Las Vegas. As unlikely a place for an international military conference as any. An eyebrow or two lifted around the world, as people wondered who had dreamed up that idea. Some rejoiced, in an instant planning what else they would be doing in the city of sins in whatever spare time available - or what they might have to use as a bargaining chip to be allowed a day or two extra on site. Others - needless to say - considered such conferences a total waste of time that otherwise could have been dedicated to actual work. In the end even most of the latter went anyway. To attend was part and parcel of the job, no matter how annoying and useless. They came from various parts of the world and various army branches. Accounted for was the navy, the air defence, the chemical corp, the engineers, the field artillery, the infantry and so on and so on.
One of the attendees was one Lt. Col. Richard Lynnworth. "Dickie" - as he was known to most of his friends - had been asked to speak on one of the many panels. He had joined on the morning of his 18th birthday and at the age of 34 the American Army was his life. He intended to get to the top. The repeated promotions he had already received were merely signs of progress, if small individual goals in themselves. To be asked to be one of the conference speakers - if only as a very last minute replacement for the original panel member - he considered another mark that he was moving along nicely and getting the recognition of peers owed to him. Even if he found the subject matter in itself distasteful.
"To allow homosexuals into the corps would be detrimental to morale," he stated plainly. Oh, in theory he wasn't against homosexuals as such - they were, after all, part of the general population and, therefore, part of what he and his brothers in arms sought to protect. At least, as long as they stayed away from him - and they certainly had nothing to do in the service. The very idea was stupid - what good would a troup of fags be in case of a terrorist attack such as the 9-11 one?
He couldn't say that, though. "The other male soldiers would be too self-conscious in their company ," he continued with instead, congratulating himself on his reasonable argument. He did know the value of diplomacy. Even though the possibility of some queer guy ogling him in the shower gave him the heebie-jeebies, he knew he couldn't say this out loud.
"Pros and cons of allowing homosexuals in the American army" was held at the Ruby Room, one of the smaller meeting rooms at The Stone, the hotel where the conference was held. Presumably not all that many would be interested in such a subject - though the room seemed packed, with only one or two open spots. The panel delegates sat around a horseshoe-shaped table on a small stage while the audience sat in rows on a slanting surface, giving most of them a good overview. On looking at the attendees, Lynnworth noted that most of them proudly wore the military colours of their regiments or branches - though some civilians were mixed in. Rather pointless, he thought, as this was a purely military matter. Of course they might not be true civilians - perhaps they worked in fields such as intelligence, where uniforms were not strictly necessary.
All in all there were six panelists, though a seventh chair remained empty. Someone was late or had dropped out at the last minute - later even than Lt. Col Reinhart, whom Lynnworth had replaced. The panel was lead by Commodore Stilwick. Of the others Lynnworth recognised only Lt. Col. Carter. He wasn't all that keen on female soldiers either, truth be told, but at least those had separate showers and were pretty to look at. Carter, for instance, had a nicely curved body and he found it difficult to imagine her firing even a P228 with those dainty little hands. She was on the pro side. Probably one of those "faghags", he thought. Strange that - shouldn't women see homosexuals as competition? Unless she was secretly lesbian, of course - that would explain a lot.
"Homosexuals have just as much dedication to our country as--"
"Of course," he said quickly, seeing no point in letting that argument be explained further. "What I'm saying is that it is not feasible to have homosexual soldiers on the battle field. They're not equipped to--"
"You're basing that on stereotypes!" she interrupted, quite rudely. "There's nothing--"
He raised his voice to drown her out. "--equipped to deal with harsher situations! Let me give you--"
The two words were spoken in a low tone, yet cut through Lynnworth's speech effortlessly. There was something not quite American about them, a strange lilt that put an odd stress on the first word, making the short sentence sound more like "eckskuse me". Lynnworth couldn't place the dialect and looked out over the audience to find the source. The spectators were allowed to ask questions, but normally this wasn't done by way of breaking into the middle of an discussion between the panelists.
A man stood halfway up the narrow alley between the audience chairs. He was tall, almost 6'2" and in his 50's. He wore his hair long, almost down to his shoulders, and while it was mostly black, it had two startling streaks of pure white - one just below and one just above his right ear. The white looked doubly startling, as the man didn't seem the type to add highlights to his hair - and especially not so abruptly and unevenly. While long in body, he stood in a way that made him look even taller - obviously a proud man. But also a man who has been through things. When he stepped closer Lynnworth noted something odd about the way he moved his left leg, as if the knee wouldn't quite bend and he had to swing it to be able to stride forth. Stride he did, though. There was a tangible presence to him that made the entire room follow him with their eyes during his approach.
"My apologies," he said curtly. That strange lilt to his words remained. Not a dialect, Lynnworth realised - an accent? Not an American, then. "I was unavoidably delayed."
He climbed the small stair up to the panel table before sitting in the last, empty chair, facing Lynnworth directly. He moved a little stiffly as if some other wound bothered him, apart from whatever had happened to his leg. Up so close Lynnworth saw a red area in the skin close by the snow white strands - red in a way that indicated scarring.
"By all means, Major von dem Eberbach," said Stilwick, with a smile. "Welcome!"
von dem Eberbach! Lynnworth recognized the name instantly and sat up straighter. Since he had been a last minute replacement he hadn't taken time to research his opponents - he had also been sure that anyone stupid enough to argue any possible "pro"s would be easily defeated. Now he felt not a little in awe. Iron Klaus himself! von dem Eberbach's name was legend in all branches of the military. Lynnworth had actually thought the man long since dead. His father, Lieutenant General Lynnworth, had often regaled his young son in the evenings with tales of NATO's finest and his Earth-saving, daredevil missions.
"Who do you think you are? Major von dem Eberbach?" he had heard more than one commander scold his men after they had done something particularly hare-brained.
The man was supposed to have the devil's own luck and he always succeeded with whatever mission was assigned to him. He and his team even got away unscathed from suicide missions. In his entire career, he had lost only five men in battle. To have been an Alphabet - even an Alaska-deported one - was one of the finest badges a western intelligence agent could boast of. As much as armies have royalty, this was one of them. This was a man Lynnworth knew he could learn a lot from.
"You were saying?" von dem Eberbach asked, looking at him with those strangely compelling eyes. Yes, Lynnworth well understood why they were often likened to lasers - he wouldn't be surprise to learn that the man could look straight into someone's soul and rout out any evil in them. A shame that the man was getting on in age. Still working, probably, but likely no longer as active as in his younger days. If von dem Eberbach had been on Al-Qaida's trail they'd have them all in Guantanamo by now. Maybe that was why NATO's best visited the states, apart from the conference? Surely he could give some pointers.
"I ... Ah. Yes. homosexuals. They're not equipped to deal with harsher situations."
One finely drawn eyebrow arched, reminding Lynnworth unexpectedly of numerous Star Trek-episodes his loopy kid sister had forced him to watch when they were both young.
"Really?" The one word question sounded sincere enough, yet something about the rolling r made it harder than if an American had asked it. The major was fluent in at least seven languages, Lynnworth remembered, one of those odd little details that he had heard and which had stayed with him.
"Well - yes. Ah ... Don't you-- I mean, it is obvious, right? Besides, it would be bad for morale if we were to allow--"
He had no chance to continue, as a ... something sashayed its way into the meeting room: a single, red cardinal among the more demurely dressed audience of sparrows. After some hesitation Lynnworth decided that the something must be a man. A demonstrator, perhaps, from one of those queer organisations? He certainly looked the part - not in those horrifying leather and studs, but in a slinky, billowing red outfit lined with gold. A tall man, he looked even taller due to an enormous mane of honey gold curls. Bling bling blinged around his neck, in his ears and on his fingers. The mouth looked suspiciously rosy and the eyes definitely showed signs of make-up. Disgusting!
"Hello everyone!" the man called with a jaunty wave. To Lynnworth's astonishment, some of the seasoned soldiers actually lifted their hands as if to wave back, and then quickly dropped the raised appendages, looking confused. "Terribly sorry I'm late. Oh my - it looks to be almost full in here. How marvellous! Say - is that a spot over there? May I come through? Thank you. Oh, hello there, sir, do forgive me, I didn't mean to - ah, thank you, thank you." Not an American either - that was clear by the crispness in his tones. British.
Due to the narrowness between the lanes the soldiers had to stand to let the person through. As he passed them by more than one of them suddenly flinched. Lynnworth could imagine why and shuddered.
Curious to see what Iron Klaus thought of the other latecomer, Lynnworth glanced over at von dem Eberbach. To his delight, the man looked clearly annoyed - bordering on downright angry. A muscle in his aristocratically cut jaw twitched. Suddenly inspired, Lynnworth waved towards the intruder. "See!" he said.
The golden-haired foreigner stopped and turned towards them. His entire body was framed by a huge, dark-skinned man behind him. The latter held out his arms as if afraid to hurt the Brit by his touch alone - and he looked genuinely puzzled.
"Would you ever go voluntarily to battle with that one guarding your back?" Lynnworth had almost said "ass", but he figured that the woman would object to that and that it perhaps would be a tad too suggestive as well.
Iron Klaus tilted his head, studying him. Then the German grabbed the water glass standing before him on the table and drank, never looking away. Lynnworth began to feel fidgety. Lasers - oh yes - more like scalpels in his opinion. The man still appeared angry. Affronted, no doubt, by the very thought? Yes, Lynnworth told himself, that must be it. He congratulated himself for having had the nerve to challenge the other thusly and waited eagerly for Mount Eberbach to erupt.
He was not alone in waiting for a reply. The entire room stayed completely silent. One sound only could be heard - a soft jangling, like from a metal chain. It seemed to come in the general direction of the red-garbed man, but Lynnworth found that he couldn't break away from the unnerving gaze of NATO's best man in Intelligence. Perhaps, at past 50, Iron Klaus was not quite as strong as he once had been, but there was no question in Lynnworth's mind that he was being studied by an Alpha lion. Slowed down, possibly, by his many battle scars, but far from ready to give up command.
"Do you know--" the German began, his accent slightly heavier than before, "--why I was late just now?"
Lynnworth felt puzzled, but obediently shook his head. "No, sir." He knew he held a higher rank than the major, which normally would have meant that he wouldn't have addressed the man with such respect, but for all that the man was obviously army to the core, there was also something regal about him which transcended the mere formalities of rank.
"In the night, as I lay asleep - someone stole my alarm clock."
"Y-your alarm clock, sir? How is that possible? In your hotel room?"
The German Intelligence Agent got out a cigarette and lit it. No one dared to tell him that The Stone had designated the Ruby Room a non-smoking area.
"Ja, in my hotel room. It didn't work, of course. I had set the clock to 6:30. When it failed to ring, I woke up at 6:32. I don't know why he keeps trying."
"Sir? I'm not sure I--"
"I wasn't five minutes late today because I woke up two minutes late," the man continued. He spoke softly, yet there was no doubt that his every word carried across the hall. "I'm late because after I had taken my morning run and showered I made the monumental mistake of sitting down on the bed in my hotel room to get dressed again. I was pulled back down. I said it was too late, that we would be delayed - but no. He's surprisingly stubborn."
He? Lynnworth thought, with a sinking feeling to his gut. von dem Eberbach couldn't mean-- He can't be serious!
"You asked if I would voluntarily go into battle with that one protecting my back?" A gesture with the cigarette indicated the foppy Brit, who smiled and waved back. "Well, he's likely to be more concerned about my arse, but to answer your question - if I've done it once, I've done it a hundred times. There's no one I would rather have on my side, or at my back, than him. And as to why I was late today, I was busy having him - that's Lord Dorian Red-Gloria, by the way, for those of you who doesn't know his name, the Earl of Red-Gloria - fuck me through the mattress."
Then he stood and blew a large puff of smoke.
"There are homosexuals in most armies of most civilised countries all over the world - and there have been even when it was forbidden. Don't ask, don't tell - or at least don't brag about it, just be a good little soldier and do as you're ordered. Besides, ever heard of Sparta or Alexander the Great? Live with it. This entire panel is a total waste of time. Dorian, get yourself out of there - and keep your hands outside other people's pockets this time - we're leaving."