Castle Roland

O'Connell's Grenadiers

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 3

Published: 8 Apr 14

O'Connell's Grenadiers

Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Robin glanced at the small Heads Up Display in the lower left of his heavy eco-suit helmet visor and took a deep breath, "Caleb, it is even colder here, I am showing 4 degrees."

"I can tell it is colder because my suit fan has increased power, but I have no display." The younger boy responded in a voice indicating a bit of fear. "We are toward the outside of the ship. Maybe we should split up and…"

"No." Robin cut Caleb off, "We stick together. The last thing I want is to run into a desperate survivor with only one or two of us, although I doubt we will be finding any in this section. As soon as we find the medic room and raid it, we will move toward the middle again."

Dante pointed to a door a couple of doors away, "We're here."

Cody moved up beside Dante, pushing the body of a dead elderly man out of the way. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to have nightmares for months."

"Fortunately or unfortunately we have all seen dead before. At least, all the bodies in here have basically been in one piece." Robin responded. "The three of us were unfortunate enough to see the aftermath of an aerial fragmentation bombardment over a trailer camp. That was way worse than this."

Caleb shuttered so hard it was noticeable even though he was inside an eco-suit. "Oh, that was so nasty! Even Dante's dad got a little sick!"

"He is NOT my father." Dante kind of growled then gulped as he realized his mistake. He recovered and changed subjects "But yea, it takes a shit storm to make him turn pale and he was more than pale, he was almost green."

Cody stole glances at all three kids, "Aerial fragmentation bombs are"

"Illegal?" Dante half snorted. "Well, only if the people you are fighting care about what is legal, and Earth Core doesn't give a rat's ass about the laws of warfare."

"Earth Core? Your unit has fought EC?"

Robin moved up to the door and pulled once on the lock securing the control panel and the emergency door release. As he pulled his laser pistol and shot the lock off, a sad sigh escaped his lips. "Twice actually. The second time many of our non-combatant and infantry were slaughtered in an ambush while they were rendering aid to a refugee camp. By the time our frames and armor got there, only about 25% were alive, and half of them were seriously to critically injured. The bastards fired air burst cannons from frames and armor over the trailers, driving everyone to an open field to the north where they then dropped several ripper bombs."

"Into the fleeing people?" Cody's voice squeaked.

"Yea. After seeing what happened to the refugees, and our own people, anything else is simply not horrible enough to draw a comparison." Robin grew silent as he cranked on the manual lever until he could duck under the door. The second he could he slipped inside.

Cody looked over to Caleb, "Did you all see that?"

Dante answered, "There is a reason there are not many dependants our age in the Grenadiers. We were all there. The problem is, Robin found his sister and father. Both had been blown in half by a ripper."

Cody whispered, "This may not be the right time, but I have heard of rippers but don't really know what they are. I mean I know they are some kind of scatter mine that jumps up into the air and blow up, but those are simply bouncers, which are just as illegal as aerial frag bombs."

Caleb clenched his fists, "Bouncers are aerial dropped bombs that contain lots of mines. The bombs break open and scatter the smaller mines, but bouncers are weighted. When they hit the ground there is a small explosive charge that bounces them back up in the air about a meter in height then they detonate with shape charges that go out sideways so they hit right about the waist. Rippers are an even nastier extension of a bouncer. Some so called "rouge" EC units add thin wires into the shape charges which spin out fast enough to slice off legs limbs and even cut people in half. Other than Earth Core, no one uses rippers, not even the most vicious marauders."/

Cody took a deep breath, "Oh my god. Why would anyone build such a thing?"

Dante shook his head, "People don't. Savages do." Without further words he ducked under the door to join Robin.

Caleb put a hand on Cody's shoulder, preventing him from joining the other two. "We better stand guard out here."

Cody nodded slowly as he turned to face the smaller boy, "You guys are really amazing. I'm stunned you all didn't do better at the academy."

"We probably should have." Caleb admitted bluntly, "But we had a couple of strikes against us before we ever stepped foot in the main hall."

"Like what?"

Cody rolled his eyes, "Like the fact mercs are not well liked on Quaker VII and the planet is like 80% Russian and none of us are. We all had to agree to take classes in Russian as part of a attendance contract."

"I never thought about that. Learning Russian is just part of life on Quaker VII. I grew up with Russian and English instruction so it never occurred to me what a hassle it must be for outsiders to come in and have to deal with two official languages."

"Dealing with multiple languages is usually no big deal. Almost all the planets use English as a trade language so we can get by. Quaker VII was the only world I have ever been to that would not allow us to simply use English during our stay. Even our younger kids had to enter into extra Russian classes in order to attend regular school."

"But for us it was really bad, cause part of the academy requirements is a foreign language and Russian was not considered foreign, so we all had to take two language classes. Robin, Jared, Zane and I were lucky, as we all spent time on New Bravaria II and have some passable German knowledge and Dante was very lucky cause he knew some good Russian, which I just found out was from his early days on Red Star and he was with us on New Bravaria, so he had the basics of both. But none of us really had any skill with reading or writing either Russian or German."

Caleb glanced around just to make sure the hall was still devoid of life before continuing, "Then to make matters worse, your planet made us all attend church every week. What type of craziness is that?"

Cody looked confused, "You mean you don't have to go to church on other planets?"

Robin was just ducking back under the door carrying a hefty pack, "No, as a matter of fact until I stepped foot on Quaker VII, I don't think I had ever gone to any kind of religious place of worship other than to tour one." He pushed the pack over to Cody and disappeared back into the medical room.

"But" Cody's voice drifted off as the questions he wanted to ask escaped him.

"But nothing." Caleb growled, "How can any place force a religion onto someone? It just ain't right. Making matters worse a couple of our crew are not worshiping Christians, so for them it was even worse."

"You mean they don't believe in God?"

"Oh, they believe in God, at least most of them. But they don't in Christ, or at least they don't believe Christ was the son of God. We actually left them off our unit roster just so we could get the contract. But, they had to keep hidden or use our ID's when they were out in public. It really sucked for them."

"You guy's lied to get the contract?"

"No more than your government lied about guaranteeing it."

"Touché." Cody held up his hands in surrender. "I guess there was more going against you guys than any of us realized. Most of the guys just chalked it up to you being undereducated mercs."

"Yea, it didn't take any of us long to figure out the kids at the academy saw us as some kind of back water hicks. Believe it or not, you are the one who really helped all of us out."

Cody's voice took on a note of confusion. "Me? How?"

Caleb grinned, "You really shook up a lot of the kids when you put Robin in your command squad. It made a lot of the other kids take a second look at all of us. Once they did, they realized we were probably in the top 10 to 20 percent of our classes except for some kinds of weapon marksmanship."

"I noticed that right off. Robin was better in just about everything related to combat in and outside of frames except rockets, missiles, and high tech beam weapons. He was awesome with lasers, but when it came to light and heavy beam weaponry, he was quite a ways behind the rest of us.

"Still, after seeing how he handled pressure and scraped together a small group to route the other team on the team combat range, I put in the request to move him into my squad. The instructors resisted at first, but finally agreed when I threatened to resign my command. Still, I didn't get him promoted to an officer like I really wanted.

"We finally agreed on making him a senior sergeant and putting him in as my tactical advisor instead of tactical officer. Believe me, no one was thrilled at the compromise, but it gave me probably the best tactician in the 7th grade, maybe in the whole middle school and they didn't have to give a merc an officer rank.

"Besides, being in a command squad allowed him extra range time, so he was able to pull up his skills with light and heavy beam weapons to a point were he was above the class average and about even with everyone with missiles and rockets. I think I could have gotten him an officer spot next semester if the government hadn't thrown in the towel. At the very least, he would have gotten a warrant officer rank.

"But from what I heard, none of you guys were very good with rockets, missiles, light or heavy beam weapons though. It was whispered behind your guys' backs a lot."

"We aren't." Caleb confirmed, "We're not a rich merc unit. We don't have a lot of high tech beam weaponry. We also tend to have few missiles and rocket type weapons because the ammo is very expensive.

"What we do have is reserved for our combat personal, and we really don't get much of a chance to use them. Only when we get a bonus shipment, or capture practice rounds do we get a chance to fire rockets or missiles.

"We do have some high tech beam weapons, but they are extremely expensive to repair. So, the only time I got to shoot one before the academy is when we captured a damaged one that was about to burn out. When we did, all of us got a few shots, by age, until it did fry then we would scrap it for parts.

"On the other hand, we have plenty of lasers and ballistic weapons and we learn to shot them as soon as we can hold them safely. Robin, in particular, is an amazing shot with a laser and rifle. His dad was our lead scout and sniper. He took Robin hunting all the time before he was killed. He taught Robin how to hunt, track and live off of all sorts of wilderness environments. Hell, survival training for him was more of a joke than a class."

"Yea, that's where I first noticed him. We were in church after the week long survival class. All of us were filthy and had a hard time staying awake except Robin, He was kicked back looking bored, with washed hair and in a basically clean uniform. I requested he be moved into my class after service, since my class got the poorest survival score of all 7th grade classes."

I figured it was God's will he hadn't been assigned to a class yet and I had an open slot."

Seconds later Dante ducked under the door sporting another full duffle bag. "Well that was a gold mine of stuff. What did I miss?"

Caleb snickered, "Just a discussion of church attendance. Let's head back up and continue our search. The first survivors we find we will hand all this stuff to so they can get it to Erin."

Dante nodded but tossed in his own thoughts as they made their way back toward the center of the crippled ship, "The greatest thing about getting off that rock is no more having to listen to boring preachers every week. They even made me go when I was sick!"

Robin took a deep breath, "This is not the time to be discussing religion. We have more first aid equipment than we'll probably need, so our next task is to get to the main kitchen to see if there are survivors there."

Dante pulled out the holo-player and ran through the deck plans. "If the central lift tube is not breached or blocked, we should be able to force the doors open and go up 3 decks. That will put us right behind the coach class dinning area. The kitchen is on the far side from there."

"Lead the way." Robin ordered as he adjusted the strap of the bag he had stuffed to the bursting point with supplies for the aid station. As he finally managed to get the bag over the shoulder of the eco-suit, he saw Cody point at a wall locker.

"Found something?"

"Yea, I think it's an emergency repair station. The sign's in Arabic, which is my foreign language, but its translation is more like mending or refurbishing locker."

"That's a primary target." Robin responded as he once again used his laser pistol to destroy a lock. He yanked it open with a sharp tug which finished off the damaged security device. Inside he found a portable kit with just about everything needed to fix minor problems, but it was nothing like the much more extensive repair equipment on each deck of the Grey Stallion. He frowned as he shrugged. "I guess it's better than nothing."

Caleb looked at the locker. "I saw one of these on each of the other three decks we have been on. One was broken open, though."

"We'll raid every one we find from now on and send them back with survivors. I'm going to keep this one with us though. It has a small fusion generator, laser torch, and a laser drill. I'll use these instead of my pistol from now on. It also has a couple of long pry bars, which will be very helpful and are better than the ones we keep on the Stallion."

True to Robin's word, the pry bars were used within a few minutes of finding them as the lift doors had to be pried open. Robin inserted the salvaged long titanium bar into the crease at the edge of the door and motioned Cody to move to the other side.

"I'm going to open this just a crack, but if air starts to get sucked out I want you to force it back closed again."

"Got it." Cody moved forward and readied the second bar.

Robin pulled, but found the longer bar did in fact make the task a great deal easier than the smaller crowbars aboard the Grey Stallion. The door creaked in protest but didn't put up much of a fight. Within a minute, Robin had a gap large enough to see into the shaft beyond. All four boys held their breath as if expecting a torrent of air to get sucked out of the area they were in. When nothing happened Robin let out a long breath of air. "We're clear. Move over and give me a hand Cody."

Cody let out a relived breath of his own as he inserted the second bar into the small opening. As the two 13 year olds pulled, the door relented quickly snapping open suddenly.

Caleb poked his head in and looked up and down. "We're in luck. The elevator is stuck below us so the way up is clear. Being in zero G makes this an easy trip."

Cody held up a cautionary finger, "Take it slow anyway. You don't want to snag and rip your suit or worse."

Robin nodded, "He's right Caleb. We can glue on a patch if we have to, but you'd loose lots of air and it would take a lot of power to reheat your suit. My HUD is showing it's now 3 degrees in this area of the ship."

Caleb cursed as he looked over at Dante, "I'm gunna need you to take a look at this eco-suit's Heads Up Display. It's not working at all."

"I'm sure I'll be able to fix it. The Frame HUDs are only tricky because they hook into the targeting computer. These are pretty low tech." He waited until Caleb was several meters above him before using his legs to push off of the side of the door.

As Caleb floated up, he looked around the shaft. "It looks like someone has already tried to pry the door open to the level we are going to Robin. I bet there are people on the other side."

Robin quickly made his way up the shaft and grabbed onto the frame around the exit door to stop from floating higher. Behind him, Dante reacted quickly by gabbing Cody to prevent the older boy from slipping past.

Cody swallowed hard, "Thanks Dante."

Dante grinned, "I've spent more time in zero G than you have, don't worry about it."

Robin looked at the door. "Your right, this has been pried on but it's off track. We'll have to pop it back into the slide before we will have any chance of prying it open." He pointed to Cody and Dante. "Move to the other side and keep your stunners ready. There very well could be some panicked people on the other side."

Dante helped guide Cody to the far side as they both drew pistols. Dante managed a grin as he spoke, "Remember to get out of my way, I never did pass firearms training."

"Yes you did, you just happened to slip and fall at the wrong time during unit certification. You got academy certificate. More importantly, I trust you." Robin informed the boy. He then pointed to the track. "Caleb try to bend the track back toward us while I lift up on the edge of the door."

Caleb waited until Robin grunted "Go!" before he slammed the pry bar under the door and put his feet on the frame so he had some leverage. The combination worked far better than either boy suspected it would as the door jumped into the track and slid all the way open all within moments.

As the door almost shot open, a couple of people half floated into the shaft while a couple of others rolled back. Sounds of frightened shouts mixed with excited and relieved voices created an eerie echo off the bulkheads. Light and a little heat also rolled over the kids letting them all know someone had managed some kind of limited life support power.

Robin floated into view. "How many of you are there here?"

A young man wearing a ship crew uniform moved up. His expertise in zero G operation showed as he easily pushed his way through the terrified mob, "We have 72 here. There are more in the kitchen, but we can't get to them. There is a breach cutting us off from the other side of the ship."

"Are you sure there are survivors in the kitchen?"

"Yea, we had been in flashlight communication with them but their batteries must have given out about half an hour ago because they stopped responding. They do have life support and are operating on the same power core supply we are, but the batteries we hooked into are running out of juice. I'll shut down this section so it will give them more time."

"Solid plan. Do you know your way around this ship really well?"

"Oh Yea. I'm a janitorial and maintenance apprentice. I know every centimeter of this ship."

"Good. I need you to take them all down the shaft to the open door three decks down; then make your way around to the spiral stairway and back up two decks. Once there, make your way to the link tube. Take all this gear we have with us and have everyone grab as much clothing and other equipment and food they can without slowing you down too much. Temps in some areas are well below freezing and getting colder so pull the plug here and get a move on!"

The young ship crewman gave a quick nod. He flipped a large breaker panel which plunged the section into near total darkness. He then broke a half dozen glow sticks and handed them out. "Everyone follow me. A few of you used to space travel grab their packs so they can move on without all the bulk!"

One of the men looked over with a great deal of anger. "You're not seriously going to take orders from some snot nosed kid, are you?"

Robin spun and pointed his stun pistol at the man's face. Showing skill and more confidence than he actually felt, Robin put a bit of growl into his voice. "Sir, you have exactly two choices. First is to get shot. The second is to grab the large bag my friend has over his shoulder and follow that ship crewman. You have exactly 5 seconds to decide and 3 of them are already gone!"

Clearly, the man had never had a pistol pointed at him as he turned pale and a wet spot appeared at the front of his pants. Without another word, the man secured the bag of medical gear from Dante as the guy nervously glanced at Cody who kept his own pistol pointed at the man's head.

Robin grabbed the guy and spun him, showing everyone watching he may have been smaller, but zero G was an equalizer and skill in a no gravity environment meant infinitely more than size and weight. "Mister, if there is a single problem from anyone it will be you I hold responsible. That crewman is in charge of this group and you better help keep everyone in line. Understood?"

The man shook like a leaf as his eyes grew even wider. He tried to break free of Robin's grip as his voice trembled. "But"

In addition to Cody, Caleb also lowered his pistol at the terrified man while Robin spun him head over heals in a complete circle.

"Did I stutter or something?" Robin hissed, "This is not open for discussion. You keep everyone in line or I will come looking for you. Once I'm done, every member of the Grenadiers will have their shot."

Robin paused and pulled the man directly up to the face plate of the eco-suit. "Your other option is to stay here. What's it going to be?"

Everyone watching, saw the wet spot on the front of the man's pants grow as he held up his hands as tears of fear rolled out his eyes. "OK!"

Robin continued to glare, "Who is in command?"

ldquo;Ya Ya . You are!"

Robin backhanded the guy. "NO! The crewman is! I don't care if he tells you to float through flames; you better make sure everyone does it! Now who is in command of your group?"

The now balling man pointed with a shaking arm to the crewman who looked almost as scared as the huge man Robin was handling like a baby.

"Good!" Robin snarled as he pushed the guy away from him. "Every single person in this group better make it over to the Grey Stallion. If they don't, you will not be allowed in. Once you are there, you better keep everyone calm and polite or I will drag your ass back to this ship and lock you in. From now until you are safe on a space station or on the ground, your survival depends on keeping everyone safe and calm."

Robin took a deep breath before turning to the crewman. "Do you have keys to the repair lockers?"

The young man looked terribly nervous, "Ah, yea." He started digging into his pocket.

Robin stopped him with a wave of his hand. "No, hold on to them. I expect all 72 of you to make it safely and with as much extra supplies as you can manage. One thing I do want you to take, however, is every bit of repair equipment out of every locker though."

"Is your ship dead too?"

"No, but we have a few nasty dings. The more repair stuff we have to work with, the better all of us are. Besides, this ship is so far gone; those repair kits are not going to do her any good. If dumb shit gives you any hassle at all"

The crewman shook his head, "Not likely, but I'll let you know kid. Thanks."

Robin forced a smile. He then spoke a bit louder so he knew everyone would hear him. "If there are any other problem children, let Jared know. He is the only kid in our unit with red hair so you can't miss him. He is also tougher than I am."

The young man gave a quick nod, then turned his attention to getting everyone organized before leading the way down the lift shaft.

Cody waited until the whole group moved out of sight before he grinned at Robin, "Sometimes people being terrified of mercs works the other way. That jerk was so scared he pissed himself."

Caleb giggled as he moved over to the power unit the guy was using to keep minimal life support going. "And the rest of them fell in line like sheep. Hey Robin, we could give our batteries a quick charge and fully re-supply our air here if you want to. There is more than enough power."

"How long will it take?"

"About 5 minutes per suit. It will give us another full five hours at the least."

Robin thought it over for a few moments, "OK, let's do it. While we're recharging, I want Dante to find us a way around the breach and to the kitchen. Cody, keep watch while I contact Jared to let him know we have survivors and supplies on the way."

Dante quickly moved over to a wall and pulled the holo-player back out of his pack while Caleb plugged in his suit to get a battery and air recharge.

Almost ten minutes past before Robin slid next to him to get his own suit re-supplied. "What do you have for us?"

Dante looked up totally frustrated. "I don't yet." He pulled up a 3D view of the deck they were on. He then changed the section between where they were and the kitchen to red. "I have input all the sections we know have no atmosphere. With all of this being depressurized, there is no way to them from this deck. We also know the deck right below us is void of air right below the kitchen; so there is no way to get to them from below. We'll have to try from above, but we don't know squat about what is up there yet."

Robin studied the plans for a few minutes before he spotted something. "Can you enlarge the section to the port side of the kitchen?"

Dante played with the controls. "You're lucky I designed this program with optical enhancements."

"From what I hear, it has little to do with luck."

Dante cringed. "Caleb told me. I already know I owe you a big one and we'll cut you in on any other rackets we dream up."

"Just so we have an understanding." Robin smiled in satisfaction. His grin faded as he pointed to the holographic display. "Slide it back a little." As the display adjusted Robin suddenly pointed, "There, what is that?"

Dante played with the controls a bit more, "It's the main freezer for the whole ship."

"What about the side tube running right behind it?"

This time Caleb answered, "All large planetary landing craft have one of those. It is a cargo system to get all the goods from the lift to the freezer. That is why almost all cargo crates are the same size, they are designed to go into these. I know how these things work all too well. We have one on the Stallion and it gives us fits a couple of times a year. I don't know how this one connects to the cargo lift though."

"I'll trace it." Dante stated as he again played around with the controls. "You know this would be faster if I didn't have on this suit. The gloves make controlling this a bitch."

"You're not getting out of your suit." Robin's voice ended any further discussion on the matter.

Dante frowned but knew better than to argue. Instead he focused in on manipulation of the controls as best he could. Finally, he stopped and enlarged a section. "Here you go. It actually runs from the top of the ship all the way down. It has openings on every deck to supply the snack and drink machines as well as the main kitchen."

"Is it pressurized?" Caleb asked.

"No way to tell until we open it, but it is pretty deep in the ship so chances are good it has pressure. The only problem is it is so long and has so many doors, we would have to hope nothing was damaged. But, as long as all the access doors are undamaged, we should be OK. On the plus side, they were probably all closed and locked because the ship was getting ready to fold, so chances are good the whole tube system is in the green." Dante replied. "We also know the area it connects to on the link tube deck is secure at the moment."

Cody spoke up adding in his own thoughts, "But, if it is depressurized we would risk exposing the whole deck to space."

Robin thought it over for a few minutes, "Both of you are correct. What we need to do is go back down where we just came from and attempt to open the access door from the break room down there. Before we do, we need to seal off all break room doors, just in case the supply shaft is compromised.

"If it has air, then we will move up to the freezer, open it up and then take people through the tube to the break room on the link tube deck."

"That could take an hour or more." Caleb complained.

Robin managed a grin, "Then, it's a good thing you just recharged our suits."

All three boys around Robin made some kind of groan, but none of them argued. Instead, they gathered up the equipment the last group of survivors didn't take and made their way back down the elevator shaft.

For the next two hours, the group worked hard to seal the break room in case the tube was depressurized. This meant repairing a couple of doors and manually closing a couple more. Finally, Robin cut up one of the vending machines and handed the heavy money collection container to Caleb and Dante.

Robin took a deep breath. "That is the strongest part of that machine and the best large flat piece of metal I could find. The two of you need to be right above this hatch. If the air starts to get sucked out, I want you to push that back panel over the crack so it slows the escape of air. I'll then weld it into place. He pointed for Dante and Caleb to move over the door then glanced at Cody, "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

Once again, the pry bars made short work of the task. With Robin pulling to the right and Cody to the left the door parted in the middle. All four breathed a giant sigh of relief when no air was sucked out of the room, meaning the supply shaft was pressurized.

Cody gave another pull on his bar forcing the door the rest of the way open, then glanced in. "Not as big as it looks from the outside."

"It's made for transporting boxes and containers of food, not people." Caleb responded. "Ship designers try to make things a standard size which is small to cut down on cost and maximize space for what the ship was developed for, which is why it is so hard to work on space craft. There are spots in the Grey Stallion my dad simply can't get to so we keep a very small tech on the payroll just to get into those tight spots. The whole reason I know the one on the Stallion so well is, I tend to be the one to crawl through it and help fix it cause I'm real small."

Dante glanced at the money tray, "You know"

"No." Robin cut him off. "As tempting as it is, we are not here to loot the ship. We are here to save lives." Robin then paused, "On the way out, I may be inclined to turn a blind eye if you stay focused on our primary task now, though."

Cody shook his head and snickered; "Now there is the merc side I knew you all had in you!"

Caleb tossed up his arms, "It's not like it will be missed and"

Cody stopped him with a wave of his hand and laughter, "I'm not complaining Caleb, I'm just saying I wondered when I would see the merc side to you guys."

Dante grinned, "You already did when Robin put his stunner in that guy's face."

Cody frowned, "Heck, I would have done the same thing!"

"Then we are well on the way to making a good mercenary out of you." Caleb teased as he entered the small tube. "Stick with us a bit longer and you'll be able to show your dad the ropes!"

"I don't know if I should be happy or scared to hear you talk like that."

Dante flashed a huge grin, "Both."

Robin chuckled to himself as he led the way into the pretty tight passage. He paused and glanced back after only 20 meters, "Watch you suits on some of these gears. It looks like everything is run from slides on the right side, so do your best to hug the left side."

Caleb quickly corrected Robin, "If it is like most ships, the mechanical slides for the cargo will change at each intersection so the little teeth poking up on those gears can change the direction of the crate. You'll want to just stay opposite of the teeth and watch all the corners as they could be pretty sharp. Dad cut his hand open on one a couple of years ago. After that, he showed me how to fix most problems and sent me instead."

"OK, so we keep some space between us and aim for the middle when we hit intersections." Robin responded. "Dante, you will need to make sure we turn at the proper places."

"I've already got it. The first turn you can take towards the top of the ship is the one you need, then we go past the next four offshoots before heading aft on the fifth one. The door to the freezer is the second one down that shaft."

It took almost 15 minutes to get to the proper door. Robin looked around for a moment, "Just in case, I want all of you to move back and get in a spot where you can stop yourselves from being sucked toward the door. Make sure you find a spot where you have no chance of getting a suit breach. I'll open it."

Cody frowned deeply, "Robin, let me. I"

"No way." Robin stated, "First off, if there is a problem, I have way more training on how to handle it. Secondly, I promised your dad you would be safe with me. A Grenadier keeps his word or dies trying. Caleb, radio me when everyone is set."

"Will do."

Dante lightly tugged on Cody's eco-suit. "Robin's right. Follow me, I'll show you how to wedge yourself in so you can't get sucked down this tube if there is any kind of decompression."

"I remember. You find a spot to put your feet against one wall where you can push your back against another."

"Right." Caleb responded, "But I had one of those dumb classes too, and it didn't tell you to try to do so in a way where your feet and back are in line with the flow of escaping air. If you are sideways to the flow, it can still yank you out."

Cody paused and glanced back and forth between the two slightly younger boys. "Really?"

"Yea." Dante giggled. "School is great, but it seldom teaches you about real life."

Caleb rolled his eyes, "You spend too much time with Zane's folks, Dante."

"Better than being in my quarters." Dante reminded Caleb as he found a spot both he and Cody could wedge themselves into.

Caleb sighed, "I know. I wish my dad would let you stay over more."

"It's no big deal. Hell, even Robin and Jared let me bunk over when no one else will. It has been over a month since I have had had a busted lip or black eye."

Cody once again glanced back and forth. He wanted to say something, but no words seemed to fit. Finally, he followed Dante's example and pushed his feet firmly against one wall so his back was firmly against the back wall. Still, saying nothing just didn't seem right. Finally he rested his hand on Dante's shoulder. "If you need a place, you can come visit me."

"I very well might take you up on that." Dante stated with little emotion as he looked over to Caleb to make sure he too was secure. He then activated his radio. "We're set Rob!"

Robin wasted no time shoving the pry bar into the door and yanking. Once again, the door proved to be no match for Robin. The door bent then folded slightly before breaking off altogether. "We're clear, but we have survivors and one badly injured!" Robin radioed as he played his light around the cold storage area. A trio of frightened young faces stared back at him along with one badly burned adult who looked totally relieved.

Robin quickly moved in. "What happened?"

The burned woman tried to talk but her voice didn't seem to work. Robin held up a finger to his face shield, motioning for her to quit trying to talk as he pulled out some of the recovered first aid equipment they had procured from below. "It's OK; you need to be as still as you can. I am going to wrap you up in bandages and get you back to our ship."

The woman managed to shake her head and mouth the word "No". She then pointed to the three kids.

"I've got three friends who can get them out. Let me take care of you."

Once again she shook her head. With a sigh, her eyes snapped open and she had a spasm. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as her lungs didn't take in another breath.

"NO!" Robin yelled as he tried to shake the woman, but deep inside, he knew she had held on through force of will alone. Once she knew the kids with her were going to be OK, the will to go on had melted away just like most of her skin had.

Seconds later, the other three came in. All had pistols in their hands. "Robin?" Cody spoke first, "Are you OK?"

"Yea." Robin whispered. "Take care of those three."

Caleb started to move forward but stopped as he saw Robin carefully close the horribly burned woman's eyes. He backed away to give Robin some space and to shield the three sets of eyes from the gruesome sight.

Cody moved over to the girl, "Hey, you made it."

The girl looked shocked but Cody's voice seemed to penetrate slightly. She looked up. "Captain Meschev?"

Even though he was only a kid and had taken only one psychology class in his short life, Cody instantly realized she was walking a fine line between shutting down from shock and being fully coherent. To this end, he took the most gentle approach he could think of. He ruffled her hair, "Good to see you Junior Private. Can you tell us what happened?"

The younger girl looked around still trying to put things together, "Who are they?"

Cody kept his voice calm, "That's Senior Sergeant Lerrick from my command squad." He pointed to Robin. "The other two are also cadets, but from another class. I don't remember their ranks right off. He is Caleb and the other one is Dante. I think they were one grade level above you."

"Oh." The girl glanced back and forth as if her mind was trying to reboot like some computer getting a software update.

Robin motioned for the other two to be silent as Cody talked to the girl. He too could see how fine an edge the girl's mind was balanced on. A wrong push could shut her totally down and if she was talking to Cody, then he was their best chance at getting some decent information.

Cody put his arm around the girl and positioned himself between her and the dead woman, "You'll be happy to know my brother is safe as is Nelly." He stated softly referring to others from the girl's class. "We'd like to take you to them but we kind of need to know what happened."

The girl looked over at the other two kids, "What about them?"

"We're going to take all three of you to the other ship."

"What about mom and dad?"

Cody closed his eyes and forced his voice to stay even and clam, "We will go look for them once you're safe. But it will help us find them faster if you could tell us what happened."

The girl frowned and looked like she was about to stop talking. Fortunately the boy about her age spoke up, "Captain, there was a fire."

"You a cadet?"

"Yes sir, a lot of us on this deck are. The academy booked passage and paid for the whole deck. Anyone who was in it could get off world with their family."

Cody nodded as he remembered hearing something about that, but his dad had already managed to get a private room on board. "So who are you?"

Cadet Junior Corporal Tussic sir. I was Cadet Junior Private Agermov's and Junior Private Pendropov's Squad leader sir."

Robin motioned for Cody to stay focused on the girl while he moved closer to the boy. Realizing the boy was thinking and acting like a military academy cadet he decided to follow along hoping to keep the kid focused on the part of his life he was clinging to. "OK Corporal, give me a full report."

"What would you like to know Sergeant?"

"You said there was a fire. What can you tell me about it?"

The boy bit his lip and looked over to Cody.

Getting a nod from Robin, Cody responded. "Corporal, my sergeant asked you for a report. He outranks you and is in a command position!"

This seemed to snap the youngster back into the some form of sanity. "Sorry sergeant. Um, we were in the kitchen. One of the crew managed to get some heat, but it was still really cold. He kept saying he could not go any higher cause he was doing it off of a power core that wasn't recharging."

Robin nodded, "OK, then what."

"I'm not sure how it happened, but someone opened the grease trap in the fryer. I think whoever did it was thinking he would get us more heat by lighting it, but it burst into flame and the burning droplets went all over. Instructor Sepora grabbed all three of us from her class and pushed us in here, but her clothing caught fire just as she closed the door.

"I think Instructor Gregoran pushed some of the others out the other way, but I'm not totally sure. I only saw his back as I used our only blanket to smother the flames. Whoever it was on fire too, but there was no way to get to him and Instructor Sepora said we had to crank the door shut."

"She was right." Caleb verified. "If the fire had not killed you, the smoke would have. The limited life support would take at least an hour to clear enough smoke to make the air clean enough to safely breath."

Robin looked over the three kids then turned to Cody. He activated the internal radio so they could have a private conversation. "OK, I'm open to suggestions."

"As far as?"

"We have to get them to safety. There is little chance they can make it on their own, and we just heard at least one kid was pushed out the far side of the kitchen; so there are more survivors. Making matters worse, that third kid is sucking his thumb and hasn't said a word. My guess he is in total shock."

"And we are running out of time."


Cody thought it over for a few moments. "I'll take them back. You three push forward."

Caleb responded, "With all do respect, sir. I am far better at dealing with leading them back and you're stronger than I am, so you can help Robin better than me."

Dante quickly countered, "No way Caleb. The only thing I am doing is tracking us with the holo-cube. You know how to use this almost as good as I do and you know ships better. I should take them back."

Robin hunched forward tapping the top of his suit's helmet with both hands showing his frustration. "Look, no matter what else we do, we have to stick together."

"Alright." Cody cringed as he spoke, "Then we need to check if there are survivors on the other side of the kitchen and pull out."

Robin nodded sadly. "Agreed. Dante, Caleb, move these three into the cargo tube. You'll probably have to treat the other kid like baggage as he is not moving at all. Cody and I are going to check out the far side of the kitchen and then come straight back. Don't head back without us."

Cody waited for the five younger ones to move into the small passage before cranking open the door to the kitchen. A wave of heat could be felt washing over him as his suit's sensors showed the temperature to be over 70 Celsius. It also alerted him to toxic fumes. "Oh man there is no way anyone could have survived!"

Robin patted his academy cadet commander on the shoulder. "This could be nasty."

"I'll be OK. Let's get this over with."

Robin slipped into the room and had to force down some bile as his suit spot light played over more than a dozen horribly burned bodies floated around the compartment. "Damn, if they would have just waited a little longer!"

As he played the light around a bit more, he finally spotted the manual control for the door on the far side. He moved across the kitchen doing his best to avoid contact with what was left of those who had not escaped the kitchen inferno.

Cody entered seconds later and gagged

Robin spun, "Cody, you can't throw-up inside the suit's helmet! Back up and"

Dante appeared as if out of no where and pulled Cody back while hitting the helmet release. "I'll take care of him Robin."

Robin waited until he saw Dante yank off the helmet followed by a huge spurt of chunks and bile blasting out of Cody's mouth. "There are still toxins in the air! Get his helmet back on as soon as you can. I'll check out the far passage."

Less than ten minutes later, Robin returned leading a quintet of terrified boys and one adult. All of them had a few first and second degree burns and looked extremely pale.

Dante and Cody moved up to lead the six into the small tube behind the freezer. As soon as they were out of sight, Cody turned to Robin, "I'm sorry"

"Forget it. I almost threw up too."

"But I did!"

"Hey forget it. No harm, no foul." Robin paused and forced the calmest look he could muster, "Look Cody, earlier today I puked when I saw one of our men with a crushed skull, it happens. On top of that, while you were on summer break doing whatever it was you did, we were in the field helping our unit with salvage since Quaker VII didn't provide enough parts. We saw dead bodies, and whole villages leveled. Dante and I were part of a scouting mission where we saw the after effects of a major battle where soldiers on both sides had been blown apart, melted from lasers, and even burned by flame throwers. You haven't. We puked our guts out on Quaker VII and Quaker VI. Now it is your turn. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

Cody didn't look convinced but decided to drop the subject. "So what did you find on the far side of the kitchen?"

"There is a passage, and it looks like the instructor managed to force open a door with some decent power on the far side. My guess is one of the solar panels is working and has managed to keep a small section on proper life support. The problem is the emergency bulkheads are down over both exits beyond. They probably came down because of the smoke from the kitchen fire, but the locking pins are in place and there is no chance I can get them open with what we have with us."

"So now what?"

"Well, it's basically a dead end here." Finally, Robin rolled his head and took a deep breath as he made his way over to Dante and Caleb, "Our suits are down to slightly less than half oxygen and about a third power. We should head back."

Cody glanced around, "We haven't even covered a quarter of the ship yet."

"We'll recharge the eco-suits and see if your dad and some of the other adults will be wiling to make another pass. We have done about the best we can and have only found 9 survivors on this whole deck so far. Time is simply running out for finding more."

Caleb appeared with Dante and quickly agreed, "The guy you found on the far side happens to be an instructor's aid for the junior cadets. I guess they were holding classes for the few junior academy cadets on this ship, teaching them how to handle a space fold. He said he could get the kids to the link tube, so I gave him directions and sent him with our packs loaded with food from in here. We should probably break into the repair locker on this deck and grab all the stuff in it on the way out. Then, if we can manage more stuff, we should."

Cody slowly nodded. "I just hate to"

Robin patted his former cadet commander on the back, "Me too, but it is getting way too cold in most of the sections to sustain life and survivors will have to make their way though them to get to the link tube."

Robin paused as a sudden thought occurred to him. He looked around, "Cody, do you happen to know where Jessie's room was?"

"Cadet Corporal Kiev?"


"His dad is beyond extremely wealthy. I know he was booked on Bravo Deck, and I'm certain his family would have paid whatever it took to get into in the first class section. I never talked to him much though, so I can't be certain. To be honest I didn't even know you two got along."

"Outside of classes, he was the only one to show me around some. He even took Jared and I out to lunch a few times and he invited us both to his 13th birthday party, but we were needed by the unit so we couldn't go."

Cody lowered his head some, "More of us should have done things like that. To be totally honest, it never occurred to me to have you over for dinner or spend a day outside of classes with you. We must all look like a bunch of jerks."

Dante rolled his eyes, "Well, for a world dead set on having everyone at church at least once a week, it seemed kind of odd you didn't treat us like the babbling preachers kept saying you should."

"Ouch." Cody cringed. "You know, I need to use that line the next time I see some of the others pretending you all don't exist."

"Feel free Cody." Caleb countered, "But, I'd bet it will fall on deaf ears."

Dante surprised Robin and Caleb, coming to Cody's defense. "To some, but not all. Things were getting better in many of my classes as some of the kids broke ranks of those giving us the silent treatment. Once a few did, many of the others at least started talking to me in class."

"I noticed the same thing." Robin added almost begrudgingly as he looked over to Caleb, "Can you give us another recharge?"

"I can, but we already did one quick charge on the suit batteries. The best you could hope for with a second one is four and a half hours with four being more likely. They need a full proper charging before they can take and hold another good quick charge."

Robin glanced around the group. "Since we don't have to worry about anyone but ourselves at the moment, I'd like to take a shot at finding him. He was the best friend I had on Quaker VII. Dante, does the cargo tube system link to Bravo?"

"It does. It goes to every deck. I just need some time to trace it and to see what the most likely place for the first class cabins would be. But, I really need to take a leak and grab something to eat. It's been hours since I have done either, and I also need to refill my camel pack. I ran out of water almost two hours ago."

As he saw heads bob up and down inside the other suits, Robin realized he too needed a pit stop. "OK, we have power in the section right outside the kitchen and it's secure. That means we can all use the waste station and there is plenty of food in the adjoining pantries. Caleb, How long will a decent charge take?"

"About 30 minutes. But if there is decent power, we can do all four suits at the same time."

Robin cringed, "Half an hour is really pushing it. This ship is getting way too cold for anyone left alive."

Cody spoke up, "Maybe there are more areas of power or partial power. If there is, they can wait a bit longer. We all need a break from our suits and we should do some minor maintenance on them. I have heavy condensation in mine."

"Me too, and I could probably get Caleb's HUD up in that amount of time too." Dante responded, his voice full of hope.

Caleb joined in. "A full charge would also give us better augmentation of the powered joints. Quick charges only put power into the life support and lights. It will make us have to work harder and use up extra life support. Besides, I'm already tired and I don't need to have to fight my suit."

Robin relented, knowing the others were right. "OK, we take thirty. But I want us close to our eco-suits at all times just in case. The second we have a full charge we move out, see if we can get to Bravo and then pull out."

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