A War Apart: Revelations - By TheDanish
Four and a half hours after Christoph had left the field, he sat in an unremarkable waiting room. Three hours? It had been foolish to assume they'd make it back to HQ and through security in three hours. The trip had taken two, and he'd spent the last 180 minutes undergoing background checks, identification, and questioning by at least three different security officers. Wasn't like it was new to him, though, or surprising. The area around HQ was still considered a war zone, out to about twenty miles. Most pockets of Black Hole resistance had been cleared, but brass wasn't taking any chances. The whereabouts of the enemy commanders were unknown, and they'd pulled underhanded tricks often enough during the war that HQ's paranoia wasn't completely unfounded.
The remainder of the APC ride had been relatively uneventful. Mostly, Christoph updated his commander on the current front situation, to whatever extent his knowledge was new. Once they'd arrived, of course, Max parted ways with his Lieutenant and used his authority and influence rather than his brawn to get past all the red tape. Christoph had no idea where Max was now.
And so after an excruciating two and a half hours, here Christoph sat, in a set of camo-pattern, freshly pressed and, more importantly, clean officer's clothes, his stained cargo pants and shirt stowed away somewhere deep within the bowels of headquarters itself.
From without and within, Omega Land HQ was rather unremarkable. The whole compound consisted of several two-story buildings with a larger six-level one in the center. The center building mainly housed offices, but also held the quarters for the top Omega Land commanders, most notably Commander Rachel. Younger than Christoph and holding the de-facto rank of Commanding General, Rachel was a pristine example of what considerable skill and nepotism could perform in combination. No one doubted she'd originally received her position of Commander of the Omega Land Allied Nations because of her ties with Nell, but at the same time no one could say she didn't work to deserve it. Her efforts during the last war undoubtedly brought the allies to victory. Christoph had never met her, but her reputation for excellence was known throughout the armed forces.
Christoph mused over her relatively young age. She was perhaps twenty or twenty one. Christoph was twenty-four. The thought made him feel old and under-ranked, but knew he was just the opposite. He was still riding his physical and mental peak, which boosted him through the grades with reasonable speed.
His mind wandered. Christoph hardly noticed people milling back and forth in the waiting room. They moved between the hall and various offices, shuffling papers and manila folders and talking amongst themselves. Christoph's orders were to wait here. For who and what, he did not know, other than he was most likely there to answer his summons. He hoped to God the letter wasn't bad news.
The hallway door opened and closed once more, but whoever entered did not continue into an office. Christoph snapped back to attention, looking to see if, finally, someone had been sent to retrieve him.
The newcomer was a slim young woman, about Christoph's height and perhaps equal to him in age. Her distinctive red hair was cut cleanly and fell to her shoulders, bangs propped by a dark green sweatband. She was clad in green military khakis, a white top, and brown combat boots, all immaculately clean as if her outfit was standard military attire, which it was not. The Army was fairly lax on dress code. Christoph quickly scanned her outfit looking for any clues as to her rank, and spotted a small insignia hanging from her brown belt. Lieutenant Colonel.
She glanced about the room as if there were others waiting - there were not. Then, finally, her eyes rested on Christoph. She stared at him for a moment, one hand adjusting a white cloth band around her left wrist. Christoph met her gaze and stood, saluting.
"First Lieutenant Christoph Jorn?" she asked simply.
"Yes ma'am." He hoped to high heaven that she wasn't one of those female officers who preferred a different title. She didn't seem to react any which way to his use of address, however.
She returned the salute, relieving Christoph, and took a couple strides forward while extending one hand. "I'm Commander Sami, OSA Special Forces."
Sami, of course. Another virtual legend in the Orange Star Army, right up there with Max and the youngster Andy, fundamental in the first victory over Black Hole forces a few years ago. Christoph briefly received the offered handshake, just long enough to feel sociable. "It's an honor, ma'am."
She raised an eyebrow. "You've heard of me, then?"
He tendered a friendly smile. "Of course, ma'am. Colonel Max is my CO, and I understand you are good friends with him." After a moment, he added, "Even without his word, however, most everyone has heard your name and your experience during the Black Hole wars."
Commander Sami nodded. "Interesting to hear, but flattery will get you nowhere, Lieutenant," though she did not say it with any negativity. "Regardless. I've been instructed to bring you upstairs."
This was it, then. "Upstairs" was not merely a literal term, but also held the connotation that he was being brought right to the brass. Holy hell, what had he gotten himself into? Had he even done something to warrant this sudden audience? He wasn't even sure if the situation would look favorably upon his vocation.
Christoph silently prayed he didn't reveal any of the emotions swirling within his head. "Yes ma'am."
She turned and exited. Christoph followed, walking out of the waiting room and down the hall. Commander Sami forwent the elevator and instead briskly took the stairs up two flights, opened a door, and continued down yet another hallway. Christoph tagged along, doing his best to match her pace, though it was clear she was in better physical shape than he - not an inconsiderable feat, but also not unexpected from the Special Forces officer.
He'd seen photos of the various COs from the three Black Hole wars, and decided the redheaded commander looked a bit out of place without her usual rifle. Perhaps she felt the same way, for the Commander occasionally fidgeted with her cloth wristband.
The pair walked about halfway down the fourth-floor hall before the Commander slowed and angled right. She turned the handle of an intricate, unmarked wood-and-glass door that clearly flagged the room within as far more important than its counterparts. Holding it open, the CO said, "After you, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, ma'am." They passed through another room, oddly similar to his previous waiting room, though this one was adorned with various paintings and potted plants. Not overly decorative, but enough so that it got the point across: it didn't belong to just another two-bit officer. The question was, who did it belong to?
Commander Sami rounded him and pointed to a door opposite to the hall. "There you are, Lieutenant." Christoph breathed in slowly but quietly, attempting to keep control of his nerves. The CO apparently noticed, but she didn't say anything. Good or bad, good or bad? Christoph wondered if he was overanalyzing his superiors' every action.
For the umpteenth time that day, he adjusted his camo uniform and quickly inspected himself to even out any wrinkles he could find. Then, he walked to the door, turned the knob, and entered.
The inner office contained similar decorative items, oversized paintings, and simple foliage. A blinds-covered window took up a good portion of the far wall, but one feature stood out. A large oaken desk dominated the center and almost overwhelmed the person sitting behind it.
Female. Red jacket, short blonde hair. Red cap with a gold star sitting on the desk's surface. She was small, though exactly how small was hard to tell while she was sitting. Christoph quickly analyzed her as he did with anyone important he met, and came to a rapid conclusion.
Commanding General Rachel. The top of the top in Omega Land. His stomach did a few flips and his heart strained as if seizing up. This encounter would end up either very fortuitous or extremely harmful for his army status. One was not summoned to an audience with the Commanding General for tea and biscuits.
Luckily, Christoph's instincts took over and he snapped to attention, saluting once more. "First Lieutenant Christoph Jorn, ma'am."
Rachel looked up from a pile of documents. She smiled. Oh, thank God. "At ease, First Lieutenant." Christoph folded his hands behind his back. A smile from the top brass was far more than he could've honestly hoped for.
He heard movement behind him; the door opened again, and footsteps padded on the carpeted floor. He glanced briefly to his right. Commander Sami slipped behind him and took a seat in the corner of the room.
Someone coughed to his left, and he dared another glimpse. In the other corner was Commander Max himself, casually resting his head against one fist, the same elbow propped against his chair's armrest. He raised a hand casually. "Afternoon, Chris."
"Afternoon sir." At least there was one familiar face in the room. Everyone appeared welcoming enough, but this was certainly no time to relax. Unless…
"Please relax, Lieutenant," Commander Rachel said. "We're all friends here, and anyone on good terms with Max is on good terms with me." Well, if his orders were to relax, then he would. "Take a seat." She motioned to an armchair positioned directly in front of her desk. Despite the CG's gregarious conduct, Christoph felt extremely vulnerable as he moved to sit in the offered accommodation. Surrounded by three officers that outranked him by at least three grades, one of which was effectively the Commander-in-Chief of Omega Land forces, he didn't exactly classify his reaction as superfluous. It felt like some sort of inquisitorial trifecta, needles and pokers ready to make him break down into tears and spill his proverbial guts all over the floor.
But Christoph steeled himself and settled into the armchair. As he did, the blonde-haired CG stood and reached for a string hanging from the window behind her. "After reading Max's reports, Lieutenant, it's interesting to finally put a face to the name. I've heard quite a bit about you from Max already!" she said in a rather peppy tone, all while pulling the window string and allowing sunlight to flow into the room. Whatever sunlight there was, at least. Christoph noted out of habit that overcast weather dominated the sky.
"Thank you, ma'am." He left his response at that.
Rachel finished her task and returned to her swiveling seat. Her smile was still there, not plastered or fake, but definitely genuine. It was as if she possessed an aura of simple truth to her, leaving an impression upon Christoph that permitted him to extend just a bit of trust. Maybe he'd make it out of here alive.
She pursed her lips momentary and tilted her head just a few degrees. "But I can tell you're still nervous. I can't imagine why, however…"
You can't imagine why? Really? Was this girl the same Rachel that had commanded the Allied Nations? Defeated Black Hole? And she didn't know why he was nervous, sitting in an office with three superior officers and no explanation for his presence?
Christoph cleared his throat. "Well, ma'am, if I'm not stepping out of bounds by asking… why am I here? The letter I received was extremely vague in its intentions, and I was not given any additional information concerning my orders to return to headquarters."
For a moment, Rachel's expression adopted a look of mild confusion. She picked up a paper, her blue eyes scanning it before setting it down and looking towards Max's corner.
"Max. You… didn't tell him?"
Christoph copied her and craned his neck to look at his Commander, puzzled. Max sported an enormous grin. He simply shook his head.
Christoph looked back to Rachel, and she to him. The CG raised her eyebrows. "Well! I guess that duty falls to me then." She stood again, this time in a formal fashion. He quickly did the same, noticing that neither Max nor Sami followed suit, despite the fact that Rachel outranked them both. Regulation and policy were markedly unimportant here, it seemed, which only served to make Christoph feel more awkward.
She held out her hand. "It is my honor to inform you, First Lieutenant Christoph Jorn, that because of your exemplary conduct and initiative during the Omega Land War, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Captain, effective immediately." The pleasant smile returned. "Congratulations."
Christoph felt frozen, overwhelmed, and most undoubtedly looked bewildered to those within the room. A promotion. Roma had been right. A promotion. Captain Christoph Jorn of the Orange Star Army. Weren't promotions supposed to be done in strict ceremony? At least for a rank as high as Captain? Sure, he'd gained rank before, but that'd been in the middle of a conflict where ceremony had no business being conducted. "I - well… thank you, ma'am," he managed to sputter. "Thank you very much." Somehow he willed his limb to move and accept her handshake, eyes still wide.
Commander Sami approached him from the corner, and Christoph received her congratulations as well. She smirked. "From what Max has said, you deserve it. Now it's my turn to determine if he was right." Whether or not she meant what she said, he didn't particularly care at the moment. He was simply relieved to be whole and intact, and still preoccupied with the notion that he would be leaving headquarters better off than he'd arrived.
And then Christoph felt a hand clap onto his shoulder. He turned to look. Max beamed down from his high stature, clearly amused with his clever games. "If I scared you half to death, Chris, you'll have to forgive me. I wanted this one to be a little different than all the times I've put you on the spot in the field."
"Well you certainly did! Jeez Max, I swear, if you ever do that again…" But Christoph laughed regardless. Tension flowed from every limb, leaving him with a lingering combination of both exasperation and respite.
Max's big hand patted him on the back. "Welcome to the club, Commanding Officer."
* * * * *
The band of COs now numbered four. After Christoph's sudden promotion and the mild revelry that followed, Rachel assumed a more serious bearing. There was to be a meeting at 1800 hours for all Commanding Officers. The CG didn't act like someone who was overly serious, even concerning important matters, but whatever the meeting covered she apparently felt that emphasizing its gravity was worthwhile. The only piece of information she offered was this meeting was why his promotion had been so abrupt and informal.
Paperwork would wait until later. Christoph had about an hour to kill, and there was no question how he would spend it. He meandered into the officer's mess hall, tucked away in one of the smaller buildings on the compound. There was little else to do within the HQ grounds anyway, and his field diet of coffee and packaged goods wasn't easy on his stomach. Even foods reserved for ranked personnel weren't of great quality.
The cooks in charge were preparing for dinner, so only a self-serve line was available. Christoph proceeded to fix himself a cold cut sandwich. The meat looked fresh enough, certainly better than the tinned stuff he was used to. He spread on a couple different condiments and, without thinking, selected a generic-brand canned soda. Caffeine in a different guise. He couldn't escape it.
The mess hall was rather empty, even considering its small size. A few groups collected at one table or another. He shuffled restlessly back and forth, unsure of where to occupy himself, before noticing a familiar figure seated near the back. He breathed easy. God, what was he, some kind of school kid on the first day of class?
Commander Sami noticed Christoph's approach, knife and fork still working through some sort of steak in brown sauce. She nodded in greeting. "Afternoon, Captain."
Captain. That would take some getting used to. "Good afternoon, Commander. Permission to take a seat?"
She pointed her fork across the polished table. "Go ahead."
He set his plate down first and pulled out a chair - a chair, not a bench! - as she spoke again. "You know, Captain, you don't always have to be so damn formal around here," she told him in what he presumed was the most friendly means possible. "Loosen up a bit. Like Rachel said, we're all friends."
"And you don't need to call me ma'am, either. I'll be honest with you, it makes me feel old." She speared a piece of steak and popped it into her mouth, evidently finished with what she had to say.
Certainly outspoken. One of the traits that many attributed to Commander Sami. Seemed that little tidbit rang true. "How's Commander, then?"
Sami nodded again. "Commander's fine." Perhaps in an attempt to dispel any foul mood she'd stirred up, she waved an imaginary strand of hair from her face and smirked. "Are you always this tight up in the field? Being stubborn with rules will get someone killed out there." Her eyes briefly flickered up, as if examining his meticulously left-parted hair.
Christoph inhaled as he cut his sandwich in half. "Well, to be honest - no, Commander. I suppose I didn't expect such lax conduct from HQ is all. I guess I won't complain." He tried to loosen up, as she'd suggested, and found it difficult. Of course, his uniform. He set down the knife and worked at his collar, undoing the top button. Well, it was a start. "I could get used to it."
"You're part of the club now, like Max said. And from the looks of this meeting, you certainly decided to join at a bad time."
Feeling a bit more comfortable, Christoph feigned incredulity. "Like I had a choice, Commander. I didn't even know about my promotion until it happened!"
"Bull. If you didn't want to be promoted, you wouldn't have done so well during the war." Again, she used her fork as a digit, pointing it at Christoph accusingly. "I read your file. You did very well, for yourself and your platoon. You were even given special permission to have more than the standard forty men. Tanks and mobile artillery, recons, the works."
He frowned out of surprise. "You read my file?"
"Of course I did." She set down her utensil and picked up her glass, taking a drink before returning to the conversation. "OSA COs have an interesting web of relationships. We work together more often than not. I had to see if you were material enough for the job." Sami fooled with her wristband absentmindedly, leaving what little remained of her steak untouched.
Christoph nodded. "And?"
She shrugged. "It looked like Max's choice was solid enough. Most promotions like this are the result of proper procedure, following orders, and 'exemplary conduct,' as Rachel put it. Few have actual combat experience, unless a war is happening or just happened. That's what you have, Captain. Combat experience. That's undoubtedly what coaxed my vote."
"Your vote, Commander?" Christoph asked. "I didn't realize the army was a democracy."
Sami laughed, apparently pleased with his little joke. She crossed her bare arms and set them on the table. "My opinion, anyway. I'm not a tank commander. I'm Special Forces. I know enough about moving steelbells around, but that really is Max's department."
"Right. Well, if it means anything, Commander," he said as he held one hand palm up, "thank you for your consideration. It's more pay for me." Christoph could get used to the idea of a casual command structure. His platoon was already organized under one.
His platoon. The thought of it struck him abruptly. Would they still be under his command? Did his promotion signal a straining of his friendship with Sepp? Roma and Sigfried? Sure, everyone around here said their hellos instead of saluting, but what was the standard for behavior between COs and subordinates?
Christoph picked up one of his sandwich halves and took a bite. Definitely much better than what he was used to. He nodded, appreciative of the taste. "You all certainly have some good grub here. That's another thing I wouldn't mind if it spoiled me."
But Sami's green eyes were still studying him. Her brow furrowed, as if she saw something she didn't like. Christoph paused mid-chew. "Yes, Commander?"
For a few moments, she didn't reply. In substitution, she delicately scratched an unseen itch on her lower lip. Seconds passed.
Finally, in a very low tone, she asked, "Have you ever killed a man, Captain?"
She couldn't possibly know what sort of impact those words had on him. A tremor rang down his spine. His neck flushed. He suddenly felt far too warm in his uniform. Slowly, he swallowed his food while preparing an answer.
Before he could, however, Sami added, "And I don't mean from three hundred yards, with a rifle or a tank round. I mean, have you seen the face of someone you've killed? Maybe as you did it?"
The question was out of the blue and definitely not something he'd expected. What was he to say? What did she expect him to say?
His reply apparently did not satisfy her. She continued to look at him intently, pupils shifting almost imperceptibly, as though searching for a deeper, more truthful answer. Did she possess the same uncanny ability for detecting honesty as Roma? He wouldn't be surprised. Special Forces, after all…
Rather swiftly, Sami broke eye contact and picked up her plate, standing to leave. "Thank you, Captain. Have a good meal." Her face was obscured by her red hair as she turned and walked away.
Christoph's gaze followed her until she deposited her items in the dish return and exited the mess hall. Then, he looked at the sandwich half in his hand, and the other half on his plate. He set the former down, his appetite suddenly gone. Damn it all.
* * * * *
The conference room was far too dim, Christoph decided. His chair was comfortable enough, and the long table in front of him polished to a near-perfect shine. But the low lighting hindered any chance of his being content. It reminded him of a three- or four-star restaurant, establishments that he disliked for similar reasons. Loved the food, though. The mess hall food had been the closest he'd come to that, and he'd blown his chance at a decent meal letting Sami's questions get to him. Now his stomach begged without end for some sort of sustenance. Stupid, stupid.
Directly across from him, Max's unmistakable form occupied two seats; one for himself, and one for his feet. His swivel chair tipped back dangerously, threatening to topple the big man over. Max's hands were folded behind his head in a makeshift cushion, and he looked as bored as ever. Christoph knew this was not Max's preferred environment.
Sami was seated to Max's right, hands clasped on the table, twiddling her thumbs. Her face bore an anxious look. Clearly, meetings were not a usual occurrence at headquarters.
Christoph sighed and checked his watch. 1758 hours. He hoped Commander Rachel arrived soon.
As if on cue, the door at the far end of the table opened. All three heads turned as Rachel entered, customary red outfit and all. Under one arm she held a manila folder, and in the same hand a pen. She smiled warmly, meeting everyone's welcoming nod, before turning to look over one shoulder while propping the door open.
Someone else followed her in. The newcomer was obviously male and taller than Rachel but his features were difficult to pick out in the faint lighting. He looked about the room, hands on his waist.
"Hey Rach, could you turn up the lights a little?"
Rachel rounded Christoph's side of the table and reached the other end. She fumbled under the tabletop and the overhead bulbs gradually brightened.
"There, that should be better."
Max rolled his eyes. "You'd think the switch would be by the door, but nooo…"
Christoph did not partake in Max's complaints, instead choosing to inspect Rachel's accomplice.
Dirty blonde hair. Ragged white, pocketed shirt. White belted cargo pants. A set of gloves poked out of one of the side pouches, and oversized headphones hung around his neck.
The newcomer noticed Christoph. "Sup?" No hello, no use of title.
Jake, made famous among the troops during the war. A captain, if Christoph wasn't mistaken. That made them equally ranked, but Jake's experience gave him a one-up over Christoph.
He nodded, throwing a half-hearted salute. "Afternoon." If what he'd heard was true, Jake would definitely not be a stickler for procedure, even less so than the other COs. He trusted that was the case.
Rachel settled into the chair at the head of the table. "Jake, this is Captain Christoph Jorn, just promoted a few hours ago. He's the newest member of our little group here. Christoph, this is Commander Jake."
Jake grinned casually. "Awesome! Welcome to the gang, Chris. Is it cool if I call you Chris?"
Christoph dipped his head. Max already used his nickname, no reason why Jake couldn't. "Go right ahead. It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain. The grunts appreciated your leadership during the war, trust me."
"Good to know, man. Thanks." Jake's head bobbed while he looked about. "Cool cool, we've got everyone here. Let's get this rollin'." The young CO didn't bother to select any particular seat, instead taking the one right in front of him, at the table end opposite of Rachel.
And so the band numbered five.
The door swung shut with a click. Rachel set her folder onto the table, leaned forward, and steepled her fingers. All heads turned and all eyes focused on the Commanding General. So, this was serious. Christoph felt a mix of suspense and curiosity. According to what Rachel said earlier, this very meeting prompted his promotion.
She coughed as gracefully as one could, though if she was attempting to attract attention the effect was redundant - Rachel already held the undivided attention of everyone in the room. "I'm sure all of you have heard of recent tensions between Orange Star and the former members of the Allied Nations." She paused, plainly offering anyone the chance to contradict her assumption. None did. Even out on the front, this news wasn't unknown; Christoph and his lieutenants generally wrote it off as political horseplay.
"I disbanded the Allied Nations after the last war. It was purely a military alliance, formed for the strict purpose of retaking Omega Land. Not political, not economic. There's no need for the A.N., with Black Hole utterly defeated. It would only eat up funds.
"But ironically," she said, opening her hands in mock apology, "Black Hole was the only thing keeping us together. Yes, our military leaders were amiable enough. We had good times with the other COs. But our presidents and prime ministers and emperors," this last title held emphasis, a thinly veiled reference to Yellow Comet, "didn't see it that way. Political feuds broke out as quickly as martial ones died. Territory disputes. Commercial arguments. How to deal with the remaining Black Hole troops."
For one reason or another, Rachel chose that moment to fix her gaze directly on Christoph. Whatever her intentions were, he swallowed hard. Hopefully not visibly.
Her line of sight continued past him, sweeping the room. "Now, however average and expected these politics may seem to everyone - including us - there's one piece of information that hasn't reached public ears."
There was an audible creaking of plastic. Everyone straightened in their seats, Christoph included.
"It concerns Green Earth."
* * * * *
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Next Chapter: The Lion's Cousin