The commander of the 382nd penal battalion had a firm but genital hold on his men: he had them by the balls and didn’t need to squeeze very hard for everyone to jump, and Corporal Ashton was his favorite way to squeeze.
Ashton commanded a regiment, which, as a corporal, he shouldn’t. Ashton gave orders to captains, which he shouldn’t either. Ashton fired live rounds over the heads of the men to get them moving, but no one really cared. Ashton should have been the most hated man in the service, but he wasn’t.
Corporal Ashton was blessed.
Friendly fire never happened to Corporal Ashton. Close air support never landed on Corporal Ashton. The radio link to divisional artillery always worked for Corporal Ashton. Penal always gets the hairiest jobs but the 382nd had the lowest casualty rates in the division. When the commander wanted to squeeze, all he had to do was draft an order transferring corporal Ashton to another battalion and leave it conspicuously unsigned on his monitor. Whatever problem annoyed him disappeared immediately. Ashton was blessed. He was blessed right until the day he died.
I know, I was there. I had just punched out Rolinski and gotten a fifteen minute court martial and another six month stint in penal, which was fine by me since that was the reason I had punched out Rolinski in the first place. He didn’t mind; he’d done the same to me two months earlier and for the same reason. We were both in Ashton’s company. When the commander wanted to reward you, he put you in Ashton’s company.
I was on Ashton duty that day. Ashton always sat on the third chair at the third table from the door in the mess. He always took two scoops of powdered scrambled eggs with his left hand from a fresh tray. The chefs always put out a new tray when Ashton entered. Once a freshie had taken a scoop right before Ashton. We stomped that shit so badly he got a medical discharge. Ashton didn’t mind. The chef whipped up a fresh tray in four minutes flat and Ashton took two scoops with his left hand. Now the chow line emptied the moment Ashton walked into the mess.
Ashton duty wasn’t very demanding. You had to keep Ashton’s table clear. You had to make sure that there were exactly four pieces of toast on his plate at all times and that his glass was never empty and never more than half full. Ashton wasn’t fussy. The toast could be old and hard as long as there were four pieces of it.
I’d just placed another piece of toast on his plate as the mail call rolled by. You always got mail immediately, no matter where, since you could be dead the next hour, but printouts were reserved for death and disgrace. Ashton finished his meal before tearing the seal off his. He put it on the table. Then he smashed his arm over it and I only glimpsed the very beginning and very end. Seniority in line of duty, Congratulations Sergeant Ashton. Ashton turned pale. He didn’t move, and I didn’t say a thing, but rumor spreads.
That evening we were called out to this no-fire zone the PR-guys had set up. The engineers were widening a track so that the trucks could get through, and they’d taken some rounds from an indig village. Ashton’s company was to storm the village and remove the holdup.
The ground was full of shallow ditches going lengthwise between the road and the vill, and there were some trees but no bushes, so it’d be hell to run through, and we wouldn’t have any cover when we did it. Penal always got the hairy jobs.
But divisional artillery put down a light barrage in the fields on the other side of the vill to keep the indigs from doing a Houdini exit, and then Ashton stuck his head up and yelled, and we all started running, and the indigs must have been reloading or something because we ended up with eight kills and no vacancies in our rooster even though Morales’ suit seized up and Bauman fell into a sinkhole.
We felt pretty good, and some of the guys even joked about Ashton getting command of all the battalion now that he’d been promoted, but Ashton shut them down. When we got to base he didn’t take his suit off.
Now, you don’t just remove a guy’s suit. He had to unlock his faceplate and fastenings or the thing stayed on, and Ashton stood there like a statue painted in active camo while the tech was hovering over his shoulder. Then he removed his helm, flipped it into the air twice and slammed it down on the diagnosis board.
We all smiled and congratulated each other. Ashton was still blessed.
The next day he didn’t come for breakfast. Bauman was on Ashton duty, and he just stood outside Ashton’s quarters and waited and waited. Then Ashton showed up, and his face looked like a sheet someone had dipped in charcoal and painted lips on. He’d never looked tired before. But he got to the mess and scooped two scoops with his left hand and ate half a toast and drank enough water to fill a tub.
I looked at Rolinski, and he looked as shit scared as I felt.
We got called out again that day. Two in a row was bad but not unheard of, especially not for penal. We were to take a wooded hill with some sort of indig temple on it, so there’d be no artillery and no close air support, and we weren’t to shoot at or into the temple at all costs. Cultural liaison mission it was called.
So we went up the hill while indigs with heavy weapons did things to stop us. A 90 mm shell took Morales’ head off, and actual blood actually spurted. The battlefield recording became a viral hit, and the commander was not pleased. We got back to base, and Ashton removed his helmet and flipped it.
The helmet clattered to the floor. Ashton stood there, hands out, while everyone held their breaths. Then Ashton walked off, suit and all, to his quarters. I looked at Rolinski, and I bet he was thinking how stupid he’d been to punch me out, for I was thinking the same thing about him.
Ashton didn’t show up for mess call, and then he didn’t show for roll call. Then the call came in that intel had found an indig weapons factory buried in a hillside eighty klicks into the wilds and the 382nd was called out for the third time.
We went out without Ashton. Everything went wrong.
H company got ambushed and lost twenty guys in the first five minutes. G company was sent to relieve them and got chewed up. Then Ashton’s company was ordered to relieve them, and we moved up, but the close air support overshot the valley and wiped out most of first platoon. When we finally knocked out the indigs, the 382nd had thirty percent casualties.
When we got back to base, the door to Ashton’s quarters had been breached. An MP was bagging Ashton’s personals and a piece of rope hung from the crossbeam. Ashton was gone, the morale was gone, and the commander started putting guys before the firing squad.
The 382nd was no longer blessed and nobody punched anybody out to stay in it.
At age ten, FILIP WILTGREN realized that he wanted to be a writer. His magnum opus, “Ragnar as a policeman,” was produced a few days later, rapidly followed by its sequels, “Ragnar goes underwater” and “Ragnar in space.” He then made the mistake of comparing Ragnar to Frodo & Co. and spent the next thirty years in mortal terror of actually writing until realizing that he would die no matter what, so he might as well let his creativity roam before it happened.