Johnson had just walked into the barracks when the alarm sounded. The light strips embedded in the walls began blinking a furious red, and an unseen klaxon filled the room with a sound like someone choking to death on a set of bagpipes. All around, the men and women of the 128th started leaping from their bunks to grab weapons and gear.
Johnson did his best to ignore them and continued heading toward the Rec Facility, an ampoule of lager in one hand and a container of nachos in the other. It took some careful maneuvering, but he managed to make it through the door without spilling, and Donaldson, Jensen, and Phelps were already sitting around the poker table in the corner when he walked in. Donaldson was shuffling a deck—even though the cheating bastard knew they’d never actually let him deal—and Jensen was doling out chips while Phelps picked out a tune on his banjolele.
“What’s all the noise about?” Jensen asked as Johnson took his seat.
Johnson shrugged. “Beats me.”
“Isn’t the dying piper alarm the one for an attack on the station?” Phelps asked.
Johnson shrugged again and snatched the deck from Donaldson. He cut the cards and gave them a quick Vegas shuffle, then began flipping them out to each of the other three players.
Everyone had just finished looking at their cards when Marine Sergeant Richard “Rock” Ronson stormed into the room. He was wearing his combat unitard and had a plasma-rifle slung over his shoulder. “What the fuck are you four idiots doing?” he bellowed. “That’s the alarm for an assault on the station. Secure this shit, suit up, and fall in, Marines.”
“Nah,” Donaldson said, setting his cards face down on the table and flicking a five credit chip into the pot.
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Ronson asked.
“I think it means ‘No,’” Phelps said. He flipped his own five credit chip into the pot. “Call.”
The Sergeant was momentarily taken aback, but in true Marine fashion, recovered quickly. “Are you saying that you intend to disobey a direct order?” he yelled.
“Seems that way, Sir,” Jensen said. She frowned at the cards in her hand and tossed them into the middle of the table. “Fold.”
“Sweet, blessed virgin. I hope to Christ you’re fucking kidding me,” Ronson hollered. He stepped forward and slammed his hands down in the middle of the table, sending chips and cards bouncing.
A dollop of nacho cheese slopped over the side of Johnson’s container and oozed down onto the felt. “I’m pretty sure we’re not, Sir,” Johnson said, frowning at the spilled cheese. “I mean, with all due respect, Sir, we’re the 128th Platoon of the 128th Specialist Division of the 128th Reserve Fleet. We’re the lowest of the low, Sir, and we all know that our specialist designation might as well be for special needs. We’re the worst rated, least effective soldiers in the Corps, and if the fight’s come down to us, then we’re pretty well fucked.”
A thick vein popped out of Ronson’s forehead and his face reddened like an overcooked beet. “You stow that shit right now, Private. Sedition in the face of the enemy is a court-martial offense,” Ronson barked. “In fact, I’d be within my rights to shoot you right here and now.”
Donaldson snorted. “I’m not sure it qualifies as sedition when it’s true, Sir.”
Ronson’s eyes bulged out of his face like someone had just clamped his skull in a vice. He pulled the phase-pistol from the holster on his hip and jammed the barrel beneath Donaldson’s chin in a single, smooth motion; it was easily the fastest anyone at the table had ever seen him move. “I swear to God, Marine—you have exactly three seconds to put down those cards and go find a weapon before I blow the worthless pile of shit you call a brain all over the ceiling.”
Donaldson snorted again. “Might as well go ahead, Sir. It’ll be a cleaner end than whatever the Hyperboreans have planned for us.”
“Private, I am not fucking around,” Ronson said through clenched teeth. His finger slipped inside the pistol’s trigger guard, and Johnson could see the barrel shake as the Sergeant quivered with rage.
Donaldson ignored him and glanced over at Johnson. “You in?” he calmly asked.
“Yeah,” Johnson said. He flipped a chip into the middle of the table.
Ronson’s face twisted like he was having an aneurism, and Johnson was almost certain that someone was about to die when Ronson suddenly jerked the pistol out from under Donaldson’s chin and flung it at the wall. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” Ronson screamed.
“We just think Donaldson’s right,” Johnson said with another shrug. “We don’t know anything about fighting. I’m a history teacher for Chrissakes. Jensen, you were what before the war, an architect?”
Jensen nodded and said, “Yeah. I designed public libraries.”
Johnson pointed at Phelps, who had folded his cards and picked up his banjolele. “Phelps played in a mariachi band, and Donaldson—“ Johnson turned to Donaldson and asked, “Did you even have a job?”
“Nothing legal,” Donaldson said with a smirk.
“See?” Johnson said. “So ya’ll can go ahead and fight if you want. We wish you the best of luck. Sincerely, we do. But in all honesty, Sir, I think it’s probably better for everyone if you go on without us.”
Around the table, three heads nodded in agreement.
“I swear to God, if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll see all four of you court-martialed and hanged,” Ronson muttered.
“Good luck with that,” Donaldson said. “Although my guess is that the last thing you do will be to scream and die while a Hyperborean tentacle pulls your spleen out of your ass.”
Ronson gave him a murderous glare but didn’t bother to reply—he just spun around and walked over to pick up his pistol. The four privates went back to their game as soon as Ronson’s back was turned, chips clicking as Johnson raked the pot.
They dealt a new hand while Ronson was still in the room, and Jensen folded as soon as she looked at her cards.
Phelps said, “Jesus, Jensen. We’re all gonna be dead in an hour. What the hell does it take to get you to play?”
Jensen gave Phelps the finger as Ronson walked past, and the Sergeant thought about shooting all four of them. He wouldn’t even have to fill out any paperwork, because despite their cowardice, the privates were right; the station was doomed.
He paused in the doorway, going so far as to turn and level his sidearm at the back of Johnson’s head. None of the four even looked up from the table, and their casual disregard for their duty made Ronson taste bile. He spit on the floor. “Not worth a single bullet, the whole lot of you.”
“Nope,” Donaldson agreed.
With a shake of his head, Ronson dismissed the four privates and walked out of the room to go die like a Marine.