The Sarge enjoys some down-time... Six I took a breath, composing my thoughts. “Well, sir, my squad are on detached service aboard the Station, supplementing local security. Basically the servitor AI has us running round, poking into dark corners, making sure everything is squared away ahead of the service personnel being withdrawn.” “Sounds like a cushy number, Sergeant, so what’s your beef?” “While we were inspecting part of the outer ring, the incomplete section, one of my men was killed. Some kind of, ah, reactive agent or force that stripped away all organic material in nothing flat. He didn’t even have time to fire his weapon or cry out.” “Witnesses?” “No sir. The marine in question was last in line and no more than three, four metres from the man in front, but no one heard or saw anything. He was there one minute, gone the next, and all we found were his weapon and inorganic bits and pieces.” “Sounds like exposure to some kind of corrosive gas. Have you checked this with station maintenance?” “With respect, sir, there was no evidence of anything that. No, ah, residue or similar…There was a motion tracker contact, but way too fast moving to be anything, ah, anything-“ “Human?” The voice laughed. “I’m well aware of the rumours concerning Cairo Station but I didn’t think anyone with your service record would be so fanciful. Your phantom sounds to me like a sensor glitch. What does Stephen make of all this?” “I’ve been experiencing difficulty communicating with the servitor, sir. In fact I find it, him, a bit difficult in most regards.” “Yes, quite…But you’re sure this incident poses no threat to the Admiral?” I frowned. “Sorry, sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Where have you been, Sergeant? Look, Admiral Callas is coming aboard in the next few hours for an inspection tour and to fly the flag. It was felt the presence of a senior Alliance figure would act as a calming influence during the evacuation. You must be aware of the difficulties that arise during this type of operation, including rumours of insufficient space on the transports. Well, this visit is just a P-R exercise, obviously, and a security nightmare to boot, but the Admiral won’t be dissuaded. He’s roped in half-a-dozen captains as well, as a kind of gravitas backdrop while he addresses the civilian multitude. Every available marine will be patrolling the concourse, so you and your merry men are well out of it.” “Look, sir, my request is either for some carapace armour with environment systems underlay so we can go back in and conduct a proper search, or have my squad transferred back to operational duty.” “That will be a negative, Sergeant. Heavy rig is as scarce as hen’s teeth these days now and you’re outside our direct chain of command. I’ll forward your request through channels but for now you’re off the grid….Anything else?” “No, sir, thank you. Just as long as someone remembers we’re still here.” “No man left behind, Sergeant. Ludendorff out.” I stripped off the headset and dumped it on the counter with more force that was strictly necessary. “Bollocks.” Reizac looked round. “That will be what they call a sub-optimal result then, Sarge. I take it we’re stuck here?” “For now. “ I raised my voice. “Keyes! A word in your shell-like.” The security officer wandered over, his face like stone. “What?” “Me and my men need accommodation, at least overnight. Think you can arrange that? Oh, and if you stiff us with some flea-infested doss house then Kuntz here will stick his weapon so far up your ass you’ll be begging for an accidental discharge.” Reizac sniggered and Keyes went red-faced, his lips a thin line. “One moment.” He turned to a console, fingers dancing through the on-screen menus. Six electronic key-cards slid out, one after another. He scooped them up and dropped them in front of me. “Former station personnel housing. It’s been offered to this lot…” He jerked his chin towards the crowd.”…but for the most part they prefer to camp out on the concourse in case they miss their place on a transport.” I eyed him suspiciously. “These rooms habitable then? No gutted shells? No backed up plumbing?” His lips twitched slightly, almost a smile. “Perfectly acceptable, I assure you. Inner ring, Spoke One access. The keys have an inbuilt mini-map that will guide you thereafter. Now, if there’s nothing else…” He turned away without waiting for an answer and I let him go, figuring I’d bust his balls enough for one day. I scooped up the key-cards and turned back to the squad before it hit me. “Bastard.” Reizac glanced at me. “Problem?” “Spoke One, which will be on the far side of the concourse. ****. Ah, dammit, let’s go. Same formation as before, just follow me.” We shouldered our way through the throng, generally pissing off everyone in our path. The concourse was open plan, with the upper part of the station core, the central axis, supported on eight large pillars. I’d walked under it before and it was a weird sight looking up – hollow, the upper stories like some thick-walled chimney, ending in a view of the stars. Very artistic and probably won some design award, but I found it unsettling, like I was looking down the barrel of a huge gun. Eventually we reached the inner ring, Spoke One access, and the crowd thinned out. I distributed the key-cards, which activated once you supplied a biometric thumb-print. From the little maps we didn’t have adjacent accommodation, but I figured we’d been living in each other’s pockets for long enough anyway. “Squad, listen up. I’m declaring six hours down-time, courtesy of Cairo Station, and I figure we’ve earned it. Meet up at the monorail station, and for God’s sake everyone have a shower!” “Is there room service, Sarge?” “I’d settle for a delivery pizza.” “Hot and cold running housemaids for me.” “They could tickle all they like, but I’m for some shut-eye.” I laughed, letting the comments ebb and flow. “As long as you don’t end up in custody, I don’t want to know. Dismissed!” My key-card guided me clockwise to an anonymous habitation module. The door slid open, the lights came on and I wasn’t greeted by the smell of rotting flesh. Result. It wasn’t much – a living area with galley kitchen, small toilet and shower, modest double bedroom – but I’ve lived in far, far worse. I dumped my kit, stripped, and crammed everything I’d been wearing next to my skin into the washer/dryer. Then I shaved and took a long, long shower until the ‘Utility Surcharge’ light came on. I decided not to push it as given my luck the last system placed on standby would be billing. Clad in the oversized bath robe found hanging behind the door I flopped down on the couch, feeling bloody knackered. The former occupant seemed to have up sticks in a hurry, leaving behind a few personal items; the bath robe, a pair of shoes beneath the bed, a small static picture of Earth-from-orbit in an antique silver frame. No food though, nor any indication that you could order in. Some of the franchise outlets back on the concourse were still doing a roaring trade, even at inflated prices, but I couldn’t face the crowds again, at least not without backup. I still had some rations in my pack, though, and figured they might taste more appetising if eaten off a real plate, with proper cutlery. I sighed and rubbed my eyes. Or maybe I would just sleep, and call it breakfast when I woke up. Someone knocked on the door.