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The Twenty Eighth Article
Any officer belonging to a regiment or other unit who performs an act, or gives orders to a subordinate to the same effect, that results in gross dereliction of duty to the Crown, should suffer such punishment as shall be imposed by a court martial, according to the nature and degree of the offence.
- The Twenty Eighth Article of War of the British Armed Forces On and Off Earth.
* * * *
“For the record of the court give your full name, rank and unit.”
“Somerled Angus McDonald, Captain of the First Company, Highland Colonial Rangers.”
As if everyone in the room did not know who I was. The hero of the Chryse Planita Pacification. The man who had held Fort Piper during the uprising of Aonia Terra. First one onto the bastion when the British seized the New Vladivostok spaceport from the Russians during the Second Interworld War. Holder of the VC and bar, MC and bar and half a dozen other medals as well as countless mentions in dispatches. Picture in the Times, Port Victoria Herald and any other newspaper worth reading.
Yes, everyone in the room knew me, except it seemed the president of the panel.
Having established that I was who I purported to be, he then asked the sixty four million guinea question.
“Describe in your own words what happened on the night of the Fifteenth of June, Eighteen Ninety Nine.”
Although I was looking at the panel of the court martial I could sense that everyone in the room was leaning forward to hear what I had to say. So far they had heard testimony of others about the events of said night. However, none of them had been present when Lieutenant Arthur Plantagenet had been killed by Sergeant Patrick Adams. I had. In fact I was the only living witness of the incident.
* * * *
Captain Somerled McDonald surveyed the scene before him. Beyond the open flat bottom of the valley the slopes were covered by the ubiquitous Martian cacti and beyond them lay the deserted city of Drywater with its fairy towers glistening in the dying sun. His company would sweep through its shabby form tomorrow, but for now it was better to keep a distance from it.
“We will camp here,” he ordered.
After stacking their packs, the men got out their entrenching tools and started digging. A night camp had been customary for the Roman legions so they could sleep tight, safe from barbarian attack. Same here for British riflemen a world away, although the attackers were not Germans or Picts but Martians and their autonomous machines.
The work had been barely started when he was approached by the Honourable Lieutenant Prince Arthur George Charles Plantagenet who wanted to lead a patrol up to the city. He slapped his junior down with as minimum effect on discipline as he could. Somebody in the War Office had thought it was a good idea to team up the apple of Her Imperial Majesty's eye with the biggest hero on Mars, but McDonald could do without the responsibility of babysitting the prince. Mars was tough enough without having a royal glory hound in tow.
What the lieutenant thought could be achieved by a few men in the dark that the company could not the following day, Somerled had no idea. Somehow he doubted that Arthur had either.
Once the camp was completed, he ate his supper and then settled down for the night.
At midnight he was woken by Company Sergeant Major Wilson. Many officers left it to their subordinates to see that the sentries remained alert. McDonald preferred to check himself. It was easy to goof off in the silent desert air because one knew that nothing was going to happen. Most of the time that was true, but he had gained more than one medal when that had not been so. The natives could be tricky and the autonomous machines were nasty pieces of work. Better to lose some shuteye than be dead.
For once Deimos was up so he was able to clearly see the surrounding country. It was not, though, the tranquil scene it had been at dusk; in the silver light the cacti were changed from idyllic vegetables to sinister objects whilst Drywater had been transformed into a brooding monster waiting to devour any fool enough to enter it.
Part way round the perimeter McDonald heard some bickering from one of the outposts. One thing that humans soon discovered about Mars's rarefied air was how well sound travelled so he was not pleased to hear chattering. Whilst the foxholes dug the evening before were not exactly hidden, there was still no point drawing attention to them. Besides, it meant that whoever was talking was not concentrating on watching.
They were thus about to feel his wrath.
However, rather than alert them of his presence he began to quietly creep up on the miscreants. When he was closer, he recognised the two voices. One was Lieutenant Plantagenet who rather than being a good little gentleman asleep in the centre of the camp had decided to be in one of the outposts in case there was any action. The other was Sergeant Patrick Adams and the second rod in McDonald's company.
The captain had never discovered why the leprechaun had volunteered to serve on Mars, but very likely that it was to escape trouble back in Ireland. A source of constant aggravation to his officers although never to the point where McDonald could remove his stripes from him or even better sling him out of the regiment.
Moreover, he had been in the only platoon with a vacant officer's post when Arthur Plantagenet had arrived. Unfortunately, he could not be transferred from it because tradition and policy forbade such an action without just course and McDonald had yet to dream up one that would satisfy the regiment’s adjutant Major Campbell. A real pity because Adams had never disguised his desire for a Free Ireland and his hatred of the Crown.
The joke was because when he chose to be, the leprechaun could be a first rate soldier. Obviously not quite as good as he McDonald, but still first rate and between the Martians and their machines on one side and the other colonial powers here on the Red Planet, Her Imperial Majesty needed every good soldier she could get to keep her Dominion of North Mars secure.
Stealthily approaching the miscreants, McDonald had almost reached them when someone fired a shot. Immediately he hit the ground and for a second wondered where it had come from before he realised that the source was in fact the outpost. A moment later a figure rose out of it and started running for the cacti jungle beyond the perimeter.
Other than noting their presence, he ignored them, but jumped into the foxhole to see who remained. One glance and he saw that the sole occupant was Arthur Plantagenet. Moreover from the blood on the prince’s chest he had been shot in what Somerled guessed to be one final argument with Adams. In fact, if the lieutenant was not already dead then he would soon be beyond any help Somerled could render.
Which left the question of what to do about Adams.
Popping his head out of the foxhole McDonald looked in the direction he had seen the running figure. It was still in sight so there was no reason not to pursue it. On the other hand, it was fast approaching the cacti jungle so could potentially evade him and thus escape justice
There was an alternative though, and one much more satisfying than running the leprechaun to earth.
It was a long shot, over a thousand yards, but McDonald still raised his Whitney Armstrong Mark 4, the finest rifle anywhere in the Solar System and don’t let Mauser tell you any different, drew a bead on the Irishman and fired.
The weapon rang out in the thin Martian air. A moment later the fleeing figure first jerked in the air like a shot buck and then hit the ground. It did not get up.
* * * *
The president theatrically shuffled his papers and then gave a cough. I knew that he was going to milk the situation for all it was worth, but still wished he would not waste the time of the rest of us.
“Is the prisoner ready to receive judgement?”
“Yes, sir.” I replied. Damned fool question by any stretch of the imagination. What would he have done if I had said no? Probably continued anyway then added further punishment for cheek.
Another shuffle followed by raised shoulders, then he boomed out, “Captain Somerled Angus McDonald, stand before this court on the following charges.”
I did so.
“On the first charge that that the prisoner did violate the Ninth Article of War in permitting mutinous and rebellious behaviour by Sergeant Patrick Adams the court finds him five to one, not guilty.
“On the second charge that that the prisoner did violate the Fifteenth Article of War by negligently performing the duties assigned on him by his senior officers the court finds him five to one, not guilty.”
That bloody Colonel Fanshaw Smith appeared to want my hide at any cost. Not surprisingly as the toffee-nosed blueblood had never liked me ever since I took the Wellington Trophy for Sharpshooting from his regiment eight years ago and been holding it ever since. Still not exactly conduct becoming to an officer and a gentleman on a court martial panel.
“On the third charge that that the prisoner did violate the Twenty Third Article of War by shooting Sergeant Patrick Adams dead the court finds him unanimously not guilty.”
Damned right, I thought. To have been convicted for shooting the leprechaun in course of him deserting would have been against natural justice.
“On the fourth charge that that the prisoner did violate the Twenty Eighth Article of War the court finds him unanimously guilty.”
So the cads had decided to nail me on that particular one, not that I expected to escape it. In fact the moment it had appeared in the charge sheet I knew that I was damned.
Mind you, it is stretching a point to assert that failing to keep the third in line to the throne alive because another soldier kills him is a dereliction of duty. On the other hand, politics is politics and I suppose the War Office decided that a court martial of the living would make a better sop to Her Imperial Majesty than blaming the death of her little darling on a corpse. Bastards, anyway.
“The prisoner will step forward for sentencing.”
Doing my best to keep a smile off my lips I did. But for the fact I was in the dock this whole affair would have been very interesting; you can’t cashier or shoot holders of Victoria Cross without a by your leave, not anyway without bad publicity.
No doubt though the panel had taken this into consideration in their deliberations.
Ironspider - Interesting idea and nicely written. My only criticism is that the stated setting is woefully underused and more background detail of the milieu would give the story greater depth.
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