"Not so fast, sir!"
From the rattled and unsatisfied crowd emerged a familiar figure, the only survivor from A-group, Lieutenant Heinrich Schubert. His complexion went through a heaven-defying change, turning from unhealthy pale to unnatural reddish shade, which made the young officer look like a scary, yet cute blond doll.
Surprisingly, Steiner seemed agitated.
"May I know whom you have contacted at headquarters, sir?"
In previous encounters, Schubert acted like a timid child, quickly yielding to his superiors, be it Colonel Steiner or Major Milano. Now the rage helped him to overcome the shyness, and in an untypical decisive manner, he dared to call Steiner out.
Flabbergasted Gromov noticed that the gunner standing behind his officer revealed no signs of surprise. Almost as if he was expecting such a development.
"Calm down, Heinrich," Colonel said in a firm, yet respectful tone. "You just don't understand."
"Don't I? Explain to me, then, why you deemed necessary to send my uncle to certain death."
"Heinrich! I most certainly did not send anyone to death. Ma-Major Milano has died in action. He was a soldier, the good one, and he would be rather upset listening to you now. He was well aware of the risks."
"You are lying, sir. We all have overheard the communication. My uncle made you several times to repeat your order. Why do you think he would do that? Because he was deaf?"
While Schubert got excited, yelling with tears in his eyes, Steiner countered him almost casually.
"It was necessary, Heinrich. I can offer you my sincere condolences, but please understand, I had no better alternatives."
"Oh, had you not?"
Schubert pointed his finger at Gromov and said through gritted teeth. "You had. Captain Gromov proved as much. And you knew from the start he could do that. Instead, you chose to suppress his objections."
With Gromov's name on the table, Steiner lost his composure: "Inner enemies think alike, Lieutenant. I would never dishonor my units by adopting that man's tactics. He is an ultimate coward. Be proud of your red numbers. Do you know why Gromov has none? Do you know why he needs to bathe in sheer cowardice? Striking like a guerilla? Taking his sweet time, which could have endangered millions of innocent lives?"
Gromov could not help but roll his eyes after Steiner's declamation. "How I ended up endangering millions of lives," he asked curiously. "This was your job, Colonel."
"Be-Bending the truth according to your wishes, Sava?" The staggering Colonel became familiar and sarcastic. "Just tell them your little ugly secret. Are you too embarrassed to share? Tell them or I will tell them myself."
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"You-You don't? Alright, I guess cowards never reveal themselves. No dignity in you, Sava, no dignity. You suggested I should have shot myself. Now it is your tu-turn. If you insist, we all give you the privacy you need."
"Colonel, just spit my dirty secrets already. Are you referring to nasty magazines under my bed?"
"Hahaha. A joker to the very sad end, aren't you? Listen to me, everyone! I had all the principled reasons why protect my people from the influence of this Captain Gromov. He is the cancer of Space Forces. The self-proclaimed ace of Dolzano base is actually the disease, undermining the most advanced upper hand our Space Forces have. Listen to me! HE HAS NO LIFE BACKUP!"
With the last sentence, Colonel hammered his case. But the impact failed to reach his audience; if he expected infuriated soldiers to lynch Gromov, they had miserably disappointed him. Pilots and gunners appeared astonished, but no anger manifested on their faces.
"You have no backup, sir?" Anezka Kurowska poked Gromov curiously. "Has the procedure failed? Or you were too huge to squeeze inside the scanner?"
"You should gasp in horror," he winked. "I am a monster."
Generally, Gromov did not enjoy the company of people he was not familiar with. But he felt at comfortable with her, almost like with Andrey.
After the realization that the bomb he dropped did not explode, Steiner insisted, "When Q-Fields had rendered guided missiles obsolete, Space Forces had to replace electronics by other means. But there is no death for you. No one else could claim the same privilege, not even other corpses of Advanced nations. Only you are immortal. But there is the price to pay. Captain Gromov's example obstructs the basic principles of modern warfare."
"Wait! Are you implying we are mere human torpedos?"
A bewildered voice expressed their common thought.
"In case of need, unfortunately yes."
"But Gromov proved this was not the case. We managed to accomplished our mission."
"Quite on contrary," Steiner retorted. "Captain Gromov willingly sabotaged my orders, which led to the prolonged battle. If not for him, you could have destroyed the carriers much sooner."
Realization dawned on them. Except for Gromov, the rest probably thought that Colonel was just being irrational or stubborn, not willing to step down because of hurt pride.
"He is a madman," whispered Lieutenant Kurowska. "Total nuts. This is not normal, isn't it? Does he believe we could've slid through Plantarians just like that?"
She snapped her fingers.
Delusional Steiner, not paying heed to their frightened looks, went on: "You should not have re-returned. If not for Gromov, my last order would have guaranteed the peace for your unsettled minds. Look at you, Heinrich. If you were dead, you would not get over-sensitive about the death of Ma-Major Milano. After a successful backup, you would be proud of a new red number on your sleeve. You'd be we-welcome like a hero. Now, you are spoiled into thinking there's an alternative. I'm afraid you have no future under my command."
"Under your command?"
Horrified, Schubert was at the loss of his words. No one would willingly stay under Steiner's command after he had revealed the way he was thinking.
"Yes," Colonel nodded seriously. "Re-Rest assured I will arrange your transfer as soon as possible. We have no need for ro-rotten apples here. As for Captain Gromov..."
Steiner made a quick motion of his hand towards MPs. "What are you waiting for, you two? Just take this traitor away."
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.