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Claws That Catch: Section Three
Last updated: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 00:31 EDT
"So where is it now and why doesn't this have your signature or mine on it?" Captain Prael asked.
"Equipment transfers of non-special inventory are handled below our level, sir," Bill replied.
"XO, if the most advanced Hexosehr technology isn't special inventory', I don't know what is!"
"Yes, sir," Bill replied. "Agreed. Among other things, he shipped out fourteen hand melders. Fourteen. And a fabricator! A whole grapping fabber! I don't know what the street value of one would be but I'd put it as at least a million dollars. Possibly a billion. Punch in the design and it will turn out the most advanced microchips we make nearly as fast as a multi-billion dollar plant! But it's not noted as being special inventory or even particularly expensive. It's not like they were trying to requisition a hundred rolls of space tape. It actually opened up our budget for material, probably the reason that Gestner and the Eng did it. This was a routine movement out into normal distribution channels. The problem being that none of the stuff is normal inventory. It doesn't even have Federal Stock numbers and nobody had any idea how to inventory it. I've tracked it as far as Newport Base. They didn't know what to do with it so they sent it to the main supply base at Norfolk. Norfolk, assuming it was surplus and out-of-date material, shipped it to the surplus and salvage yard. That's as far as I've gotten. I'm hoping that surplus and salvage can find it for us."
"Where did the tracking numbers come from, then?" Prael asked, frowning at the screen. "There's even associated costs. Low ones. Most of them are under a hundred dollars. Including the fabber? Jesus Chr..."
"Not sure, sir," Bill said, shrugging. "Not my departmentat the time."
"Damn," Prael said, shaking his head. "Grapp me. Okay, find this stuff. We're grounded until we get it back. And I now have to call SpacComand explain to them that we're non-mission-capable until a couple of tons of unobtainium parts and tools get found!"
"With all due respect, sir," Bill said. "Sucks to be you."
"Thanks, XO. Send a message to the Eng and Gestner. Tell them I want them standing at my door in ten minutes. In the mean time, I need to go over to SpacCom and report on this little grapp-up in person. I'll probably be a couple of hours."
Since there were no hills of any significance in the entire Norfolk area, the First Sergeant had promised to find some. The nearest, he'd opined, were in Richmond.
Most of the company had chuckled at what they took to be a joke. Richmond was eighty miles away.
The more experienced members of the company just groaned. You could do eighty miles in one day, if you counted a day as from when you woke up until you collapsed in exhaustion. The trick was alternating a slow dog-trot with a fast walk. With enough training, a person could do that trick until their body ran out of muscle to eat or they went stark staring mad from sleep-deprivation dementia. With First Sergeant Powell in the mood he was in, either was possible. Nobody had mentioned anything about busses once they got to Richmond. They'd have to come back, too.
It was somewhere around Williamsburg, just short of thirt ymiles into the march and all of six hours later, that Berg got to take over cadence. The problem being that the First Sergeant, who had the most remarkable memory for lyrics and cadences Berg had ever experienced, had used up just about everything. Six hours of cadence calling that ranged from standard military cadences like Yellow Ribbon and the Battle Hymn of the Republic to rock and roll tunes with an appropriate beat. Hell, he'd even slipped in Britney Spears. If you worked with it, you could march to both Oops, I Did It Again and Hit Me. John Brown's Body was buried back in Newport News. So were EarlyM orning Rain and Yellow Bird, all twenty known verses.
But Top's musical tastes were just divergent enough from Eric's that Berg had a few Top hadn't thought of. Not eight hours worth, and they'd be going for a lot longer than that. But he could keep the company groaning out cadences for an hour or so just on Within Temptation, a few Manowar songs Top had missed and Cruxshadows. Hell, there was some ZZ Top that the First Sergeant had missed.
But start with the good stuff.
"Languid waves of desperation fall before the rain," Eric sang, grinning at the groans from the experienced hands. "A vanguard to approaching war is born upon the sea. The icy breath of cyclones bent on raging our destruction, drills hard against the hearts of heroes, called here to defend. Double-time... march! Chorus, Marines!"
"What do you mean you don't know where it is?" Weaver said, trying not to whimper.
The warehouse was vast and filled with packing crates. If the Arc of the Covenant was buried anywhere, it was in this warehouse.
"How do you maintain inventory?"
"We don't, really," the warehouse manager said. "When stuff comes in it's dated and moved to a particular section. If it sits there for ninety days, it's put up to auction. Yours had been here less than ninety days, right?"
Bill looked at his forms and sighed in relief. Sixty days, maximum.
"It should have gotten here around the middle of July," hesaid. "You should have it."
"Mid July," the warehouse manager said, muttering to himself. "What did you say this stuff was?"
"Misplaced parts and tools," Bill said. "It's mostly in heavy plastic containers. They may look a little weird."
Hexosehr fabbers had no issue with curves so their output had a tendency to look a bit more organic than human manufacture.
"Oh, hell, I remember that stuff," the supervisor said, nodding. "We opened up a couple of the boxes but couldn't figure out what the hell it was. I figure somebody might buy it for scrap. Section eighteen."
"Which is where?" Bill asked, hurriedly.
"I'll take you over in my cart," the supervisor said, standing up and heading to the door. "But you're not going to be happy."
"Why?" Bill asked.
"This is Section five," the man said, waving around the warehouse. "The whole warehouse, that is. Section Eighteen's the same size. And all I know is that it's in there. Unless I can find a driver that put it away, you're going to have to get some people to come toss the place."
"Oh Maulk," Bill said.
"Oh double maulk," Bill repeated when they entered Section Eighteen. It was, if anything, more packed than the first warehouse. "I am so grapped. We are so grapped."
"What is this stuff, really?" the supervisor asked. "I'm sorry it took me a while to figure out who you are. You're the guy who was on TV, right?"
"Yeah," Bill said. "And if you can keep it to yourself, I'll tell you."
"Lips are sealed," the super said, taking a corner a tad fast.
"It's all the parts and tools the Hexosehr gave us along with the Blade II," Bill admitted. "The stuff you couldn't figure out? Well, if you did you'd think you were looking at magic. It was priced in the system as nearly junk value. To say that was an underestimate is the understatement of the year."
"Cool," the super noted, slowing down and waving to a fork-lift driver. "Hey, Jose! You remember some gray plastic crates and someother stuff that came in way back in July? Really odd looking stuff."
"Si," the driver said, pulling to a stop.
"You don't happen to remember where you put it, do you?"
"Si," the driver said. "Southwest corner. We get it wrong, si?"
"We get it wrong, si," the super said.
"I think so," Manuel replied. "You not see it, but when Il ift it up, I see markings on the bottom. Not earth markings. I think to myself, Manuel, this is something not right in here. So I set it aside."
"Oh, thank God," Weaver said, finally letting out a breath. "Where? Where?!"
"Aqui," Manuel said, spinning the fork lift in place.
"YES!" Bill shouted as they turned the last corner. In just about the only empty corner of the warehouse, clearly kept separate, was a pile of gray shipping boxes and a very large wooden crate. "Oh puh-lease let that be the fabber!"
"Glad you're so excited," the super said, grinning.
"Can you imagine how embarassing it would have been if we went back to the Hexosehr and admitted that we'd lost all this stuff?" Bill said, jumping out as the cart came to a stop. "Yes!" he shouted again as he compared a stencilled on number to the list in his hand. "Yes! Yes! Oh, this is great! I need to see if that's the fabber."
"What in the heck is a fabber?" the super asked.
"A fabricator," Bill replied. He consulted the list and opened up a box, pulling out one of the hand-melders. Just as an oxy-acetylenetorch could cut steel open or weld it with appropriate materials, the melder made a fine cutting device.
"We tried that thing," the super said. "It doesn't work."
"Didn't have the power module," Bill said, consulting the list again and pulling open another box. He slid the power module into place and then approached the wooden box. Keying the melder for a three centimeter cut, he drew it along all four sides of the box and then stepped back as the side fell away.
"Damn, that's some fricking saw," the super said, hands on hips.
"Yes!" Bill shouted, dropping the melder and sliding into the box to kiss the organic looking machine it had housed. "Oh, baby! Oh,baby!"
"Jesus, Captain," the super said, laughing. "I know you want to have its love-child but there are limits..."
"First Sergeant, we're going to have to find a quicker way back," the CO said as the company fell out in Mosby Park. "We've still got to load the ship and prepare for departure."
It was about three o'clock in the morning and they were, by God, in Richmond. They'd made eighty miles in under twenty four hours, not a record but damned close. And not a one had fallen out. A couple had boots filled with blood, but they'd kept going.
"Yes, sir," Powell said. "I have that under control, sir."
"You've really dogged the hell out of em, haven't you?" the CO opined, looking around at the collapsed Force Recon Marines.
"Haven't started, yet, sir," Powell replied, pulling out a field ration. He pulled the tab to heat it then dumped the contents in his mouth. "But we'll be back in good time."
"You're not going to even tell your CO?" the captain asked.
"Not short of a direct order, sir," Top replied. "But you're going to like it. Try not to act surprised. ON YOUR FEET, MARINES!"
"This is Mosby Hill," the First Sergeant said, gesturing at the vista below. "It was part of the last defenses of Richmond during the Civil War, a seven degree slope at its steepest and one point five miles from top to bottom following Broad Street. I have arranged with the Richmond Police department to maintain one lane clear of traffic until six AM. From now until that time, we are going to learn to love this hill. Aren't we Marines?"
"YES, FIRST SERGEANT!"
"We are going to love this hill as we have never loved a hill. And at Six AM, when the police, alas, have to open the lane up, well, then it will be time to make our way home. But in the meantime, Right...Face! Quicktime... march... Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, Old times there are not forgotten..."
Loving the Hill' is right up there with Good Training' in the history of military sadism. What it meant was that the Marines of Bravo Company, United States Space Marines, would march down the hill quite peacefully then double time back up. One lane of Broad Street had been closed with police cars at either end to maintain it and barricades to ensure motorists didn't decide to use it anyway. The Richmond Police officers and the public workers who had set up the closure leaned on the hoods of their cars and trucks and watched as the Marines marched down, ran up, marched down, ran up, repeat to exhaustion or at least until six AM.
Shortly before that time, the First Sergeant turned over the cadence calling to Gunnery Sergeant Juda, who was if anything more brutal than he, and had a quick conversation with the unit's most junior officer.
Which left Second Lieutenant Bergstresser as the cadence caller for the last climb.
"Quick time... march," Berg shouted when the company was barely half way up the hill. Already, behind them the city workers were taking down the barricades and preparing to open the road. The police cars had pulled well to the side and as the Marines passed them the officers waved and grinned, as if they knew a special joke.
"New cadence," Berg said. "Try to keep up.
"In the quiet misty morning when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing and the sky is clear and red.
When the summer's ceased its gleaming,
When the corn is past its prime,
When adventure's lost its meaning,
I'll be homeward bound in time."
Berg didn't have the greatest singing voice in the world, but it was good enough for the simple tune. And the words couldn't have been more heartfelt. As much as the Marines had been cutting up for the cameras, lately, much of it was simply pre-mission jitters. Casualties on each mission of the Blade had been so high as to be suicidal.
"Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I'll return to you somehow."
"If you find it's me your missing, if you're hoping I'll return.
To your thoughts I'll soon be list'ning, and in the road I'll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end.
And the path I'll be retracing when I'm homeward bound again. Chorus!"
A simple enough one to remember, and the Marines boomed it out as they approached the top ofthe hill and the long road home.
Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I'll return to you somehow.
But at the top of the hill, where they'd assembled before learning to love it, where they'd turned to begin the descent more times than they'd bothered counting, was something that hadn't been there ten minutes earlier. A Looking Glass, shining bright in the rising sun. And a grinning crew of techs who had just set it up.
Berg gave them a few moments to contemplate that, pausing as the Marines continued to keep time approaching the Looking Glass.
"By column of twos!" Lt. Bergstresser boomed, breaking the unit down until it was two abreast instead of four. The Marines, despite carrying a hundred and fifty pounds of gear apiece, having marched nearly a hundred miles grand total and with minimal sleep or food, did the maneuver flawlessly. Two by two they entered the Looking Glass to an unknown fate. For all they knew, it could have been pointed at another planet. But there wasn't a flicker from any of them as they approached the gate.
When Berg emerged, he had to chuckle. The other side emerged on the parade field in front of the company headquarters building in Newport News.
"In the quiet misty morning when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing,
I'll be homeward bound again..."
"By column of fours... Companeeeee...halt."
"I'm glad to see everyone made it," the CO said to the assembled Marines. "But it's what I expect of Space Marines and you can recover on the ship. We have loading to do..."
There were some groans to that and he grinned, thinking that maybe he should revise the schedule he and the First Sergeant had worked out. But, no, it was one of those times the CO got to be the good guy.
"I have convinced the First Sergeant, however, that we do not have to start right away," Captain Zanella continued.
It was military leadership. Call it good cop/bad cop. The senior NCO in any unit was the bad cop. He was the one that assigned all the crappy details and meted out minor punishments. The officer, on the other hand, remained generally distant and only interacted when there were good things to be said and done. Except on the rare occasion where someone truly grapped up, in which case, like calling Dad in for punishment, you knew you were really grapped.
The First Sergeant had punished the company for their grandstanding. Now he got to pat them on the head.
"You have the rest of the day off. Recall formation at 1700. We'll then commence loading. The majority of materials have been pre-loaded for us this time, the remainder will be doled out at 1700. Following the formation, platoon sergeants and leaders in my office. First Sergeant!"
"Okay, this has put a total crimp in my planning," First Lieutenant Javier Mendel said. Despite his Hispanic name, the lieutenant looked more like a poster child for the Waffen SS, tall and slender with blue eyes and short-cropped blond hair. However, in keeping with his name, he was a second generation immigrant from Peru. If the hundred mile ruck march had bothered the officer it wasn't apparent, he was still carrying his ruck on his back as he and Berg made their way into the heaquarters building. "I had maulk to do last night."
"You weren't married less than a month ago," Berg pointed out. "But when Top gets a bee in his bonnet, well..."
"Good training, though," Lt. Morris said. Morris was medium height with brown hair and eyes. He'd entered from one of the few Marine ROTC units and had never intended to be a Force Recon officer, it was just bad timing. Since he'd graduated in winter semester, his whole career had been out-of-schedule; newly minted officers were supposed to show up at the beginning of the summer. He'd completed his time as a platoon leader and was supposed to take over a company XO position in a different MEU. However, that unit was deployed when he became available. He had the choice of a make-work position until it came back or a course. The only course available was Force Recon. Once he joined the course, though, he'd just refused to quit and graduated as the Honor Graduate from Force Recon qual and FROT. Since he'd already had a platoon, he qualified as an FR platoon leader. And the FR platoon leader spot open had been in Bravo Company after it's merciless first mission. At this point he had one mission under his belt in the Blade and was still refusing to quit. "Glad Top got it out of his system."
"OKAY, WHO IN THE HELL...?"
"Had," Berg said, grinning. "Hadit out of his system."
"That would be Sir Two-Gun, First Sergeant," Eric said, as the threesome walked into the orderly room.
To approach the CO's office there were two choices. On one side, the side enlisted approached from, there was the gauntlet of the orderly room, held down by the company clerk and the operations sergeant. From there, if a person was worthy, they could enter Top's office. On the other side was the XO's office,the route normally taken by officers. In this case, since it was the shorter route and there was more room to dump their rucks in the orderly room, the officers had taken that route. Which was how they got to see the sign.
Someone had been busy while the company was gone. Before they left, the First Sergeant's door had only a simple plaque: "First Sergeant Jeffrey Powell."
Now, over the door there was a large wooden sign which read:
We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.
Robert Anson Heinlein
"You were addressing me, First Sergeant?" Two-Gun asked as he slipped his ruck to the floor. He had to admit he was grateful to finally have the thing off his back but he tried to keep the relief off his face.
"No, sir," the First Sergeant said, grinding his teeth. "I would never address an officer in that manner. I believe I was addressing a smart-aleck sergeant I once knew."
"What's that from?" Mendel asked, setting his own ruckdown. "Although, I agree with the sentiment."
"It's a long story, Lieutenant," Top said, then gave a reluctant smile. "It's a good sign, though, Lieutenant Bergstresser. I take it I do have you to thank."
"I was thinking about the sign the Legion has in its orderly room," Berg admitted. "You are in the Legion to die and we will send you where you can die.' I kinda felt this was more appropriate. Lord knows it's true."
"That it is, sir," Top said, softly. "That it is. But we've got work to do, sirs."
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