claws, sir.”

“Then carry on, Sergeant Smith. Whoever did it is safer with her in feline-shape,” Khan observed, and the RSM nodded.

“Very good, sir. Ma’am.” And the NCO strolled down the hall toward the firing range at the far end of the complex, lower level.

“Sir, I don’t understand,” the colonel frowned. “That was a very large and angry animal we saw. How can it be safer than something else?”

Khan started turning back towards his office. “Because she will just terrify the person who did the ‘prank’ and scare some sense into them. Otherwise, she’d probably kill them. Don’t worry, Selassie. If she’s under control enough to tell Smith what she’s doing, she’s not going to hurt her target that badly. Smith and Lee will see to that.” He thought for a moment, “In fact, I believe that we don’t know anything about the matter aside from what will be officially reported.”

Half an hour later someone tapped on the general’s door. “Enter.” The door opened and a small woman with brown-black hair and a single eye pushed the wooden and steel entry open.

“RSM Smith said you wanted to see me, Sir?”

“Yes, Commander. Col. Selassie, this is Commander Rachel Na Gael, the branch’s xenology specialist. Commander, Colonel Desta Selassie, the new executive officer,” Khan said, introducing the two. As he watched, the women studied eachother like two cats meeting for the first time before Rachel extended her hand.

“Pleased to meet you and welcome aboard, Colonel,” the smaller woman offered with a smile. Selassie accepted her hand, then registered the claws that curved over the tips of Rachel’s fingers and the almost metallic silver-grey, slit-pupiled eye. Desta blinked but didn’t flinch and both Rahoul and Rachel smiled wider.

“Thank you, Commander. You are not from Britain, I take it?” She’d heard rumors about the Branch xenologist—everyone had—but she’d expected an eccentric scientist, not someone or something like this!

Rachel looked over at Khan, who nodded for her to answer. “No, ma’am. I’m an import, you might say. Many years ago someone decided that it might take an alien to catch an alien and so I was hired as the Branch’s xenologist. No one’s grown irritated enough with me to fire me yet, so here I remain.”

At Khan’s gesture the two women sat down and he perched on the front corner of his desk. “Desta, Rachel is the senior xenologist in the GDF. She was active duty prior to joining us as a civilian, so her former rank holds. To be quite honest, Rachel could probably command the Branch as well as you or I,” he explained, and Rachel nodded gravely. “In fact, she’s acted as number three a few times.”

“Only in dire emergencies, Colonel,” Na Gael assured Selassie. “As you can tell, I’m not really fit for combat any more,” and she gestured towards her face and then her cane. “I tend to scare children on Halloween.”

That gave Rahoul an idea, although he winced inwardly at the Wanderer’s choice of phrase. “Rachel, remove your patch, please.” She gave him an odd look but obeyed. Apparently she’d anticipated something along that line, because she also took a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped it over that side of her face, removing some of the cosmetics.

Desta stared at the red-flecked white orb under the patch and the long scar that ran from the tip of the other woman’s widow’s peak across the eye and almost to her jaw. More scars formed a lacy white network across the socket and cheekbone below the blind eye. “Dear Lord! Commander, what happened?”

The smaller woman replaced her patch and tucked the cloth back into her pocket before answering. “Everything but the long scar is a result of being tortured. The scar was punishment for disobeying a direct order and no, none of it happened here.” She turned to Khan; “I assume you had a reason for that, sir?”

“Yes, I did.” He left it there and she didn’t press, although he could tell she was not happy with him at the moment.

Col. Selassie put two plus two together. “The black animal that ran through the hall—that really was you?” Her eyes were wide and she leaned back a little from the other woman.

“Ah, yes.” Rachel ducked her head as Rahoul folded his arms across his chest, waiting for the story. “I lost my temper at someone. One of the junior officers apparently thought it would be entertaining to play a little prank on me. Unfortunately his memory for A-level chemistry was not as good as he thought, because what was supposed to just make a mess instead caused, well, let’s just say the culprit won’t do it again.”

“Very well, Commander,” the general decided. “You are dismissed.” After she left and the door was shut, Khan stood up, motioning Selassie to remain in her chair. “I wanted you to see her as she is, now, so you won’t be taken by surprise later. People sometimes react poorly to their first sight of her,” and he sat back down in his chair.

Desta considered the xenologist. “She’s seen the gates of Hell, hasn’t she, sir?”

“She’s seen them from both sides.”

Selassie touched the small silver cross hanging from a discreet bracelet. “It leaves its mark.”

“It does. Which is why she also works with the chaplain and Dr. Albioni. She has skills as a councilor that make her doubly valuable to the Branch.” Khan warned his new number two that, “She is also an irreverent wiseacre and can be painfully sarcastic, as well as having an ego only slightly smaller than the Pacific Ocean and being one of those people who refuse to admit that they might need help. If you are like most people, you’ll have the urge to strangle or shake her on occasion,” and he shook his head, running a hand over his close-cropped dark brown hair. Selassie wondered if the xenologist had contributed to the faint gray haze at General Khan’s temples, then remembered that he had two small children at home.

The next morning Rachel had a leisurely wake-up and stretch before seeing about food. She’d barely started eating when bam, bam, bam! someone began pounding on the door to her quarters. She got up from the table, breakfast bowl in hand, walked over and pulled open the door. “What is it?” she demanded, annoyed and concerned both.

The very young-looking sergeant said, “There’s a possible situation, Ma’am. Staff briefing in two hours.”

“Two hours,” she repeated, raising her eyebrow. This idiot was bashing her door in for a non-emergency?

“Yes, Ma’am,” he affirmed. The NCO’s eyes strayed from the strange-looking woman to the contents of the dish she was holding. “Uh, ma’am? What’s that?” and he pointed to the white, red, and pink concoction.

“Mice crispies,” Rachel informed him. She picked up a thin pink bit like a mouse’s tail, pulled it and a larger red bit out of the bowl, dropped them into her mouth and crunched contentedly.

He paled. “Mice?”

She swallowed and reached for another of the things. “Care for a bite? It’s all-natural.” Somehow she managed not to laugh as he turned a fascinating shade of green, spun around and ran down the metal spiral stairs and out of the lab.  Only after she shut her door and returned to the tiny kitchen did she set down the bowl and howl with laughter. It was actually raw beef, a splash of milk, and bits of high protein cracker for crunch. Not that the human would have found it much more palatable than small rodents would be.

Sergeant Thompson wasted no time informing First Sergeant Lee that, “the xenologist is crazy! She was eating mice!”

Lee shrugged. “She eats squirrels and marmots, too.” And anything else she can catch, he added silently. “She’s also the best shot in the command and may be the medic who patches your carcass up some day, so you’d best be polite and not mention her little eccentricities,” the lean, brown-haired sergeant advised Thompson before going back to his own breakfast.

 

As the British Branch was preparing for a potentially interesting day, an older, bearded man with gray-streaked chestnut-brown hair and bright blue eyes sat down at the computer in the small “office” tucked into the side of the library of his home in Austria. Somewhat reluctantly he called up his personal e-mail, wondering as he did if his attorney had reviewed the possible solutions to the property boundary dispute yet. There was a stray bit of spam, notes from two of his grand and great-grandchildren, and a message that made him smile even before he opened it. “Hullo, Awful. I’m off duty tomorrow evening,” was all it said. That was enough.

(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Saturday Story: Changing of the Guard

    • I suspect that’s why the City of Amarillo fountains are the “bubbling rock and reflecting pool” type – to make it harder for pranking.

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