The recruit stepped cautiously over the supply lines that were juicing a row of T-280s, his steel-toed boots crunching on the spill sand that slowly swallowed the hydraulic fluid below. Sloppy, he thought and sighed. Well, it was his mess and he’d just have to work late shoveling it all up. At least he had learned to be more thorough with the SCV’s arterial housing.

      “Son,” his chief engineer Doug ‘Rocko’ Rockford had said earlier, “this coupling here is all kinds of chewed up. Strip it, salvage what you can and then replace it. Oh, and make a mess and you clean it up.”

      Rocko didn’t say too much, but the things he did say were usually worth remembering. Like the time he explained during training that if cleanliness was next to godliness, then his workshop was as far as it could be from wherever the deities of the universe hung out. Nice joke for all the gathered grease monkeys, but he’d then gone on to explain how ‘unclean’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘untidy’.

      “Tidiness,” he had concluded in his usual husky drawl, “stops accidents. And believe me boys accidents – considering the levels of hygiene in our local medical unit – are best avoided.” Words from a recent past that, strangely, seemed so distant now.

      The recruit pulled a filthy rag from the back pocket of his overalls and wiped the worst of the day’s grime from his hands. Shoving a semi clean finger into his non regulation hair he looked up and saw Rocko sitting in the mess area. The chief clenched his teeth on the mouthpiece of the crews’ shisha pipe, a curling cloud of smoke swathing his brooding countenance. Even though there was no reason to supervise the clean-up operation, the old engineer had stayed behind.

      “How’s it going kid?” The rasp of his voice, his relative age, the affectation of the water pipe and the aroma of smoke and coffee; all of these elements were slowly settling in as something solid and familiar in the recruit’s mind. The younger man made a half-hearted display of bravado and shrugged, which caused Rocko to bark a laugh.

      “Grab yourself a coffee, take a seat and join me. That sand will be soaked soon enough.” The old engineer beamed briefly behind another billowing cloud of fumes.

      Miss Tarsonis pouted down at the recruit from the calendar hanging above the coffee percolator, her green chiffon dress showing off the artist’s skill at capturing allure. The dates meant nothing anymore on the desolate hunk of rock they currently inhabited – ideas of home, seasons and real life pin-ups already something occluded and nostalgic.

      The recruit poured his drink into a battered metal mug, slumped down opposite the chief and breathed in the fleeting joy of the coffee’s smell before taking a sip. Leaning back he popped open the breast pocket of his orange overalls and retrieved his own black ceramic mouthpiece.

      Rocko had never explained where he’d picked up the water pipe or how it had become a part of the daily routine here in the workshop. Originally there had been just the three tubes trailing off the ornate central stand, but Rocko’s skill with lathe and welder had added another two. The recruit plugged his pipe stem into the nearest line and then sucked bright blue smoke into his lungs.

      Rocko rubbed a hand across the coarse stubble on his lantern jaw and said, “Waiting for spill sand’s as dull as it gets.”

      The recruit grunted in agreement.

      “But these quiet moments are the best of times, believe it or not. You need to stop and appreciate them when they come along.” The chief paused and looked out, his eyes seeing beyond the scattered suit parts, the tool racks, the armoured doors…

      “Once,” he said settling back into his chair, the shisha tube held to his chest like a sacred relic, “there was an old wrench jockey – much like myself – and a rookie, much like you.

      “These two lucky individuals were stationed on some far-flung flame world and, somehow, had the misfortune to end up in a hellish engagement with the Zerg. (I know, for a fact, that you’ve never seen a rally from an almost pan-unit infestation kid, and I sincerely hope you never do). Anyway, short of it all was these boys, and their brave comrades, held everything together just long enough for the environment to play to the marine’s favour.”

      “A flame world was favourable? You’re kidding me.” The recruit said, recovering from the initial shock that the chief had embarked on such an uncharacteristic war story.

      “Incredible I know,” the chief continued, “but the commander of that division was a shrewd man. See, as with the planet of Redstone III, this particular fiery lump of sweat and misery had tidal flows of lava that acted much as a sea might behave elsewhere. All the mechanics had to do was keep the whole shooting match in some kind of working order until the molten rock washed the causeways clean of insectoid manifestations. The tide literally turned for them that day.”

      It was the recruit’s turn to let out a sharp laugh.

      “But they came out of the conflict low on resources.” Rocko added with a shake of his head, “which was not acceptable for their commanding officer. So, as soon as they rejuiced their rigs, the mechanics were out again, scavenging what they could from their fallen comrades.

      “Now,” Rocko leaned back, obviously getting into his stride, “there’s a story from Terran military history…”

      “Terran history?” The recruit asked, immediately confused.

      “Well not ‘history’ as such, more a joke passed from mechanic to mechanic down through the ages. See, there was this tank called the T60 – simple in design, easy to manufacture and tougher than a diamond encrusted lump hammer. Joke was, that when one of these things got hit by an enemy shell all the mechanics had to do was attach a hose to the muzzle, flush the old crew out and throw in a new one.” Rocko grinned and puffed on the shisha pipe.

      The recruit continued to look nonplused.

      “What I’m saying is,” Rocko continued, “it’s the same principle why so much Terran hardware can be salvaged after a fight. The emphasis here is on the ‘hard’.”

      “Okay, I get it. So these two were on a recovery sweep.”

      “Just so. But with the added joy of darting from one rock island to the next in a sea of uncaring brimstone.

      “Now our teams have always patrolled in pairs – a default failsafe that’s been employed since ancient times – and that’s how this old wrench jockey and the rookie ended up running down a causeway in pock-marked (but fully functional) SCVs.

      “It was always dusk, dawn…” Rocko waved a hand in annoyance, “whatever, in the ‘temperate’ zone on that rock – it had one face perpetually pointed towards the system’s blazing sun y’see? Not that it would have made any difference if the bases all sat in the equitorial twilight. Every ‘day’ was hotter than Firebat’s jockstrap, and that was before the creep began to rain.

      “The first part of the run was fairly uneventful for these two. They searched, they salvaged, they filled their grav wagons – the ripening parts rattling behind as they scooted along. They had their players cranking out their favourite hit lists and only the planet was trying to kill them. Precious times indeed.

      “To make progress across the battlefield, though, they had to camp for a few hours – sleeping fitfully in watches – and then move out again as the natural causeways freed themselves of lava. And so they fell into a routine. But, as I said, this wasn’t war. In fact, this was almost like R&R for these two boys.

      “Now, there’s an old maxim for anyone on military patrol and that’s be twice as vigilant on your way home.”

      “And why’s that?” The recruit asked.

      “Because you’re more vulnerable. You relax and think that the job’s done. Might be that the job’s only beginning, which was just the case for these two fellows.

      “They were heading back to base, carts full of marine tech and dog tags – brave boys all – when they saw an abandoned siege tank huddled under an outcrop of rock. It had been hidden from view on their route away from the base. Visible now, though, and looking untouched by the rigours of battle.

      “Anyways the young mechanic piloted his SCV up next to his chief’s and said, ‘What do you thing the story is here then?’ To which the old hand shrugged saying, ‘Beats me son. Maybe they stopped for a bio break and lava fried their stupid asses. Let’s check it out and see if one of us can’t drive it home.’ And so they cautiously wound their way down a rocky path that led to the mysterious hulk. It was only as they neared that they realised the truth of the abandonment and why they were now teetering on the edge of a gaping crisis pit.”

      “And a crisis pit is?” The recruit asked above another gurgle from the shisha pipe.

      “Crisis pit is as bad as it gets son. Steep sided see? Temptation is to panic, to start flailing and push yourself to a point where you cannot get out again. So what you got to do is stop, consider every next move and make sure it takes you up and away, not down an out.

      “Now those two good ‘ol boys slowed their SCVs right down and took in the carnage. The whole crew of the siege tank had gotten out of their vehicle – for whatever reason – and had encountered a lone Hydralisk which had torn one and all limb from limb. What was left of them was little more than stains and the odd recognisable body part. And coiled at the centre of it all was the murderous, snake hipped Zerg itself.

      “Seeing this, the old timer called a halt and they just sat there trying to determine whether the Hydralisk had expired in the conflict or whether it was just playing dead. So they waited and watched, watched and waited and finally the old engineer said to turn the SCVs around. The younger fellow was incensed at this, ‘We’re just going to leave it?’ He said, meaning the siege tank. ‘Nope,’ said the old timer, ‘but if we need to get out of here in a hurry, do you want to be reversing back up that slope?’ The youngster took the point and span his vehicle around.

      “Mechanics aren’t usually issued with side arms, but the rules for chiefs ain’t necessarily the same for grunts.” Here Rocko beamed another grin at the recruit. “No offence meant…”

      “None taken.”

      “So the old boy fetched a hand under the seat of his SCV and pulled out an antiquated (but also fully functional) pistol and eased himself onto the cinders of the planet’s surface.

      “Meanwhile the rookie adjusted the angle of his rear view camera and watched the scene unfold, his hands gripping the steering levers, fresh sweat seeping into the collar of his overalls. There was the old engineer inching down towards the tank, the pistol inexpertly extended in front of him. It was hard to tell on the grime encrusted monitor image, but the rookie was sure, at that moment, he saw the unshakable chief falter. What happened next was nothing more than a blur of images for the rookie. Later he said he remembered seeing the chief take another step and then the Hydralisk rose in plume of spikes, teeth and claws. It moved fast but somehow looked like a dancer gracefully lifting herself up from the floor.

      “The next thing he remembered hearing was a yell of, ‘Go!’ and he was off, gunning the SCV for all it was worth. He looked at the vibrating vid screen, trying to judge what was happening behind but the view was too distorted; just a looming, ugly brown shape that must have been the Hydralisk. It was the sound of shots that properly drove him to the edge of panic. The chief was in trouble but all he could think about was getting away as quickly as he could.

      “I’d have stayed and died beside you chief,” the recruit’s tone made Rocko raise his eyebrows.

      “Would you now?”

      “Yes. Yes I would.”

      “Then you’d be the braver man, son.”

      “So what happened next?”

      “Well, the rookie got up to the plateau above, made a feint for the causeway back to base and realised it was still covered with lava. He swerved away, into the open once more, and was relieved to see his chief’s SCV come bouncing onto the level ground too.

      “Suddenly the recruit’s radio crackled into life, ‘We’re going to play tag with this son bitch. You got that? Hit it with your drill then turn tail. Then it’s my turn. You understand?’ The recruit’s voice faltered as he said he did. ‘Hang in there boy,’ the chief shouted over the engine noise, ‘Perhaps we can buy enough time for a clear path back to base.’”

      “Two SCVs versus a Hydralisk?” The recruit asked.

      “A wounded Hydralisk, let’s not forget.” Rocko corrected, “Not as fast as a healthy one for sure, but twice as mean.

      “This young engineer then, he had to stop thinking the way he’d always done – about fixing, and mending and making things like new again. He needed to think like a marine now, about destroying and – more importantly – about surviving. So he turned his SCV towards the Zerg monstrosity that was currently chasing his chief and… Well, do you know what he did next?”

      “What?”

      “He charged at it, mining drill whining with all the power he could spare. Stuck the creature on the side, a good punch to its scaly belly, but all it did was squeal, snap away like a whip and turn its attention on him. He span his SCV on a dime but still felt a shuddering blow catch the vehicle’s superstructure as he fled. A wide arc across the plateau was what he intended to follow, a broad loop back to shorten the distance between himself and the chief. But he wasn’t sure where he’d end up or where the old engineer was. Then there was a grinding noise and an agonised shriek right behind him and his rear view screen suddenly flared bright. The ominous shadow of the Hydralisk had gone.”

      “The young mechanic now turned his vehicle at an angle – still moving away from where the Hydralisk had given up the chase, but pulling a lot more of the plateau into view. As he did so he saw the chief’s SCV zooming away beneath a cloud of dust, the Hydralisk in slithering pursuit.

      “Again the radio burst into life, ‘Same again son. Let’s see if we can wear this oversized worm down.’ And so began that deadly game of cat and mouse, or should I say mice and cat? Either way those poor boys were out gunned – so to speak – but they had the advantage in numbers.

      “There were some strange moments in that contest beneath the bloody sky of that hellish planet, but oddest among them was the stand off that happened at the edge of the causeway.”

      “How do you mean, odd?” The recruit was already planning on acquiring a firearm from one of his friends in the supply depot.

      “Well, the Hydralisk – being organic and not a machine – simply couldn’t sustain those levels of exertion, especially in its wounded state. And so, at times it would pause to gather its strength, eyeing both SCVs warily trying to come up with a strategy that would leave at least one of them vulnerable.”

      “Did they hold it off long enough for the causeway to open?” The recruit sat forward in his chair, arm resting on the table between them.

      “Indeed they did, but the Hydralisk sat in the way for a while, eating into the precious time they had to escape. It took another couple of feints, and another resounding punch to the chief’s SCV before they had the opportunity to run. Sadly, that last hit did for the old boy.”

      “It killed him?”

      “Not straight away. Just fractured one of the couplings in the hydraulic housing – which is why I always make sure that any unit gets fully serviced whenever it’s damaged. Supplies may not like it, the commander may not like it, but I will not allow a bust up SCV to go out.”

      “Is that why you’re telling me this? So I know how important this job is?” Rocko listened for a hint of mockery in the recruit’s questions, but found none.”

      “No. Your changing that housing just reminded me is all. Besides we’ve got ourselves some time to fill here.”

      “So how did damage to the hydraulics kill the chief?”

      “Slow bleed of pressure off the thruster gimbals. The causeway was pretty straight but steering became more and more unresponsive as they went along.”

      “What did he do then?”

      “Well now, being the good chief he was he ordered the rookie to go first and to radio ahead so the base would know what was about to come knocking at the door. Then he circled the Hydralisk once more to give the kid a head start and it was then he realised that something was wrong with the SCV’s steering. By the time he hit the causeway he must have already worked through his options.”

      “Which were?”

      “Drive in a gentle curve until the SCV veered off the edge of the causeway. Or…”

      “Or what?”

      A troubled looked passed across Rocko’s face, “So the chief hit the causeway with the Hydralisk in hot pursuit. Gunned every last bit of speed out of his dying vehicle and, just before he hit the edge, he slammed on his air brakes.”

      “He did what?”

      “Air brakes. He hit them and the Hydralisk folded up on top of the vehicle – all its frustration vented in a wave of alien screams and a blur of claws.”

      “But… But, that’s suicide.”

      “I like to think of it more as noble sacrifice. The rookie, hearing the chaos behind him, began to slow and turn his SCV but the chief was straight on the radio saying that he had a spare clip and wasn’t going down without a fight. His last words were, ‘Run son. Run, and keep it all running so that stupid shit like this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else.’ And that’s just what the rookie did. Opened the throttle and didn’t look back, not even when he heard more shots, not even when the lava began to rise once more. Eventually, he got back to base a few minutes before everything was awash with molten rock, steam and the ruddy glow of the planet’s heart.”

      The chief paused, his brow furrowing into a frown. “Bad times,” was all he finished with and he and the recruit sat in silence for a moment.

      Rocko reached out over the table, lifted the guard on the shisa pipe and examined the smouldering remains of the burner. Anything beneficial had been reduced to ash and all that glowed in there was a solitary ember.

      “Hmmm.” He said, dropping the guard, “You better get yourself off to the bar son. I’ll finish up here.”

      “But the spill sand… It’ll be all done soon.”

      “I’ll take care it. You go ahead and kick back. These are as good as the good times get my boy. Go. Enjoy yourself.”

      The recruit checked to see that the chief was serious. Then he stood up and was about to leave the table but he stopped, turning towards Rocko.

      “That was you, wasn’t it?”

      “What’s that?”

      “You were the rookie in the story.”

      “Ha. It’s just a war story son.” The older man nodded towards the workshop’s door, pointed at it with a thumb and then busied himself emptying the pipe’s ash tray into the mess area’s stygian bin.

      The recruit, deciding it best to leave the chief to his own devices, headed back to his locker. There he swiftly changed out of his overalls, his grubby fatigues feeling like they’d be freshly laundered in comparison.

      “See you in the morning.” He called as he stepped out into the evening.

      “Yes you will,” Rocko called back as he re-installed the ash tray. The chief stepped back from the shisha pipe, admiring its form, its welds, they way all its components held together well, much like his crew.

      He wandered then for a while, trying to locate the workshop’s shovel – someone hadn’t returned it to its allotted place – there would be a general dressing down for that tomorrow. He finally found it by the plated vehicle doors, hoisted its weight in his callused hands and walked over to pile of dirty brown spill sand.

      “Keep it all running so that stupid shit like this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else.” He murmured, and then set to work.

— THE END —<\center>
(Copyright © 2009 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)<\center>