“All rise.” Sir Ren shouted from the back of the empty field operation center.
After the battle had successfully concluded the day before they began breaking down their command center to redeploy to the Titan and head home.
Corporal John Rowan jumped to his feet. Sir Basil Singh stood next to him. At the next table, Sir William Pellegrino stood straight as their Duke strode to the front of the room and sat behind a field table.
“Please, sit.” Lord Bryce announced.
Everyone sat. Bryce studied a holo-screen in front of him. Rowen knew that a dozen people were shuffling in and were taking seats on field chairs behind him. He never looked behind him.
Rowen’s wounds mended, and he sat in confinement for a week. The skirmish had ended, apparently. Rowen guessed they had either won or they made a deal.
“Corporal John Rowen. You stand accused of Attempted Murder of a Superior Officer. How do you plead?” Bryce asked, looking directly into Rowen’s eyes.
He a Sir Basil stood. “Milord.” He started to say, but Sir Basil interrupted.
“Milord, the corporal pleads Nolo Contredre.”
Pellegrino leaped to his feet. “I object!”
Sir Basil shot him a questioning glance.
“This tribunal is supposed to be quick, as we are readying to redeploy back to Capella Minor.”
Bryce gestured to Pellegrino to sit. “I’ll allow it. State your case.”
Pellegrino squinted at a holo-screen. “Eight nights ago, this man, this conscript, returned from a failed mission—”
“Objection,” Basil began, “The corporal achieved the objective of that mission.”
“This conscript returned from a mission, dragged his sleeping platoon leader out into the cold where he beat him within an inch of his life. Sir Reginald Redfield barely escaped death and currently in our flagship’s medical facility in an induced coma while nanites mend his broken skull. Also, he awaits three new neck vertebrae. It will be weeks before he can walk again and he has extensive facial scarring that will be difficult and time consuming to mend.”
Pellegrino cleared his throat and continued. “John Rowen is a serf bound to House Bryce. His actions jeopardized the fragile truce between us and House Redfield. Many saw his actions and are not in dispute. This conscript had the temerity to lay his hands on a royal. For this alone, we should conclude this tribunal and he should be executed as soon as possible. That is all I have.” The prosecutor stated, then sat.
Duke Bryce nodded his approval. “Quick and to the point.” He motioned to Basil. “Your argument?”
“Milord, I contend that Corporal Rowen was mentally and emotionally compromised from the effects of losing his entire squad because of the…” Basil paused, carefully selecting his words. “ineffective leadership from Sir Reg—”
“Objection! Are you saying that Lieutenant Redfield was no qualified to lead? Are you really saying this in open court?”
Basil returned his steely gaze. “No. I’m saying the young Redfield was incompetent.”
Pellegrino reddened. “How dare you? He was a fellow noble—”
“Enough.” Bryce commanded. “Sir Basil, have you evidence of this?”
“Yes, milord.” Basil opened a few holo-screens visible to all. “The young Redfield did not join his squad on this important mission. Instead, he followed them from our orbital satellites and body cams.” Basil played some videos. “Here we can plainly see that Redfield did, in fact, undermine Corporal Rowan’s authority.”
“I object,” Pellegrino growled. “The command was Redfield’s not the conscripts. How can an officer undermine the authority of a junior NCO?”
“Lieutenant Redfield was not leading his troops from the front. He was leading from down there,” Basil said, pointing at the officer’s combat console.
“Irrelevant.” Pellegrino shot back.
“He did not have the same situational awareness that Corporal Rowen had.”
Hope swelled in Rowen’s chest. He spent the last week thinking about being executed in the snow and never seeing his home again. He was growing fond of Sir Basil. He never expected such a vehement defense from a blue blood. This man was actually defending him. He had thought this tribunal would be a formality. He only hoped that his own Lord put him to death. He was scared to think what would happen to they handed him if him over to House Redfield. A slow, painful death would be certain. But it was looking more unlikely, as Sir Basil was strongly arguing his case.
Rowen snapped out of his reverie. He was wasn’t sure how much he had missed.
“This man has an excellent service record. In fact, he should’ve already been promoted to Sergeant months ago.”
“This man is still a peasant that works at his lordship’s meat farm when we’re not off to war.”
“This man has proven himself many times in the lest three skirmishes alone.” Basil pulled up a few video panels. It was battle field drone footage. One panel showed Rowen carrying a wounded man over his shoulder as he sprinted to cover behind a desert mound, delivering the man to medics then rushing out to grab another wounded man.
The next panel showed Rowen’s gun camera as they boarded a pirate ship last year. Every target in his site went down before they could react to his blitzkrieg approach. The last panel showed Rowen just a few weeks ago on Wayfar Three. During some otherwise straight forward urban warfare he ended up fighting hand to hand with a huge bloke. The drone footage showed him quickly and brutally taking down his enemy.
Rowen gaped at the carnage that starred him. He’d seen no combat vids before. His jaw went slack at the fidelity of the footage. Then he realized his betters knew literally everything he and his men had done. He wondered if they had the audio to go with it. He racked his brain, searching his memory for anything he may have said that might be frowned upon.
Lord Bryce smiled and slapped his hand on the table at the action in the holo-screens. “I remember seeing this,” he pointed to the panel with the fisticuffs and frowned. “I thought we were going to promote him after that?”
“Sir Reg failed to follow that order, milord.” Singh replied.
Bryce’s brown furrowed. He muttered something under his breath.
Pellegrino gestured to the screens. “Milord, having basic knowledge on combat and being able to brawl is not uncommon among the peasants,” He pointed a calloused finger at Rowen. “This conscript nearly killed a nobleman. We cannot allow this to go unanswered. He must—”
“Yes, yes, Sir William. I heard your opening statement.” The Duke surveyed the crowd. “Does anyone have anything to add?”
The man stood and confidently strode forward. He wore black fatigues with high boots. His only insignia were a subdued set of Captain’s bars on his collar. Rowen did not recognize the man right off.
“Lord Bryce. I am Sir Tobias Smythe of House Lancaster, and commander of the third company, Death Dealers. I would like to offer some testimony if it pleases milord.”
“Of course, Sir Tobias. Your Lord’s assistance in this latest skirmish was most welcome and appreciated. Please speak your mind.”
Smyth bowed slightly. “I met this man last week. It twas I that handed off the modified seeker to him. Corporal Rowen and his team. They approached my squire and I so stealthily that they caught by surprise.”
There was an indistinct murmur of commentary from the audience.
“That’s quite a thing for an augmented officer of the famed Death Dealers to admit to.” Bryce said.
“I believe in giving credit where it is due, milord. And I bring it up precisely because these were unaugmented men with archaic arms and armor.”
The crowd stirred at this comment.
Bryce frowned at the growing crowd. “All right, keep it down.”
They complied instantly.
Sir William Pellegrino turned to the Death Dealer. “Apologies, Sir. Are you saying we should outfit our conscripts with the same arms and armor reserved for the professionals?”
Smyth crisply pivoted towards the prosecutor. “Not necessarily, sir. But if they could approach us without the advantage of a modern kit, just imagine how effective they could be with it,” He smoothed his tunic. “That is neither here nor there.” He turned back to Lord Bryce.
Pellegrino stood and sneered. “These are not nobles. They are only peasants.”
Smythe regarded him coolly. “A man that is not a noble is still a man. And every man that bears your colors is an asset on the battlefield.”
Pellegrino opened his mouth to retort, but he caught the warning in his Duke’s eyes and sat back down instead.
The Death Dealer continued. “it saddened me to hear that we lost this squad. Their sacrifice in completing that mission allowed my company to have a victory nearly devoid of casualties.”
The knight looked to Rowen and nodded out of respect for the man, if not the title.
Rowen found little comfort in all this. He knew his station. And while he appreciated the kind words, he felt awkward. He did not know how he was supposed to respond to praise in this setting. He gave a slight nod back, then averted his eyes to the ground. He also noticed he left out the part about offer to kit the squad from his own pocket. It mattered not since he was the only one left. He appreciated that fact that a noble had stated the obvious about equipping all troops to succeed. He wished he could tell Sir Tobias that.
“I contacted Redfield right after our hand-off. I told him same as I’ve told you. And he rebuffed my comments.”
“I understand that you must address his actions towards the young Redfield,” He slid his eyes towards Pellegrino then back to Bryce, “But I would ask that if this man must die for that crime, at least make it a clean death. A warrior’s death,” he paused. “This man’s bravery in the face of certain doom saved my blood blooded arse, and my men, so we didn’t have to die light years from home and hearth.”
A few light chuckles came from the still growing crowd.
“Thank you for that, Sir Tobias. I will inform your Lord that your wise council helped me to make a difficult decision.”
Smyth bowed and took a step back, then reclaimed his seat that his squire had saved from the throng of officers and soldiers that had arrived to hear the verdict.
Bryce made eye contact with Sir Ren, he acknowledged.
“All rise!” Ren shouted to the crowd. They jumped to their feet.
Rowen stood. He could feel the eyes of his duke boring into him. He was afraid to look him in the eye. It went against everything they taught him growing up. He took a deep breath and met his lord’s gaze. If he would die. He might as well look his judge in the eye.
“Corporal John Rowen.” Bryce announced as if he was doing roll call.
Rowen snapped to the position of attention. His eyes stabbed the wall in front of him.
“For your undisputed crime. I find you guilty.”
Those words quietly rippled through the crowd.
Bryce paused, weighing his words. “The sentence for that crime is death.”
He glared a warning to the unquiet crowd. They quieted.
The command center was so quiet, straining to hear, you could’ve heard a mouse fart.
“I have the authority to offer a choice.”
The room was utterly still.
“You may accept death by firing squad to be carried out forth with. Or…”
Nervous tension ripped through the room like an electric current.
“Or, you may fight for the glory of my House and the opportunity to clear your name in the Imperial Circus. What say you, Sergeant Rowen?”
Rowen blinked. It took a moment to digest the duke’s words. “Milord. I accept.”
“The firing squad or the games?” Bryce asked, trying to keep the smirk off his face.
Rowen gasped. “Oh. The games, milord. The games.”
“Very well. You will be transported to my Household, where you will train under the master that taught me.”
Rowen bowed deeply. He didn’t trust his voice to speak.
“Make it so.” Bryce commanded. Striking the table with a fist.
The crowd erupted. A huge smile split Sir Basil’s face. He slapped Rowen’s shoulder.
Rowen was still gob smacked. It never occurred to him that there was even the slightest possibility he might live past this day. It was a lot to process.
Sir William Pellegrino approached. He let out a long breath and shook his head. “I wonder…”
Rowen straightened. “Yes, sir?”
“I wonder how long it will be before you realize that the firing squad would have been an easier choice.”