Captain Thrace stared down at the hatch with a look of surprise and disappointment. An artificial mound of earth had been formed around it, presumably after a messy landing, causing the ship to become submerged. It was almost too obvious really, though what had caused the crash was still not evident. He had personally clambered up the newly formed hill and peered down at what he took to be an escape funnel, common in smaller vessels that preferred to make use of every single inch of space. This, by contrast, was quite at odds with the usual design.
It was manhole shaped, ridged and bolted tightly. A number of safeties were in place along its length, implying that there were likely to be secondary and tertiary hatches deeper inside the funnel. These were necessitys on any craft regularly intending to make the transition between atmosphere and void. This was all fairly standard, but it was the size of the hatch that had confused him.
Easily double in diameter to what one might expect, or even require, the hatch could easily accommodate multiple passengers disembarking at the same time, yet there was no sign that this had ever happened. The seal on the hatch was still pressure-locked, and would require explosives to shift. A tricky, and perhaps very dangerous procedure.
‘Seems I owe you a drink,’ said Captain Thrace as he glanced back at his sergeant.
‘We didn’t bet on it, sir,’ said Grundig. ‘I’d hold onto your money if I were you. Chances are the Commander’s not going to be happy.’
‘That’s for sure,’ replied Thrace. He rapped his hand once on the metal surface and slowly began his descent.
The soldiers of his band were either standing to attention or wandering round the mound, using wrist-lights to illuminate segments of the craft in hopes of unearthing an emergency panel of some description. The night was growing darker, and it would soon be too dangerous to attempt to tamper with the ship’s mechanics. If the reactor was still active, they would all be dead before they realised they’d cut the wrong wire.
‘We’re going to have to call it in,’ grumbled Grundig. ‘So much for an easy assignment.’
‘I’ll handle it,’ said Thrace, ‘go fetch Private Amos.’
Sergeant Grundig nodded in acknowledgment and marched briskly around the circumference of the hill. When he returned he was walking alongside a young soldier with a messy face and even curly hair that peeked out from beneath his helmet. Upon his back he wore a large backpack that concealed a number of flashing lights and coils of wiring.
‘Private Amos, sir!’ announced the young man, almost slipping under the weight of his pack as he attempted to clip his boots together. ‘Present and correct, sir.’
‘Good lad,’ said Thrace. ‘How’s the data-pack?’
‘Heavy,’ said Amos, and then upon seeing his superior’s pained expression, added, ‘It’s operating fine, sir.’
It had been Private Amos that had found the Smithsonian, much to Thrace’s surprise. Amos was tall for his age, which Thrace did not care to hazard a guess at, with a thin lanky form, and a markedly clumsy demeanour. Green in every sense of the word, he had stumbled through initiation, earning praise from his training sergeants merely because he reminded them of more innocent times. It had been a foolish, and costly decision to make him a full soldier, Thrace believed. Men like Amos were what his old Captain had called ‘cannon fodder’, and rarely survived past their first engagement. Seeing as how Amos was amongst the men taken from Niktor, there was little doubt in Thrace’s mind that he had stumbled his way through that as well.
‘All, right, give me the microphone and patch me through to the Victory in Silence,’ said Thrace.
Amos diligently obeyed, handing Thrace a wand shaped device, attached by a long wire to his backpack. He then pressed a concealed button on his wrist armour and a light flickered on his helmet. His eyes turned left and right rapidly as he sifted through streams of data on his helmet’s monocular screen. After a few seconds he stopped and stood rigid.
‘They’re not responding, sir,’ he said.
‘Not responding?’ Thrace frowned. ‘But they’re still in orbit?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Amos.
‘Damnation,’ snarled Thrace. Things had just got even more complicated.
‘Sir?’ asked Amos, his face rapidly losing colour.
‘It’s nothing,’ lied Thrace. ‘Go tell the men to form up. Looks like we’re settling in for the night.’
Amos saluted, hitting his hand quite painfully against his helmet, though to his credit he held back the swearing until he was out of Thrace’s earshot.
Sergeant Grundig waited for the boy to leave before muttering. ‘It’s not though, is it?’
‘I don’t know what it is,’ Thrace shrugged. ‘Could be something, could be interference or perhaps they just needed to reposition.’
Grundig tapped a free hand against his beard and nodded solemnly. Yet another bad sign.
‘So we hold out here?’ he asked. ‘It’s not the most easily defensible position.’
With any luck, it won’t need to be, thought Thrace. ‘Yes, we hold out here. If the natives end up damaging our prize any more than it’s been through already then command will have something to say about it. Something quite loud, and probably extremely obscene. I’d like to avoid that if possible.’
‘As you say, sir,’ grinned Grundig, but he didn’t laugh.
It took only a few minutes for Grundig and Amos to round up the other soldiers and they were soon standing in neat rows before him. They looked as though they were preparing for an inspection rather than awaiting orders. He nodded gratefully at Grundig who was eying the rigidly standing soldiers with some amusement.
‘All right, men, at ease,’ said Thrace without ceremony, the disappointment in the faces of the soldiers was clear and almost comical. ‘Command is not responding right now, which means they’re leaving us to secure the Smithsonian for the night. I want to see patrols checking the perimeter for any sign of scalies. You see so much as a splash, you call it in. Rest of you, form up around the mound and keep your eyes on the tree line. We keep radio silence, we don’t draw attention to ourselves. Understood?’
‘Sir, yes sir!’ chanted the soldiers.
‘Privates Nagra and Vonz, you’ll be taking the first patrol.’
‘Sir,’ Thrace wheeled round to see Amos stepping forward. ‘I’d like to volunteer for first patrol.’
‘Very well,’ said Thrace. ‘Run a sweep of the area first. I don’t want to find we’ve been standing on a den all this time.’
The soldiers saluted and went about their appointed tasks. Thrace watched them disperse for a moment before turning his attention to the horizon. He had largely ignored the tree line, mostly because the dangers from the water far outweighed potential dangers from the land, but also because the natives of Gyptica were of little threat. A well thrown spear might well pierce armour, but the chances were higher that it would miss, rebound from the armour, or that the thrower would be dead long before he even got the chance to let his weapon fly.
Thrace was not afraid of primitives. His weapons and armour were vastly superior, and he was versed in battle doctrines the natives of Gyptica could never hope to comprehend. His tactical mind had been honed in more battles than they would ever see in their lives. So why did he suddenly feel so vulnerable?
His musings were cut short before they even had a chance to begin.
There was a loud crack, followed by a bright flash, and a shout. Thrace turned instantly, spit-gun raised and ready, finger already pulling back the trigger. Then he saw the group of confused and horrified looking soldiers, one of which was standing exactly where Thrace had expected his target to be, hands raised in surrender.
‘Private Amos,’ he snarled, ‘what in the name of Old Earth are you doing?’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said, weakly.
‘What happened? Explain yourself now, soldier! And lower your damned arms, you look ridiculous.’
Gratefully, Amos complied. ‘I’m really sorry, sir. I was using the thermal scanner to look for crocs and well, I found something, something huge, and I panicked and…’
‘You discharged your weapon,’ nodded Thrace, but he was more curious than angry. ‘Why? What did you see?’
He advanced on the private and it looked for a moment as though Amos was actually cowering as he rapidly tapped at his wrist device to bring up the thermal scanner. Thrace peered down as the green holographic fizzed and crackled as it traced the ground. For a moment it looked as though nothing would happen, and then, seemingly without warning, a large, shapeless blob of light appeared out of nowhere.
‘What… the…’ Thrace frowned, and then turned his head back to the mound. An idea had formed in his head. ‘That’s… inside the ship,’ he said aloud. ‘There’s something in there. Must be huge to be able to penetrate the hull… unless…’
His eyes steadily worked their way up the mound until they reached the very top. The hatch was standing open.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘that changes matters.’
‘It does, sir?’ said Amos nervously.
‘Oh, yes, Private Amos,’ said Thrace with a grin. ‘You’ve just volunteered to be the first to enter the Smithsonian.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Segeant Grundig, joining in. ‘You were quite insistent. Very vocal.’
‘But don’t worry,’ said Thrace, ‘you won’t be going alone. The sergeant and I will be coming with you.’
‘We will?’ grumbled Grundig. ‘Bollocks.’
‘Yes, we will,’ said Thrace to his sergeant. ‘I fully intend to discover exactly what it is that makes this ship so valuable.’