Round Ten of the World Weavers' Championship
Bilton was amused by the wary glances cast his way as the spacers packed up the last of the recruitment gear. Their thoughts, of course, were on whether he’d send them back to the ship on the shuttle or dismiss them to an evening’s shore leave in the planetary systems capitol. Captain Bledsoe had already decided to grant shore leave, but Lieutenant Bilton kept that to himself, lest the detail got sloppy in their hurry to get down to business.
The Capitol was a delightful city, even though it was an outlier, almost on the frontier. A cultured city with many fine shopping and dining establishments. Its clean air smelled of flowers and freshness. The people were friendly and outgoing, eager to please, and happy to accept Fleet Credits.
The spacers weren’t looking forward to those, though. It was the city’s red-light district that most planned to visit, taverns, bars, and dives for all tastes beckoned, even Bilton was looking forward to a bit of free time there, not that he drank. Still, a visit to one of the upscale brothels that catered to men of means was in order after months traveling into the deep.
The last of the gear stowed, the Chief in charge of the detail approached Bilton. “Aye, Sir, and that’s the last of it, Sir.”
“Very well, Master Chief Spere’s, as per Captain Bledsoe’s orders and wishes, you may dismiss the men to a 72-hour shore leave —
The man beamed, both at the shore leave and that an officer had noted not just his rank but knew his name. “Aye, Sir! A blessin’ on Captain Bledsoe and yerself, Sir.” A slight look of concern clouded the Chief’s face.
Bilton smiled. “Yes, Chief, the shore leave extends to you.” His tone was heavier and stricter. “Be sure the men know not to embarrass me, Chief. Any behavior unbecoming a member of my section will be dealt with — quickly.” Bilton had never been quick to resort to physical punishment to instill discipline, but he hadn’t shied away from it either.
As the Master Chief walked away with the good news, Captain Bledsoe came up behind Bilton. “You did well today, Mr. Bilton.”
“Thank You, Captain.” Unable to stop a hopeful look from coloring his face.
The Captain chuckled. “I’m afraid not, Bilton, you will be joining the First Lieutenant, a chance to see the other side of recruitment into Her Majesty’s Fleet.”
Bilton couldn’t disguise the disappointment in his voice. “Aye, Sir, I guess I’ll return to the ship with the shuttle, Sir.”
“That’s best, Mr. Bilton, no worries, you did well, even pleasing the First, especially since this was your first recruitment.”
“I tried, Sir, I only convinced ten to sign up —
“Ten quality candidates, four that will end up at the Institute if they’re lucky, three skilled spacers, two that already made ratings, and a cook to replace that deserting dog, Barstow.”
Bilton winced at Barstow’s name. It was the first execution he had witnessed; watching Barstow struggle to stay in the airlock had left an image he’d never lose. “I hope I didn’t over-promise —
“Not your problem, Mr. Bilton.” Laughing outright. “If grown men fall for a line of space blarney, that’s on them! You had a job, and you did it well, Thank you.”
“Aye, Sir, thank you, Sir.”
“Alright then, back to the ship with you.” The Captain turned to leave, calling back over his shoulder. “My pleasure to the First Lieutenant and let him know I will be staying at the Laurant tonight.”
Bilton groaned as he stomped up the shuttle’s ramp. The Laurant was his intended stop tonight, rumored to have the most beautiful and generous consorts in this quadrant of the deep.
This time the shuttle bay didn’t hold tables, chairs, or other recruitment aids. It contained a whole platoon of well-armed Troopers. All of them in full battle armor and equipped with potent but non-lethal weapons. Bilton’s nervous glance took them in. Both he and the First were wearing armor and had sidearms, though their laser pistols had no non-lethal setting; if used, they would at the very least maim and most likely kill their target.
“Chief Mathers set us down upwind of this sewer if you please.” His voice was tainted with disgust. “I’ll thank you that we do not have to smell it too soon.” A simple ‘aye’ acknowledged his order.
Softer, just loud enough for Bilton to hear, “Mr. Bilton, you and Sargent Morris will protect our rear as we proceed through this heaven-forgotten hole. It’s best if you take your lead from the Sargent —
“Aye, Sir, sergeants know best at times, Sir.”
“and this being your first experience pressing is undoubtedly one of those times. I hope you realize just what faith Captain Bledsoe is showing in you, Bilton.”
“I do, Sir.” Still a bit disappointed at missing shore leave.
“And, do stop pouting. I’ll see you get a bit of time ashore, provided you don’t screw this up.”
The smell, even upwind, hit them as soon as the shuttle door opened. Akin to an open latrine or sewage pit and the worst bar Bilton had ever been in, it made his stomach churn. Fighting down the urge to vomit, he waited for the Troopers to deploy outside the craft. When the Gunnery Sargent, the senior noncom of the detail, called the clear, he and the First descended the shuttle ramp.
“Are we ready, Gunny?” Asked the first, sometimes noncoms did know best.
“The drinking holes close in fifteen, Sir. We should move into the shadows now and set up.”
“Move them out, Gunny.” Turning to Bilton once again. “Remember, you are the rearguard and —
“Yes, Sir, defer to my Sargent.”
The smell of the place seemed to rise from the mud they tromped through. Tiny rivulets of sewage streamed into the craters left by their boots. Boots Bilton vowed to incinerate as soon as he returned to the ship.
Sargent Morris caught his eye, softly he said. “This looks like a likely spot, Sir, good cover and all.”
Bilton looked around and still in a hushed tone but loud enough for his squad to hear. “This looks like our place, Sargent. Set up a guard position.” Smiling his thanks to Morris.
Bilton watched as the forward squads took up hiding places in the alleys and nooks of the festering planetary boil. He knew there were places like this in every corner of the Empire. A place where people hid, criminals, escaped slaves, and any other dreg that the Empire shunned. Making them a prime hunting ground for Her Majesties press-gangs. None here could claim citizenship, nor the protections that came with that.
A man leaving a nearby building, an aging whore leading the way, signaled the tick of the closing clock. In a second, doors flung open and burly men began tossing customers, men and women alike out the doors. A single click from the First’s com unit started the show.
Troopers stepped from their hidden places, their first shots dropping the burly bouncers in their spots. The bouncers were likely armed and best disposed with first. The confused and drunken patrons milled about, not sure whether to run or stay to watch the fun. The confusion turned to panic when the Troopers moved in to cull out the best of them, stunning them with a quick bolt from the weapons they carried. The stunned, including the bouncers, were loaded on the hover-sleds that moved slowly behind the advancing Troopers. As the first three sleds reached their weight capacity, they began their self-guided return to the shuttle. The first sled slid past Bilton, unconscious bodies stacked like cordwood, waiting to be consumed in the Empire’s fires.
A commotion drew Bilton’s attention back to the press-gang. A more organized group was putting up greater resistance. A blaster shot rang out just before the First issued the recall back to the ship.
“It’s a bloody press-gang lads, have at’em.” A rallying cry from the mob. “They’ve no weapons, only little stunners. They can’t kill ya’, but you can kill them.”
Bilton heard Morris’ breathless “Lieutenant?”
“Steady men,” A not so steady Bilton said. “Let the last sled pass — as the fourth sled passed, Bilton switched his com unit to all call, rasping an order, “Friendlies – light up! The Troopers turned on their armors identifiers, separating them from their attackers. “Suppression fire if you please, Sargant Morris.”
“Aye Sir — open fire, watch the friendlies mind you, or you’ll be carrying them back!”
The friendlies began to pass through the line, taking up firing positions among the rearguard, but the mob was growing larger and more organized. First and the press-gang was pinned down, unable to move. Even after the First Lieutenant began firing laser shots, the mob was still moving in.
“Bilton to Cumberland.”
Cumberland C&C (Command and Control), hey Bilton, what’s up?”
Cumberland, we need the CAP (Combat Air Patrol) to sweep 60 meters ahead of my position.”
“Ummm — yeah, Bilton, I don’t think you’re authorized to call in an air stri—
“Now Cumberland!” The press gang and the First are about to be made a hash of by an armed mob. And, we might as well be throwing rocks at them!”
“Aww, shit, if this goes bad, both our backs are hash, Cumberland” CAP inbound, ETA 90 seconds.
Two shooting stars blazed in from the planets north, having left their protective orbit over the Cumberland, their path was marked by the ionized atmosphere as they burned through it. The two small fighters swept over the mob, stunning them with their sudden appearance, and the loud sonic explosion that heralded their arrival. The mob disintegrated, now a rabble seeking escape, no organization, dispersing in all directions, more a danger to themselves.
“Cumberland C&C, no fire run, repeat no fire run!” Bilton hoped he averted the fighters turn to blast the attackers.
Before Cumberland responded, the com crackled with a new voice, “Copy that ground, no fire run.” The voice of one CAP’s command pilot was still slightly distorted by the ionization surrounding his aircraft. “We will orbit until your shuttle lifts. Cap out.”
“Thank you, CAP. We’ll hustle out of this shi— location.” Bilton turned in time to see the Gunny and another Trooper supporting the First between them, a grimace on the First’s face with every step. “Sir, are you ok? Should I send for a medivac?
“More wounded pride then hurt Bilton, tripped over my own feet it seems —
“Still, Sir, if you’re in pain —
The first waved him off. “I can make it back. Gunny here has recalled one of the sleds, so we’ll all ride back in style.” Sitting down, the First motioned Bilton closer. “So, Mr. Bilton, you thought it was appropriate to call down an airstrike?
Trying to reply carefully, he had overstepped his boundaries by a leap. “We were pinned down by attackers who knew we had no real weapons
“Relax, Mr. Bilton, if my clumsiness hadn’t damaged my com unit, you would have heard me calling for the same.” Wincing as he sat back on the hover-sled. “You did well, Mr. Bilton, very well.
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