Short Story: Mistakes Unchanged

Emile Manning had been in the motor-pool roughly four years now. He’d signed up as a heart-sick teen intent on a two-year deployment. He’d always preferred motor-pool maintenance, had done everything to ensure he ended up there. He took the tests, aced them, met the veterans, got in good with the job placement guys. When he finished boot, he got to where he wanted, spent a few months as a greenie gopher, passed muster, inspection, and P-T every day with flying colors, and when it finally came time to apply that discipline to his “dream job,”he did.

Maybe that was his mistake; dreaming of an average job in a sup-par part of the world. Who knows, maybe it was just being born.

In any case, he landed the job and shipped-out to Mid-East for a front-line motor-pool. His first few months established his routine of rising for chow, then watching the other guys head off for patrol, before he headed off to repair the HMMVs they ended up trashing.

Humvees weren’t his specialty, though he could breakdown and rebuild one with his eyes closed. He was to machines what foot-soldiers were to rifles. He knew every piece of the motor-pool, could hear when one was about to trash the others and require a rebuild. The EOD guys kept the roads safe, but Emile kept the people traveling them safer. Patriotism may’ve fueled the Army but sweat kept running, and Emile could sweat like no other.

So when General Hardin came through the motor-pool, he found Emile ass-deep in an Abrams tank– his actual specialty– and its jet-engine motor. The tank’s rearwas disassembled and scattered around the repair garage. Some jokerthought it a genius idea to ramp the thing off a ditch and onto a massive boulder. Sure, the tank had made it, even caught some air, but at the cost of a compressor and a few air and fuel lines.

The idiot brought it down too hard, forced the compressor to re-seat in its casing. When the pressure sky-rocketed in the lines, they burst and sprayed fuel, oil, and air everywhere. The resulting mess required an entire tear-down, cleaning, and rebuild. If Emile had been the unmotivated type, he’d have had the whole turbine scrapped but he liked the challenge.

He’d already torn down most of the saturated parts, replaced the lines and repaired the compressor, but still had over half the engine to clean and check before reassembly. His mind was empty, like a Buddha in meditation. The only thing he knew was the autonomous way he worked.

And, occasionally, the question of how the hell the thing hadn’t caught fire, exploded, and killed every one aboard. Jet fuel was highly volatile, after all.

General Hardin approached and called for attention. Emile dropped his tools, banged his knee, and stood board stiff with a grimace and a salute.

“General sir, Master Sergeant Emile Manning, awaiting orders, sir.”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the General instructed.

Light hit the four, silver stars on Hardin’s shoulders and Emile’s military instincts kicked in. He fell back into his routine immediately, ignoring Hardin’s continued presence. He’d been taught to power through anything to do his job, had even replaced an alternator on a stranded Humvee in pitch-dark night during a fire-fight.

Normally, they’d have just called out a tower, brought the old rig in and exchanged it for another. The fire-fight meant possibly never returning; someone else could get it. They couldn’t allow that. Short of scuttling the damned thing, they’d lose it unless Emile went out; the best, fastest mechanic in the whole damned army. He took it as a personal challenge to get the thing running again or die trying.

Maybe that was why Hardin was there now. He didn’t know. It’d been a while since that stunt, but there was a definite hint of evaluation to the air. Emile ignored it, but the little pill of curiosity was there, in the back of his head.

He emerged from the rebuild, expecting Hardin to question his break. Any normal human would’ve collapsed hours ago from heat. Between sweat, grease, jet-fuel and oil, even Emile was pushing it.

But that was the US Army; best of the best from the cream of the crop. Or in other words, damned if you did, damned if you didn’t.

Emile grabbed for a canteen at the edge of the torn-down tank-ass and threw back a few gulps. It wasn’t until he capped off the canteen again that he saw the General sitting a few paces away, studying him pensively. An awkward moment later, Emile spoke up, damned either way, but damned curious at that.

“General, sir, permission to speak, sir?”

“Granted, Sergeant,” Hardin said, rising to bridge the gap between them.

“Is there something you need, sir?” Emile noticed even the hardened, old man was red, sweating. “I only ask, sir, because I imagine you’d want to be as far from this heat as anyone.”

The General chuckled. He actually chuckled. And smiled. Emile’s surprise was obvious, less due to the fact that the often-enigmatic creature-type before him laughed than that he could laugh. He figured there was some regulation against it; an unspoken, secret code upper-echelon officers adhered to with subordinates.

“Son, I don’t know whether to commend your honesty or take offense to your implication.”

Emile stammered out a reply, “S-sir, I-I meant no–”

“I know you didn’t, son,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Point is, I am out here for a reason.”

Emile’s ears perked up. He couldn’t help it. His curiosity piqued, and if the General was truly speaking freely, and to Emile of all people, there was cause for interest.

“Sir?”

The General eyed him, then the engine, “I want to see you finish this thing, son. How much longer d’you estimate it’ll take? A straight answer. No bullshit bravado, understand?”

Emile gave a nod, and a “Yes, sir.”

He thought the question over in earnest; he could probably finish in a few hours, but that meant skimping some of the cleaning. He didn’t like the idea, but it was more a point of personal pride than necessity.

“Four or Five hours, ‘pending on if I take my time cleaning the parts, sir.”

The General retook his seat, “Do the job right, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir.”He threw back another gulp of water and set to work.

The next five hours he did his job and did it well. He was zen; in a state of mind where repairing the turbine engine and cleaning each piece became more autonomous than anything he’d ever done before. Had he been a machine, they’d have modeled a production line after him. After all “do the job right”to a General meant time was the price paid for immaculate work.

Enlisted guys like Emile had learned to tell good officers from bad ones that way. Good officers knew to let their subordinates get the job done right, pushing however they wanted or needed, but not so much they forced their guys to fuck up. Bad officers thought perfection was a possibility, thus always demanded more, then bitched when things did fuckup. Thankfully, General Hardinseemed the former.

Emile finished near dusk. The heat had retreated, but the General remained in his seat, as passive and observing as he’d been all day. The other mechanics would fit the engine tomorrow morning, run the Abrams through her paces. Even so, there was no doubt in any mind the thing would run better than new.

Emile threw back the last of his now-warm water and the General stood from his seat. “I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen a better mechanic than you, son.”

“Thank you, sir,”he said, again in earnest.

“The reason I’m here’s classified, but if you agree, I’ll brief you on the way to your new deployment.”

“Sir?”

“I’m not gonna’ lie to you son, it’s work. There’s no pay raise, and no promotion, but you serve your country and put for your god-given gifts to the test everyday. You agree, and you’ll be rewarded, no doubt about that.”

Emile wasn’t one to deny officers their requests. That was suicide, physically and occupationally. More than that it meant ignoring his curiosity.

“I don’t expect you’d have stuck around this long unless you needed me, sir, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect you by declining. So… yes, sir, whatever you have for me, I’ll do.”

In retrospect, that was his mistake. It wasn’t dreaming of a certain job, or being disciplined enough to be damned good at it, or even just being born. Rather, it was the blind acceptance and plunging curiosity’s dick-first into something new.

It took a couple days, but when he saw the General again, he was dressed in his finest dress-greens, pins and all, and looking respectable. He and the General boarded a plane and twenty disorienting hours later, landed in the states. Emile could’ve kissed the ground, or indeed the General, on seeing America again and prematurely at that. It had been four years. Four too-damned long years.

His great mistake? He learned it all too soon. He and the General were escorted to an awaiting helicopter, to a nearby training academy, then to a nondescript building. They rode an elevator more floors down than he thought possible and emerged into something even more impossible.

The doors opened onto a skunkworks like a massive production-floor with obvious prototype fighting machines. Emile salivated; jet-turbines, combustion engines, sleek and boxy angles, armored plated tanks, APCS, next-gen HMMVs.

General Hardin escorted him through the building toward a back-office, took a seat at a desk, and offering one to Emile.

“You agreed, son, so this is the deal; you work here, under cover of still being on deployment. Nothing externally changes. Your family still believes you’re deployed. Everyone does. Everyday you wake up, come down here, and build the shit outta’ whatever the Engineers request. Test it. Beat the hell out of it. Whatever it takes to make the world a little safer in the process. In exchange, you stay safe, and out of that festering pisshole you came from. Sound good?”

What else could Emile say but yes? He knew even then he was making a mistake; slaking his curiosity with unimaginable change, prospects and projects he’d never dreamed of, all while never being able to tell anyone.

Still, he couldn’t deny the allure as he glanced out the General’s office window at the vehicles in their varying states of assembly. He was almost giddy.

“When do I start?”

The General chuckled and smiled again; some mistakes were best left unchanged.

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