~~~ ~~~~ ~~~
Less than a minute later, he knocked on a door, then stepped through and announced himself, “ Sir, Sergeant McKendrey reporting as ordered,” as he came to the position of attention. He expected to be told to ‘stand easy’, but the two people in the room ignored him. So he stood for what seemed an eternity with his posture upright and rigid, heels together so his feet formed a forty-five degree angle exactly, hands slightly cupped with the thumbs at the seam of his pants, and his eyes fixed at a spot on the wall some six inches above his own height.
In his peripheral vision, McKendrey could see a woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a Marine Corps-issued physical fitness uniform with Gunnery Sergeant insignia on the sleeves, sitting on the couch to his right. Her relaxed poise, with one foot folded up under her and the other leg held to her chest with both hands behind the knee, belied the fact she was examining the Sergeant as closely as if during a formal inspection. On the desk exactly thirty inches in front of him lay a Marine officer’s standard duty uniform with the silver bars of a First Lieutenant pinned to the collar. The nametag on the breast read ‘Zychowski.’ To his left was an open door, through which he could almost see one of the men he took off the civilian freighter.
The man stepped out, stripped to the waist and his face lathered up in an attempt to shave a month’s growth of beard off. “Damnit! Damnit all, this just isn’t going to work,” he exclaimed as he threw a razor in the trash bin. “Linda, you wouldn’t happen to have a straight razor, would you?”
“No, but I understand one of the troops has a K-bar you could shave the fuzz off a peach with.”
The man looked at McKendrey and made him feel as if he were under a microscope. “Sergeant,” he said slowly, and he walked all the way around the Marine until he was standing directly in front of him, nose to nose, “You wouldn’t happen to know of whom Gunnery Sergeant Hawthorn speaks, would you?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Do you think I might be able to borrow said K-bar?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” With a quick motion, he lifted his foot just high enough for his hand to pull the antique knife from its sheath and presented it, hilt first of course, to the man. From the corner of his eye, McKendrey watched as the other man tested the blade’s edge with his thumbnail, then disappearing through the door. For several minutes, he heard the man’s humming over the sound of running water.
When he came out, toweling his face, shaved as clean and smooth as a newborn baby, he handed McKendrey back his K-bar, then picked up the uniform and disappeared again. Moments later, Marine First Lieutenant Zychowski reappeared. “Sergeant, why am I here? Why am I not still on the freighter, working undercover?”
“Sir, I didn’t know until my team was on board. Sir, when I ....”
“So when DeWitt nearly blew my cover, you took it upon yourself to pull me out, is that it? Do you think I needed your help, Sergeant?” Zychowski roared. “I was this close,” he held his thumb and fore-finger a millimeter apart, “this close to locking in on who’s been selling Star Fleet secrets to the Klingons!”
“Sir, no, sir!” This wasn’t the first time McKendrey had seen his platoon leader lose his temper, but it was by far the worst. “It was on Commander Isenberg’s orders, sir. He said to bring you home immediately, sir.”
“So you came looking for me, then? And how did you ... he ... know which ship I’d be on? I didn’t transfer to the Santa Maria
until five days ago.”
“No, sir, I didn't know anything about it until after we beamed over and I reported in; that's when Commander Isenberg told me to pull you, sir. I don’t know how he knew you were onboard, sir.”
“Really?” He stepped over until they were nose-to-nose again. “You have no idea? Perhaps the Skipper’s clairvoyant -- is that what you're saying?”
“Sir, no, sir!”
“Do you think he might be a psychic? How else would he have known when I was? I sure didn't pick up a communicator and call him! Maybe he's some sort of God -- have you thought of that?”
“Sir, no, sir! He’s not a Marine, sir!”
Gunny Thorns snorted a laugh and put her forehead on her knee to hide her face. A slight smile broke, for just a second, on LT. Z’s face. “So, out of the clear blue sky, he told you I was onboard and that you should put me under arrest?”
“Sir, no, sir! I mean, yes, sir, he told me you were onboard, and to bring you home. Actually, all he said was ‘there’s an under-cover Star Fleet officer onboard; find him and pull him out,’ so I don’t believe the Commander knew that you were the one under cover, sir. The arresting part was my idea. I just didn’t know whether you’d have to go back under cover, so I wanted to preserve your cover story as best I could, sir.”
“Your idea? And you enjoyed it, didn’t you, Sergeant?”
“Sir, no, sir.”
“Really? I would have, if I’d been in your place.” He stepped back and walked around to his desk. “And where was the Officer of the Watch? Don’t tell me Commander Isenberg put you in charge of the boarding action.”
“Sir, yes, sir. He did, sir.”
“Really? I’m going to have to talk with him.” He picked up the civilian clothes he’d been wearing and took something from the shirt pocket. It was the wad of cash Madre Chavez put there, saying it was his pay due to him. There was a slip of paper in it, and something else the Sergeant couldn’t see. The Lieutenant stared at it for several seconds, then slowly sat down. “Stand easy, Sergeant,” he ordered in a much calmer tone.
“Aye aye, sir,” responded McKendrey as he relaxed -- slightly -- to parade rest, with his feet shoulder-width apart and hand together in the small of his back.
“So, tell me, how’d you like being in charge of a boarding action?” Gunnery Sergeant Hawthorn spoke up for the first time; her voice was quiet yet husky, almost sexy. But McKendrey knew, from personal experience, she could make it crack like a whip, and although she was slim and petite no one thought of her as soft, especially not during hand-to-hand combat training.
“It was fine, Gunny. Rather interesting. I think I learned a lot.”
“You think? You don’t know?” she snapped. “Give us a run down, and we’ll decide if you learned anything.” McKendrey spent the next several minutes detailing, in short concise bullet-statements, the events of the past half hour. When he finished, she said, “Very well. See any mistakes?”
McKendrey thought about that for a moment, then responded, “A few, I think.”
“Have a seat, Sergeant,” Zychowski motioned him to the hard, straight-backed chair. McKendrey found it more uncomfortable than standing. “Now, let’s talk about some of those mistakes. Name one.”
“DeWitt, sir. I should have handle him better.”
“How so?” the Gunny asked. He offered a couple possibilities. “I disagree. I think you did fine. And so did he ... he’s not dumb, you know. Actually, he’s pretty smart, just uneducated, coming from a back-water planet and all. But what’s this I hear about the others taking to calling him Dimwit?”
“I put an end to that, Gunny. I may have to sit on Blueberry, but I think everyone else got the message.”
“Good,” Zychowski said. “Speaking of Blueberry ... he called down here to complain just before you knocked. I understand you handed out some punishment to him?”
McKendrey started to say ‘yes’, but checked himself. “No sir. You’re the only one that can issue punishment, sir. I had a hole in the duty roster to fill, so I filled it, sir.”
Gunny Thorns chuckled, “Good answer, Sergeant.”
“Yes, good answer. Gunny took his call, so I’m staying out of it for now. Just don’t overdo it. Now then,” the Lieutenant opened his PADD -- prompting McKendrey to think ‘he took notes?’ -- and started at the top of the list, “let’s start with your first mistake. You told the Skipper, and I quote, ‘All secure, beginning inspection’, but you had not secured the bridge yet.”
For the next hour or so, Zychowski and Hawthorn dissected the junior Marine’s performance. To his credit, McKendrey did not squirm; in fact, most of his responses were “No excuse, sir.” Just when he thought he hadn’t done a thing right, Gunny Thorns asked why he didn’t cuff Madre Chavez. He explained his rationale. The Gunny commented that she would have put her in cuffs, too.
Lieutenant Zychowski gave her a strange look. “No, Linda, that would have been a mistake. He was absolutely right on that call. In fact, Sergeant, it wasn’t all bad.” And he proceeded to list the things he did right.
At the top of that list was how he’d let Corporal Ackar handle the prisoners. That was something McKendrey liked about L.T. Z: the way he let his NCOs run the team while he handled the mission. All his previous platoon leaders wanted to micro-manage everything. As a young corporal, McKendrey promised himself he wouldn’t do that should he find himself in charge of a mission.
The officer finished reciting his list. It was longer than the NCO expected but shorter than he hoped for. “Well, Sergeant, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your performance today?”
McKendrey mulled this over for a moment. “A five, sir. Maybe a six.”
Zychowski nodded. “Gunny?”
“At least a six. For a first time, a seven.”
He nodded again. “Definitely a seven. Not bad for a first go, but I expect better next time, Sergeant.”
“Next time, sir?”
“Yes, next time. Did you think this was a one-time deal? Here,” he took a book off the shelf behind him, “read this. Now, go grab some chow.”
McKendrey looked at the book. Lincoln On Leadership. He handed it back. “Thank you, sir, but I have a copy.” He stood up at attention and saluted. The Lieutenant returned his salute and dismissed him.
“So, what do you think?” Gunny Thorns asked after the door closed.
“You’re right ... lots of potential in that one. He’ll be a fine Gunny some day.”
“No, he won’t.”
Zychowski looked at her incredulously, “He won’t?”
“Thinks fast on his feet, putting you under arrest like that. Handled the mission but didn't micro-manage the troops. Knows when to give a pat on the back or a kick in the pants." She paused for dramatic affect. "I think he’ll make a fine Lieutenant some day.”
He gapped at her in disbelief. “Damnit, Linda! That’s the fifth one. The Corp needs good Top NCOs more than it needs another junior officer.”
“I’m already working on Ackar and Porterfield ...they’re your future top dogs. Blueberry, too, if he’ll grow up. But when you’re a Major or a light Colonel, you’re going to want Lieutenants like O’Neil and Carlson and Nakamora ... and McKendrey ... under your command. You’re just ticked because I pushed you over to the dark side, too.” She let that sink in for a moment. “And your count is all wrong. You were number seven, and McKendrey will make eighteen. Now, let’s go grab some chow, sir.”
~~~ ~~~~ ~~~