Marching Orders

A science fiction story in Red Scythe by Gary Bloom

Characters: Malcolm Forbeck, Hardbarger

"Hey Beck, Hardbarger was asking for you!"

Malcom Forbeck slid out from under the shuttle and hauled himself up off the steel deck. He had been performing a routine check on the ship that Lom and Fellows had just brought back earlier this morning. Everything was checking out nicely, proving to be one of the easier jobs of this shift. Updating the checklist on his tablet, he left the inspection open. There was nothing urgent, so far, and no one scheduled to take it out again for several hours.

"Did he say what he wants?"

"Boss said he wants to see you, man," the other technician replied caustically, pulling on his tool belt. "You think you're special or something? He's gotta send reasons? Your check cleared, right?"

"Yeah," Beck said, nodding absently as he left the hangar bay.

Making his way through the short corridors, Mal tried to think up a reason why the founder of The Red Scythe might want to see him. He passed the mess hall, two meeting rooms and a lavatory, but couldn't think of anything. All reports had been filed properly, all repairs completed either on time, or in most cases, faster. There shouldn't really be an issue. Too quickly, the technician found himself at the end of this hall. If he went left, Beck would be headed into the general living quarters and a couple of offices. He turned right instead, moving into Hardbarger's personal domain: lavatory, kitchen, office, and further beyond, a suite of rooms for his living space. Beck stopped at the door and moved to knock. He was cut short by a shout from within.

"Just get in here."

Beck walked in and sat down. Hardbarger was sitting in his chair thoughtfully stroking his long, pointed beard. Cold, sapphire eyes stared at the man, taking his measure. Beck had only experienced this once, having met the man face to face only just the once. It was an unnerving experience, but one that had served The Red Scythe well. Hardbarger was an excellent judge of men and their character.

"Got any pilot experience yet?"

"Ah, no sir," Beck answered, somewhat ashamed. "I've spent some time in the simulators, though."

"Right," the man waved it away. "I think I need to send you out. Figured you'd need a driver, but doesn't hurt to check. Question: can you improve the power efficiency on the air scrubbers in our shuttles?"

"To what end, sir?"

"Right now, time is pretty limited for any recon missions we're sending out. It's all tied directly to how long the usable air lasts in the cabins without the scrubbers turned on. If they power up the ventilation system, it causes enough of an electronic signal that we're exposed pretty quickly. If the shuttles had an extra setting, however, that lets the scrubbers run just enough to extend the air quality by ten or twenty percent, and do it without an enormous electrical consumption, then recon missions can run longer. It would improve our ability to function without increasing our staff. That means more money all around. So," he glared intently, "can you do it?"

"Well, I'd have to work out some of the-"

"I'm scheduling you for a flight out to a remote rock with Lom and Fellows. They're leaving in about twelve hours. We've got sensors of our own out there so you can bounce off what you need to and get everything else sorted out. You think you could figure out what questions you need answered by then?"

"Oh wow, ah, Fellows and Lom?"

Beck wasn't at all pleased with that particular scenario. Tudor Lom was a decent fellow, although somewhat quiet. At least he had a technical background, having picked up his piloting skills while serving at the asteroid base. Hyde Fellows was another story, though, and Mal couldn't stand him. That held up, of course, since Hyde had a fair amount of disdain for anyone who couldn't fly. A former pilot for the Olympus Union military, Fellows was very, very good. He never expected anyone to come up to his level - fairly certain that no one could anyway - but if you couldn't even get a transport off the deck, you had little value in his eyes. Technicians were great if they did their job, spoke minimally, and left the real pirates alone.

"Listen, sir, if two of us go out, I know I can get the metrics right. If you send out three of us, though-"

"And you figure it out for three, it'll work even better for two," Hardbarger finished the statement to his own liking. "Can you do the job or not? Do I need to get someone else?"

"No, no sir, of course not. I can do the job," he forced out. It was bad to tell Hardbarger you couldn't do something, especially if he was pretty sure that you could. "Of course I can do it."

"Good. You finish up whatever you were working on for this shift, and end early. Orders will be there by the time you get back to the hangar. When you're in space, Fellows is flying, but you're in charge. Lom has good technical experience, so he might be able to help. You tell them what to do, and they'll do it. Any problems, any arguments, any complaints, it comes back to me immediately. This is my initiative, and trumps all else. You got that?"

"Yes sir, I have absolutely got it sir!"

"Great. Now get the hell out of my office."

Beck moved quickly from the chair to the door, not looking behind him. He knew the icy eyes were boring holes in his back. There was no reason to add to the discomfort by inviting a tongue lashing too. Out in the hall, he tried to move at a normal pace, but couldn't help halting every so often. He, Mal Forbeck, was going outside, on a mission, and was actually in charge. In charge of Hyde Fellows. Oh, this was definitely not going to go well.