Tobias stared up at the jobs board. Nothing took his fancy. One more good job and he was out. His debt had been paid; all work was now profit, and he was dammed if he was going to throw it all away now.
The Fleet had just come across a hulk, Imperial make. Fairly new, damage recent. As far as Tobias was concerned it had ‘trap’ written all over.
Bugger that for a game of soldiers.
According to the board, the fleet was asking for a search and survey team. A few fleet members had already put their names down. Tobias scanned the list. If he had been in any doubt before, his decision was confirmed. If someone had asked him to provide the squad from Hell, he would have pointed to the jobs board. He shook his head and headed back to his bunk.
Throwing himself onto his bunk, Tobias picked up the latest copy of Settlers Monthly. A couple of planets had caught his eye and he had earmarked the pages.
Torien III looked nice. Close enough to main thoroughfares to discourage raids from fleets like –he laughed- his own, but distant enough to avoid the brunt of Imperial ‘democracy’.
Epostle V was looking good till he read the part about long winters. Epostle V was quickly removed from the list.
His mind slowly submerged in the plans of his idyllic retirement, as his writing stylus slipped from his lank hand.
He was shaken roughly and it took all of his self-control to refrain from grabbing the offending arm and breaking all of its bones.
“What? Can’t you see I was thinking?”
“Come on, the shuttle leaves in five”
“What gacking shuttle?”
“The shuttle taking us to the derelict.”
“What’s this ‘US’ nonsense? I didn’t volunteer for no Ogryn gack shuttle ride.”
“Your on the duty list. Here look.”
A duty roster was thrust in front of his bleary eyes.
Sure enough, he was down as 2IC. He looked at who was the search team commander.
“That low life piece of commissariat gack!”
“Time a ticking. Gotta go.”
Tobias’s mind kicked into overdrive. The knee jerk reaction was to tell them all to go and fuck themselves. The only trouble with that, was that the Fleet took a dim view of just that reaction. The Fleet did not care if someone else had ‘volunteered’ him against his wishes and that he had no desire to be on a mission. What the fleet would do, would be to fine him for wasting Fleet time and then bill him the time the shuttle was delayed. An act that would wipe out all his savings and put him firmly in the Fleets debt. If he wanted to leave the Fleet, he would have to bite his tongue and sort it out later.
Leaping from his bunk, he grabbed the kit he needed and headed for the shuttle dock at a run.
Tobias squeezed through the shuttle lock, just as it was cycling shut for launch. He was breathing hard, sweat collected and ran down his skin, pooling in the nooks and crannies of his suit. He cursed. The sweat would dry and he would end up stinking out his suit.
Tobias paused at the air lock to let his temper cool. More mistakes were made through anger than stupidity. Once certain that he was back in full control, he made his way to the crew/briefing room.
Grain was in the middle of the pre-deployment briefing
“Nice of you to join us.” A wide smirk spread across Grains face.
The urge to speak, to shout, to swear, to condemn, to threaten, arose within Tobias like a tidal wave. He stamped it down hard and just nodded his head in acknowledgement instead.
Sitting down in an empty seat at the front that was his by right, Tobias pulled out a battered and well-used data slate.
“For the tardy amongst us,” Grain paused for laughter that never came, and then hastily carried on when he realised that none would, “Umm, yes, as I was saying. The target is a Pegasus class freighter. Normally they have an escort, but taking into consideration the relatively young age of the hulk and some of the external damage, the Fleet reckons it might have fallen prey to a Warp storm or a bad jump. So the threat of lingering Warp phenomenon is high. Due to the condition of the hulk, the fleet wants the command deck secured first before the rest of the ship is secured. I don’t think they want the freighters weapons to come online when we are broadside to it.”
The shuttles proximity alarms sounded briefly in warning.
“I’ll be in charge of Charlie fire team. Tobias will be in command of Delta and will secure the cargo holds and any cargo that may have survived. I don’t expect there to be much if any. Let’s hope he is not ‘delayed’ if there is any trouble.” Grains laugh grated on Tobias’ nerves. “If there is going to be any trouble, it’ll more than likely be in the hold. Tobias knows what he is doing- normally- so you should be all right. My boys and myself will secure the bridge and the fire control systems, as that’s where our strengths lie. Tobias, if you do experience any problems- and I’m sure you won’t encounter any you can’t handle- you can always radio for my experience and help.” He smiled brightly and wide at Tobias.
Tobias was not impressed. “Let me guess. Should- and I’m sure it won’t happen- something ‘untoward’ happen, there will be a sudden and inexplicable loss of inter-team communications and that, against all odds, you manage to shut all the blast doors between the bridge and the hold?”
The smile wavered.
Tobias turned and looked at his squad. “Just so you know where you stand.”
“Always the pessimist Tobias” Chided Grain.
“It’s what keeps me alive.”
“I’m still alive.” Grain pointed to his chest with both hands and smiled at those sat in the room.
Tobias snorted. “That’s because you are a creep and a coward.”
A deathly hush dropped across the room and Tobias quietly released his knifes securing strap.
“DOCKING IN FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE.” The shuttle shuddered slightly. “HATCHES ENGAGING. SEALED. CODE GREEN. PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE TRANSPORTATION OF ZENO’S OR NON-FLEET PERSONEEL IS STILL BANNED AND PUNISHABLE BY DEATH. THANK YOU FOR FLYING FLEET AIRWAYS. GOOD HUNTING.”
“RIGHT! You know your tasks. Let’s get to it. Times money.” Grain wasted no time in leaving the briefing room. Everyone else turned to stare at Tobias.
Removing his hand from his knife hilt, Tobias slowly stood and headed for the exit.
Unsurprised, Tobias found his squad at the front and looking at him for instructions. Tobias raged inside. A good squad knew their place and knew their drills and responsibilities. Occasionally, there would be a new member, either a combat casualty replacement or a spare bod from another squad that had taken too many casualties and had been disbanded. Ad hoc squads, like the one he was now in charge of, almost always ended in disaster.
A good squad survived on two basic factors- teamwork and competence. His squad had neither.
Tobias gruffly waved them forward. The sooner this farce was ended-one way or the other- the better.
Things steadily deteriorated as he watched a squad member walk past an entranceway without even looking down it.
“DUNK! Check your three o’clock.”
“I checked it! Jeez man, keep your suit on.”
“If you checked it, what was down there?”
There was a pause. “Stuff.”
Tobias closed his eyes and took a deep breath. There was going to be at least one fatality by the end of this operation. He turned to look at Grains squad. The difference was noticeable, even if you happened to be blind. Personality wise they may have been lacking, but they knew their tasks within the team and carried them out efficiently.
They checked all the rooms that Tobias’s squad should have checked.
Tobias’s ire continued to build steadily. He seriously wished they were attacked because he desperately wanted to kill something, anything.
“Chill out Toby.”
“Whatever. Look there’s gack all here. The place is dead.”
“Expert on hulks are you?” Tobias kicked open a door his squad had walked past and checked inside. The place was dead. Eerily so. Tobias had been in enough space hulks to know crews did not just disappear. Especially in a ship as new and intact as this one was.
The room was an accommodation module, everything was placed away neatly and undisturbed. Tobias paused to consider the possibilities. Options weren’t good. He activated his com.
“Hello Foxtrot Sierra, this is Mike Tango. Radio check.”
“I hear you.”
“I didn’t ask you Grain. I was asking Foxtrot Sierra.”
“Mike Tango, this is Foxtrot Sierra, reading you loud and clear. Problem?”
“Negative, just a coms check, Mike Tango out.”
“I don’t like your attitude Tobias.”
“Tough gack Grain. You volunteered me, remember?”
“Are you at the hold yet?”
“What’s keeping you?”
“Are you at the bridge yet?”
There was silence over the net.
Tobias left the room and his squad was nowhere in sight. He kicked the wall in frustration. He considered calling them back over the radio, but did not want to give Grain the satisfaction.
“If you want something done properly, do it yourself.” He moved down the corridor, checking every room as he went.
All the rooms were the same, left neat and undisturbed. That meant someone was in for an unpleasant surprise, and Tobias just knew it would be him.
Each step, each door, brought him closer to the cargo hold and its contents, if any.
His squad were waiting for him beside a personnel hatch to the hold. Tobias stared at them.
“I’m surprised you waited for me.” His squad moved uncomfortably on their feet. “Surely you are not scared? Big tough boys like yourselves?”
“No!” was the answering chorus.
“Good, because I’m gacking terrified.”
Tobias was not kidding. Star ships did not meander around the galaxy crew less without leaving some trace of a crew- be it munitions holes in the walls or a jumble of bones. He pointed at the door.
His squad hesitated for a moment before moving into action.
The door opened without effort as the squad moved inside and took up position to either side.
Tobias entered last, but found progress left or right blocked by members of his squad. He found himself faced with one of three options. 1) Stay where he was, nicely framed by the door. 2) Move either left or right, which meant walking in front of his own squads weapons. If a hostile did not shoot him, one of his own squad would surely oblige or 3) Retreat and wait till either his squad moved away from the door or took a step forward from he wall.
He let out a long drawn sigh at the irony of it. The only time his squad manage to do something half right, they end up making him look an idiot. His squad showed no sign of moving away from the door. He could hardly blame them. The doorway was their only avenue of escape.
Well, at least he had not been shot at. Yet.
The cargo hold was pitch dark and their torch beams made no inroads into the blackness.
Retrieving a flare-flash from his belt, Tobias struck the end, igniting it. His squad was illuminated in flickering red light. Instantly, Tobias realised that had been an intensely stupid action.
“Gacking idiot.” Tobias berated himself as he threw the flare-flash into what he thought was the middle of the hold. “FLARE FLASH!” he warned his squad.
Immediately they all looked away from where the flare-flash had landed, bounced, and then rolled to a stop.
The flare-flash continued to burn emitting red spitting sparks.
Suddenly it detonated in a blinding flash of light. Pre warned, the squad had not been looking at the flare- to do so, was to court blindness- but had been staring into the darkness, waiting for the flash of light.
For once, the squad reacted in unison.
The hold receded back into darkness.
“Did you gacking see what I gacking thought I saw?”
Tobias stayed silent, dumbstruck.