It was the smile that gave him away. Even the greenest recruit on the cosiest core-world assignment knew of General Heston's reputation, and the stories of punishments dealt out for the lightest offences chilled the blood of all who heard them. Those stories were to pale in comparison to the tale of Private Vetch, which was destined to be a guaranteed conversation-stopper around every Unity Navy mess table from Hope IV to Adamant Station.
It began one day in April. Colonel Lupe would later recount in great and embellished detail the circumstances in which Vetch came to be a member of 423rd Gunners, but the facts of the matter were disappointingly mundane. After a few years as a wrench monkey on an Arbiter Fuel Corp Atlas-class freighter, the kid had applied for Unity citizenship and a stint in the Navy. It was a fairly common way to earn points towards citizenship to do a five-year service for the Unity Navy, and there was nothing remarkable about Vetch's case whatsoever. Even the first year of that service passed uneventfully, until April and the final rehearsal for the Unity Day Parade.
The 423rd had been given the distinguished honour of carrying the flag of Mercy Prime, the homeworld of the current reigning Archon. This meant a great deal of drilling, practice, and, of course, inspection. Every uniform had to be perfectly pressed and wrinkle-free, every pin, badge and button polished to an unnatural shine. It seemed to the men and women of the 423rd that every general, admiral and bureaucrat in the command or employ of Unity had poked polished preened or pruned them in the course of the weeks preceding the ceremony. Needless to say it was all starting to seem more trouble than it was worth.
Colonel Lupe was damned if he was going to let his unit show him up, however. He kept discipline in the ranks with an iron fist and an even stronger gaze, which swept the ranks during every inspection daring someone to so much as twitch out of line. Even the usual troublemakers, Fark and Benit in particular, remained in perfect form throughout every rehearsal. But Lupe knew the hardest test was yet to come. It was all very well his gunners behaving while the secondary adjunct to the department head for apparel and uniform at the Bureau of Ceremonies was looking them over, but the real trial would be Heston. Lupe had known some tough generals in his time, hard disciplinarians who stamped down on casual behaviour with all the weight of their elevated rank - but Heston was in a league of his own. He was not simply obsessed with discipline, but rather saw the ideal motivational tool as being fear. Keep the common ranks terrified of retribution, he reasoned, and they'll stay in line as if their lives depended on it. When he was in charge, this was far more than a figure of speech.
The fateful day dawned bright and clear, and Lupe set the companies drilling in the parade ground at first light. After an hour he allowed himself a little optimism; the uniforms were crisp, the metal fixtures were shining brilliantly, the formations were flawless. Perhaps it would go off without a hitch. Another hour passed before the general's open-top military hovercar pulled up in front of the arrayed gunners of the 423rd. Heston stepped out onto the fine gravel of the parade ground with the easy yet considered bearing of a man who had lived his every waking moment steeped in the Navy. His large white moustache dominated his otherwise average features and made him resemble a walrus more than any other creature on any of the human colonies. He approached the near end of the front rank, and began his inspection.
Unfortunately - particularly, as it turned out, for Private Vetch - General Heston suffered from a slight speech impediment which turned his Rs to Ws. To any innocent onlooker this made the whole affair rather comical, but the disciplined gunners of the 423rd were absolutely perfect in their complete lack of reaction. Even when the general approached Private Fark, thrusting his walrus-like visage into the poor gunner's face and using the words "thwee hundwed" in what he said to him, Fark remained the very picture of discipline even as Lupe felt his stomach tighten into a cold knot, certain the man would crack. But Fark was no fool; he knew when it was time to mess around and when it was time to behave.
Vetch, however, was a different matter. Perhaps it was because he had barely been with the company for twelve months, or perhaps it was because he was still used to the loose discipline of freighter crews. Whatever the reason, when Heston treated him to a close-up chat and used one too many Rs in a sentence, Vetch lost control of the corners of his mouth, which twitched up ever so slightly. Heston's expression was somewhere between scandal and triumph as he wheeled away, face turning crimson with righteous rage. Lupe was never quite able to recall the logical progression which Heston had used to get from Vetch's smile to the conclusion that the gunner was a rebel sympathiser and spy, set amongst the 423rd to gether intelligence and perhaps even conduct sabotage. But he had the good sense to keep his doubts on that score to himself.
Thus it was that Colonel Lupe and the rest of the 423rd gunners stood in careful and disciplined silence as the Private was marched ten paces forward from his place in the ranks and sumarily beaten senseless by the general using a stout cudgel-like baton. Even when he dropped helpless to the dust, more blows landed on his unconscious body. Finally, when the violence was over, Vetch twitched once, then twice, and was still.
The funeral services were extensive, and Vetch was buried with full military honours as befitted a Lieutenant of the intelligence wing of the Varangian Navy. Though cut tragically short, his mission had provided valuable intelligence to the rebels and would play its part in the next strike against Unity.
Set shortly after the formation of the Varangian Alliance, this short piece tells the story of the last days of a rebel spy placed in the Unity Navy. In those early years the Varangian forces suffered a significant lack of advanced discipline due to the rushed training which was all they could afford. Many people were recruited straight out of local planetary militias, and often lacked the skills and attitude required of a major galactic power. Nevertheless, the cost of having no agents in the field infiltrating the enemy was considered greater than those agents being poorly-trained. It had to be better than nothing, essentially.