[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
I waltzed through the corridors of _Golden_Empire_, tricked out in Space Marine regalia and loaded for bear. Giant, steel-plated, atomic-fire-breathing bear. It wasn't a big deal if anybody saw me. According to McMillan's plan, we wanted people to see me. And what were they going to do, detain me?

People gaped as I tromped down the softly-lit, comfortably-carpeted halls. "Excuse me, ma'am," I said, tipping my beret. "Space Marine coming through. Beg your pardon. One side, please. Have a nice day." Passengers and crew automatically moved aside. I had a blaster rifle and they didn't, but even worse: I was polite.

My teammates called in to wish me luck. "Don't die," Grabsy said encouragingly.

"Thanks, pal," I replied.

"When you kill 'em," said Lopez, "Don't just kill 'em for the money. Kill 'em because they're goddamn space marines."

"And because of the money," I appended.

"Yes," said Lopez firmly.

"Knock 'em dead," said Kima.

"Okay," I replied. "I may have to shoot a few too."

I pushed the button for the tube down to 'R' deck. Near the tube station was a bartending kiosk. An attractive bartender in a silver bikini took me in with wide eyes. "Is there some kind of emergency?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, "in my pants." I waggled my eyebrows.

One of the bartender's eyebrows rose a fraction. "As a line," she informed me, "that doesn't really work."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm a little distracted. I might die in the next sixty seconds."

"Oh," she said. She squinted at me suspiciously. "Are you sure you're a real Space Marine?"

The tube arrived; I got in. "Watch the news tomorrow and find out," I suggested. The door closed.

Approximately a million years later, the door opened again, and I stepped out onto 'R' deck. There was, for the moment, nobody in sight.

"Initiating Operation Scary Diversion," said McMillan's voice. A second later klaxons started sounding, and alarm lights flashed. THERE IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL EMERGENCY, said a robotic voice. REMAIN IN YOUR ROOMS AND STAY CALM.

"Yeah," I muttered, cocking the blaster rifle. "Stay where you are, and roll over."


"Would you like the lights off?" asked McMillan.

"Yeah," I said. One by one, the hall luminators flickered off. I dropped my helmet's blast screen and turned on infrared.

"Here's a heads-up of the deck," said McMillan. A tracery map appeared inside my helmet. Pinpoint lights were clustered on the display. "There's your targets."

I did a quick count. "Four squads, plus a platoon leader, ought to be about fifty guys. We're short by half. What's up?"

"Checking," said McMillan. "I believe they have a rotating watch schedule. One squad at the vault, one squad at ready, one squad sleeping, one squad off duty. Sleepers and off duty should be on the level, but not wearing body armor with activated IFF chips."

"Oh good, twenty five elite paratroopers are loose on the floor, in the darkness, and I don't know where they are," I said. "Good times."

"You have the advantage of surprise," McMillan reminded me.

"Space Marines are never surprised," I grumbled. "They have graded levels of readiness. Where are the sleepers?"

"Probably here," said McMillan, illuminating two rooms in yellow. "Environmental controls show activity in those rooms."

"Can't let 'em get dressed," I said. I jogged down the hall and pulled two concussion grenades off my belt. I paused at the doors that McMillan had indicated. I opened one and threw a grenade inside; there were shouts of alarm inside. Before it detonated, I opened the second door and tossed a grenade in there. To the credit of the Spam Corps and their reaction time, somebody shot at me in the brief interval that the door was open. It went wide thanks to McMillan's IFF spoofing. I slammed the door and both grenades went off. The doors popped open and a cloud of dust poured out – bedding and ceiling plaster atomized by the force of the blasts. A full squad of troopers was crawling on the ground in the two rooms, trying to pick themselves up from the force of a blast that had broken bones and shattered eardrums.

I shot them all. I know we're all supposed to be merciful and crap like that. But, honestly, I got dishonorably discharged from the Corps, and they were still in it. That would teach them to be better than me.

"One squad down," I reported. I rolled a guy over with my boot; it looked like he had some chevrons on the armor he had been strapping on. "Looks like we got lucky, too; caught the CO napping."

"Element of surprise is lost, however," said McMillan disapprovingly. I checked the heads up. The dots were moving quickly. The ones by the vault were forming up into some kind of defensive cordon. The ones in the dayroom had broken up into two units and were moving into two different corridors. If I stayed put, they would be trapping me in the corner of an 'L' shaped corridor with fire lanes down each leg.

"Light me up a janitor closet," I said. McMillan painted one on the screen; it was a short way down one of the corridor legs. I could reach it ahead of fire team 'A', but I would have to hurry. I scampered down the hall, my boots quiet on the deep piled carpeting, and opened the door. There were mops and brooms and buckets inside. Ten thousand years of human civilization, and shit work is still shit work.

I jumped inside and quietly closed the door. Not a moment too soon; I heard muffled footfalls in the corridor outside. Fortunately fire team 'A' wasn't doing a room-by-room; they were running to the help of their sleeping buddies. Sometimes it's good to fight people who abuse steroids. As soon as the heads-up told me they were past me, I opened the door. My infrared painted all six of them nicely. I opened the aperture of my blaster rifle to the widest field of fire and cut loose. Two of them went down immediately, the wide beam getting through gaps in their armor and cutting them down. As they turned I narrowed the aperture and burned two more; even Space Marine armor can't stand up to a direct hit from a blaster rifle on full charge.

The remaining two got low, using their fallen friends as cover, and returned fire with their blaster pistols. They yelped as their shots went wide – impossibly wide. I advanced on them and shot one in the head. The other began baying into his comm link. I knocked his pistol out of his hand with my iron bar and kicked him in the face. He came up in a fighting crouch, but I still had my rifle. I burned him at point blank range; the center of his chest simply disappeared, and he went down without making a sound.

"The other marines," McMillan told me, "are now aware that the IFF has been jiggered. They are turning their systems off."

"Dirty pool, Space Marines," I pouted.

"The second fire team is approaching the corner of the corridor," McMillan warned.

"Do they have infrared?" I asked.

"I don't think so," McMillan said. "But they seem to have flashlights."

I grabbed one of the rolling buckets out of the janitor closet, threw a smoke grenade inside, and pushed the whole thing at full tilt down the hall. As soon as it hit the wall at the intersection, a half dozen blaster bolts burned the bucket to slag, but that didn't stop a cloud of smoke from filling the hall. Infrared saw right through it, of course; the burning bucket was the hottest thing in the firebox, but there were a few heads obligingly poking around the corner as well.

I shot one of them. The other marines learned from their headless friend's mistake and didn't expose themselves. However, two marines started running back down the hall, probably looking for a way to double back behind me. The others held position.

"I guess I'll hunt those two down," I said. "Then I'll come back and…"

My blaster rifle exploded in my face. Two unarmored space marines were standing just across the hall from me; one of them was still wearing a bib and was halfway through getting a buzz haircut. Both of them had blaster pistols. "Shit," I said, and threw my iron bar, then ducked into the janitor closet. Once there I pulled my reciprocating sword.

I rolled a flash grenade out into the hall, then came out with the sword buzzing. The marines had done a good job of covering their eyes, but that required them to look in a direction other than the one the angry man with the two-meter chainsaw was coming from. I gave the marines a somewhat closer haircut than they bargained for.

"The runners are arriving, and the others are starting to get curious," McMillan warned.

"Nag, nag, nag," I growled, picking up one of the blaster pistols. I considered it a feeble, inferior weapon, suitable only for shoe-clerks and weasards, but it was better than nothing.

The heads-up display told me the two runners from fire team 'B' were pressed up against the corner of the intersection behind me. Crouched down, I tiptoed up to the corner and cut diagonally through it with the reciprocating sword. Somebody gurgled. I reached around the corner and fired repeatedly with the blaster pistol. They were down.

"Sooner or later you're going to have to tackle the vault," McMillan reminded me. "And we're starting to run behind schedule."

"You can't rush genius," I said. However, I took the hint and headed for the short hall outside the vault. The hall was sealed with a pair of doors I would have to go through to reach the vault portal. According to my display, the space marines were arrayed in a firing formation on the other side. Going through the door would be suicide.

I stabbed the reciprocating sword straight through the door. Somebody shot at the blade, but trying to wreck a recip sword's blade with a blaster is a little like trying to melt a fire axe with a curling iron. I pulled the sword out, rotated the blade ninety degrees, and stabbed it through again, making an 'X' ten inches on a side. I grabbed my last concussion grenade, punched it through the 'X' in the door, and pulled my hand back before I lost it. The door jumped, and then I opened it and dove in.

A certain amount of bloodletting occurred. The old advertisements were right: Spam is good no matter how you slice it.

Shouts came from behind me, and I felt a burning sensation on my back and on my left leg. Looking down, I saw that I had been hit by blaster fire. McMillan hadn't been shitting me when he said he had souped up my armor; the plates were warped and my skin felt like somebody had thrown boiling water on me, but no parts of me had been vaporized. A group of space marines wearing only teeshirts and shorts were concentrating fire on me from further down the hall. The gym rats!

I returned fire, killing two of them. The others withdrew back towards the gymnasium.

"Kill them, Jackpot," McMillan urged. "We need to be free to work in a few minutes."

I charged down the hall. They had slipped away quickly; they weren't making any kind of staged retreat. That was odd and uncharacteristic of space marines, I felt. I slowed down, sensing an ambush. The doors to the gym were wide open. I took my time crossing the threshold.

The gym was empty. Row after row of exercise cycles and treadmills and weight rigs stood empty. The doors to the showers were flung open. Noise and heat leaked out.

They had the showers going, full tilt, on hot. Which would spoil my infravision. Clever Spam.

"McMillan," I said, "how hot can you make the water on this floor?"

"Conceivably very hot," McMillan said. "There are various safeties that can be overridden. It's a microwave heating system. I could conceivably make steam. I'm afraid that would break the pipes, though."

"Good. Give me lights in the gym," I said. "Turn off all cold water on the floor. Then make as much steam as you can. Blow the fixtures if you can do it."

It took him a few seconds, but he did it. Thick clouds of rolling steam came boiling, literally, out of the shower room doors. I have to hand it to the Space Marines; they didn't scream, and they were red as lobsters all over when they finally cracked and came running out. I cut them down one by one.

Sounds of blaster fire came from out in the hall. I cautiously snuck my head out and found the remaining three armored marines lying, smoking and dead on the floor. Lopez was standing over them with a blaster pistol. He looked peeved.

"Some one-man army you are," he said.

"Oh, shut up," I said. "What are you doing here?"

"We're going to get the vault open and suck the Fatir gas out," he said. "This is the plan. Haven't you been listening to the plan?"

"I listened to the plan," I protested. "I just didn't necessarily understand it in places."

"Watch and learn, boss," said Lopez smugly, approaching the vault door and cracking his furry knuckles.

As McMillan had promised, opening the vault wasn't really hard. Lopez had cracked a thousand boxes before that were harder than that. A digital lock; a labyrinth escapement on a timer; explosive bolts if the wrong combination is tried twice – yawn. The door yawned open. The vault was small, only eight feet on a side. The swirling vortex of Fatir gas was purple and glowed faintly. Something faintly golden glimmered in its depths – a tantalizing glimpse of our target, the Negelian Chain of Office.

"Now what?" I said.

"Ah," said Lopez, "the vent. I've been working on this, with Grabsy and Sarpalian's help. Give me a hand with this."

Lopez opened a maintenance door and revealed an access shaft going down to a between-decks area. Lopez dived down and brought up a chain. "Pull on this, big guy," he said. I heaved and hauled up a snaky flexible tube, reinforced with wire, about two feet in diameter.

Under Lopez's direction, I hauled the vent line out of the shaft and down the hall. It played out behind me, snaking down the corridor. I brought it through the vault door, and Lopez fixed it in place with a frame.

"We're going to suck the Fatir gas into space," Lopez said confidently. "Grabsy has been welding the fitting to the outer hull. Sarpalian put some kind of a vent nozzle in between this level and the hull, down in the pool area."

"But the Fatir gas will dissolve the vent," I argued. "Only Javanite is immune, remember?"

"Ah, but Sarpalian's nozzle introduces vorticity to the stream," Lopez replied. "The gas cloud will be spinning rapidly as it enters the vent. It will never actually touch the vent fabric, as long as the vent tube is fairly straight."

"Initiating vent," said McMillan. "Goodbye, Jackpot and Lopez."

"What does he mean by that?" Lopez wondered.

A thought struck me. "Lopez," I said, "this is venting to space, right? So we'll be drawing a vacuum shortly?" The vent bucked and began to suck. A cyclone began to form in the Fatir gas cloud.

"Yeah, so?" said Lopez.

"So we don't have vacuum suits," I said. "Hey, McMillan! We don't have vacuum suits!"

"No, you don't," said McMillan. I turned and frowned at Lopez.

"I'm watching!" I snapped. "I'm learning!"

"I'm thinking!" Lopez insisted. The draw from the vent became strong; a breeze formed, pushing past us into the vault.

"As I said," McMillan drawled, "Goodbye."

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hwrnmnbsol

September 2012

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