I look at the summoning court clerk with heavily lidded eyes. I try to look bored. My brother is dead. So what? I have no reason to lie or in any way act like I loved the guy. Hell, everyone in our platoon hates him. I mean, used to hate him. Sometimes I still can’t believe he’s dead. Sometimes I still can’t believe I killed the SOB. I can still hear the last words he said to me.
“Just promise you’ll kill the rest of these piece-of-shit Martian bugs, T…,” he stuttered at the end as he died, unable to say my name.
Tazz. I always hated the rhyming nickname, saddled on me by a drill instructor when Razz and I were in boot camp together on Earth. We had our moments. But boot camp days ended a long time ago. And from that fateful day on Mars soil I became T. Just plain T. Our new leader decided it the moment he heard the initial stammered from a dead man’s lips. I suppose I could have done worse for a tag. I could be dead as a result of many follow-on campaigns. But dead or alive, right now I need to focus and try to relax.
Why is the army even bothering with this? We’re at war! The weapon that killed Razz was bug technology, so I’m not really a suspect. I concentrate on breathing, feeling sort of disconnected from my body as I walk to the interrogation chair. The seat is still warm from the last occupant. My pal Comet, acting the opposite of what his name suggests, sat in this one spot for over an hour defending the simple truth that none of our soldiers had seen the shooter. Nobody had witnessed the fatal attack on our former commander.
I can do no less. After all, we’re brothers in arms. And if the truth gets out we’ll all be in a world of hurt. Though I looked through the scope that day and pulled the trigger, we all signed the death warrant. I’d simply been the poor jerk who drew the short straw. Any one of us could have been assigned the task and every one of us to a man would have followed through.
“Sergeant McMillan,” the woman barks, “is it true that you stood by your brother as his life slipped away?”
Why’d she have to put it like that? I square my jaw and blink slowly, trying even harder to look nonchalant. “Yeah,” I drawl.
“In fact, you were there for several minutes before his last breath. Isn’t that right? Records state that you didn’t radio for help. Is that true? You were that certain he was doomed. Tell us about how you came to that conclusion, Sergeant McMillan.”
“He died trying to say my name,” I answer, clearing my throat. The sound echoes in the chamber, a quiet space despite a crowd of coconspirators and superiors. “T was all he managed to get out before he died or I’d probably still be known as Tazz.”
“And what was he trying to say?”
“Objection,” her lawfully appointed opponent booms so that I jump. “This is irrelevant to proceedings. It’s a private moment between a decorated war hero and his dying brother.”
Lieutenant Smith had been hand chosen to stand before this tribunal because he’s lawful and tenacious. He is not, however, impartial. The only other besides me who knows details of Smith's identity is my current commander, who stepped into the combat boots of Razz McMillan that day two years ago. Razz’s first wife, Sharleen, is survived by a baby brother Razz never had the pleasure of meeting. Sharleen had been abused physically and mentally before big, bad Razz found religion and a new wife. Whatever. I always doubted the religion bit.
But I can’t help but glumly recall the look on Becka’s face when she called me after hearing about Razz. He had been pretty good to his new family, apparently. But I can’t think about that now. I keep my gaze like flint on the female officer appraising me.
“Next case,” the presiding general announces.
Dismissed, I rise stiffly from the chair. My muscles don’t want to work right, as if I’ve been trapped in that chair for hours instead of a few minutes. My too-tight dress shoes, once property of Ray “Razz” McMillan, click loudly as I stride steadily from the military hearing room on Earth.
I'm on Earth. It's surreal. Most of us spacer grunts never get invited back. Razz would be proud, whatever the reason.
Reaching the hall, I barely acknowledge the congratulatory men gathering in the hall. It seems we’ve been cleared of any possible charges. The fervent investigations of this current regime won’t touch us. I expect we'll be leaving Earth's atmo by this time tomorrow. I'm glad. There are too many memories here.
I keep moving toward the nearest public bathroom. Breakfast, it seems, wants to come back up. Just keep walking, Tazz.