Chapter 5
First Come, First Serve

25th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
E27, Elsanto Mountains, Neveland

Root wanted to check in on everyone the moment he was released from the bridge, but instead he followed Centurion Tofels to his office. 'His' office belonged to the original XO, but the office, like the billet (and likely the quarters), had all been usurped by the Blackamoor.
Once the two of them entered the office, Tofels told Root, "Shut the door."
Root did so and Tofels took his seat at the desk. He didn't offer Root a seat and even if offered, Root probably wouldn't have taken it. Though a Blackamoor centurion was equivalent to an Army captain and therefore superior in rank to Root, he decidedly stood at ease rather than at attention. Surprisingly, despite being an inflexible stickler for the rules and regulations, Tofels didn't call him out on it. Perhaps it was because he had bigger things on his mind.
"Maartens," he said, "I want you to get your team together and set out at once."
"Set out?" Root balked. "I just got through talking with the weather guys on my way to the bridge. A cold front's coming in and the temp's gonna drop past forty below. There's no way we can go out. The front'll pass in two or three days and then it should be back up to about ten below."
"We don't have two or three days," Tofels insisted. "The Palatinians may already be moving in. Your team needs to secure the site before then or wipe them out if they're already there."
It seemed that Tofels had no idea how arctic operations worked and Root had a feeling it was probably going to be a wasted effort trying to educate him.
"The fuel lines on the buggies will freeze," Root said. "We can't go out."
"Then go on foot!" Tofels snapped. "It's less than twenty kilometers to the site."
The centurion had a rare talent for demanding the unreasonable. It was hard not to laugh.
"Twenty kilometers on foot at forty below? You're outta your mind."
"If I have to march the lot of you by gunpoint, I will and when we return, I will have you court-martialed."
"Court-martial me then!" Root shouted, slamming his hands down on the desk. "I'm not going to just throw away the lives of the men under my command!"
Tofels didn't match Root's anger with his own. Instead, he gave him a look colder than the incoming front and said, "These... civilians here. They're useful, but not necessary. If you continue to refuse to obey orders, my men will shoot one civilian on the hour each hour until you're ready to see reason."
Root could feel his stomach knotting up. If he was any younger, he might've decked Tofels that instant. Instead, he held himself in check, but just barely.
"I'm gonna strongly advise you not to go down this path, Blackamoor," Root said. "Your men lay a finger on any of the people under my care, it'll be blood for blood, Grand Dux be damned."
Tofels was not intimidated by the threat and instead smiled slyly.
"I don't doubt your ability to kill, Lieutenant Maartens. Who knows? You might even succeed in killing every Blackamoor on this ship, but don't think I'm so careless to have not bought some insurance against mutiny. If don't report back upon our return, the Blackamoors will hunt down every friend, family member and distant acquaintance of you and everyone else under your command. And they won't kill them, not quickly and not soon, but they'll pray for death long before it's granted to them. For your sake and theirs, I hope that nothing happens to me."
Root didn't think he could be any more disgusted by the Blackamoors or Tofels in particular, but he was wrong.
"You sick bastard..."
Tofels just kept on smiling. This was the sort of thing he lived for.
"Sticks and stones, Lieutenant. I believe this is the part where you apologize for this delay and execute your orders."
Root knew he was backed into a corner, but he wasn't going to completely buckle under, for whatever it was worth.
"I'm not sending the whole section out at once, not without knowing what's out there. I'm sending a scouting party first."
That was apparently good enough for Tofels.
"Very well," he said, "but do not waste any more time."
"Understood."
With that settled, Root turned and left. He couldn't get out of that office fast enough.

* * *

Tofels told Root to set out without any further delays, but he still planned on making the rounds to take stock of the damage to the ship and the casualties. While there were places with greater tactical significance, his first stop was the galley. That was where he was most concerned.
The galley was attached to the crew mess, a compartment just barely large enough for four twelve-man tables. Because the tables and chairs were bolted to the deck, all the jostling of the ship didn't affect the mess, but the galley was a different story. Unsecured plates were all smashed up, dishwater had splashed everywhere and mixed in with a stew for supper that wasn't taken off the burner when the call to combat posts came down.
Six of the mess attendants were busily cleaning up and didn't even notice Root step in. He saw Margie wiping down the door to the freezer and said, "How goes it, Margie?"
"Root!" Margie exclaimed, happy to see him.
Corporal Englewood, the senior of the soldiers stuck in the mess section, snapped to attention, ridiculously holding his mop at the position of order arms.
"Sec-shun, atten-shun!" he bellowed.
There were only two other military besides Englewood and Margie. They promptly went to the position of attention. Margie was being slow on the uptake as usual, but before she could get chewed out by Englewood, Root said, "Carry on, people. I'm just here to check on ya."
"Yes, sir," Corporal Englewood replied stiffly.
"Ease up, man," Root said. "I'm not here ta bust your balls."
"Yes, sir."
Even at Berenice there were a few hard cases who hadn't learned to loosen up. It made Root wonder what exactly Englewood did to tick off the Blackamoors and get roped into this.
Turning his attention back to Margie, he asked her, "How ya doin', kid? Still in one piece?"
"Yeah," Margie said. "I was so scared and Benny was yelling at me and--"
"Corporal Englewood," Englewood corrected her.
"Oh, come on, Benny," Margie whined.
"You don't outrank me anymore, Private Anand. You could at least pretend you're a soldier."
While it was true that Margie was a terrible excuse for a soldier, Root didn't see much call to rake her over the coals for it.
"How 'bout you lighten up a bit, Benny," he said. "We've got enough power-trippin' assholes on this tub. At least paint yourself black first."
"Sir, Centurion Tofels gave me strict orders to ensure Private Anand follows military protocol."
"Well, when Centurion Tofels or any of his blackfaced goons are here, you can pretend you're Sergeant Major all you want. In the meantime, lay off."
"Yes, sir."
The way Englewood said it didn't make it sound like he was too intent on complying. Root granted that the Blackamoors had the greater intimidation factor, so he dropped the issue.
"You're alright, right?" he asked Margie in a slightly more confidential voice.
Margie nodded. She wasn't happy, but she didn't have much reason to be happy ever since the Blackamoors first showed up.
Root rubbed her head like she was a puppy and said, "Hang in there, kid. We'll be outta this before ya know it."
Maribel stepped in, carrying a fresh bucket for the mop, so Root waved at her.
"Hey, Bel."
"You know I don't like it when you do that, Mr. Root. It sounds like hay bale."
That was kinda the point.
"You're not hurt or anything, right?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Ya know your Ma'd kill me if anythin' happened ta ya."
Maribel sighed.
"She'd kill me too."
"I heard you were assigned to the Captain's Mess."
"That's right."
Root beckoned for her to follow him.
"Mind if I had a word with you?"
"Sure thing."
Maribel set down the bucket and followed Root out of the galley to the mess. He put his arm around her and pulled her in close, speaking in a low voice to escape any eavesdroppers.
"You're in pretty nice position, Bel," he said. "Can I count on you to keep an ear out?"
"Yeah, I can do that," Maribel replied.
"Be careful now, especially around the Blackamoors."
"Mr. Root, I've been working at Mama's place ever since I was 13," she said defensively. "I can handle myself."
"Just be careful, ya hear?"
"Yeah, I'll be careful."
"Good girl."
Root stepped away from Maribel and then said in a loud voice, "I'll let you boys an' girls get back ta work. Stay safe an' I'll be checkin' in on y'all again."
"Bye, Mr. Root," Maribel said.
"Bye, Root!" Margie yelled from the galley.

* * *

Root found his way to the makeshift motorpool belowdecks. Cruisers like the Junker Jorg weren't intended to deploy ground forces, so one of the cargo bays had to be repurposed into a motorpool for the vehicles assigned for the mission. Because this mission was so short-notice, there was no time to adapt these vehicles to the cold and rough terrain before they set out. There was a lot of work to be done and not much time to do it.
If Centurion Tofels had been reasonable, the vehicles would've all been ready by the time the front passed. Everything would be so much easier. No use crying about it now, though.
There wasn't much activity, surprisingly enough. There were supposed to be nine mechanics and they had a lot of work that needed doing, but Root only saw three people gathered around one of the cargo trucks, which had broken loose from its moorings and fell on its side. The windshield shattered and pieces of glass were strewn about on the deck. Root recognized two of the mechanics as the Vernessians Lerner Rockhart and Dakota Oster. Dakota was on top of the truck while Rockhart was holding a line from one of the overhead winches that had been fed under the truck.
Dakota hooked the line back to itself and gave it a good tug to make sure it was secure.
"All hooked up!" she shouted.
"Alright, let's bring 'er up!" Rockhart bellowed to the third mechanic, who was operating the winches.
"Goin up!" the third mechanic shouted back. "All clear!"
Dakota hopped off the truck and put some distance between her and it as the winches' engines started to whine. If Root remembered correctly, the lines were only rated for a tonne, so they really should've been using three winches instead of just two. At first, it didn't look like the winches were going to be able to pick up the truck at all, but slowly and unsteadily, the truck rose up off the deck. Root wondered which would be first: the winches' engines failing or the lines snapping. He opted not to intervene, trusting that they knew their work better than he did.
"Bring 'er back down!" Rockhart shouted. "Slow-like now!"
Once the truck was lifted off the deck, it started to tilt and it seemed that the goal was to get it to tilt further so they could set it down on all four tires.
Just as the two passenger side tires started to touch the deck, Rockhart called out, "Hold!" He then beckoned and shouted, "Brin' down Nummer Two!"
A third line between the two fastened to the truck was lowered down. Dakota then climbed up on the rather perilously tilting truck and hooked the line on one the ribs for the canopy in the back.
"Hooked up!" Dakota shouted, hopping down and getting clear.
"Alright, Joh, this is where it gets tricky!" Rockhart shouted to the winch operator, who Root now realized was Joh Scheinker. "Up on Nummer Two! Slow-like, now! Slow-like!"
As the Number Two winch drew up the line, the truck tilted more, prompting Rockhart to tell Scheinker, "Now give us some slack on One an' Three!"
He did so and the truck settled down on all four tires.
"That's good!" Rockhart shouted. "Give some slack on Two an' we'll get these lines off."
Root took the opportunity to clap at the feat of engineering that honestly shouldn't have worked as well as it did.
"Nice bit a' work there," he said.
"Well, how ya doin' there, LT?" Rockhart said.
His fairly warm greeting was offset by Dakota, who seemed eminently annoyed at Root's presence.
"We ain't here ta put on no damn show for ya," she grumbled. "Ya jus' here ta get in our damn way or what?"
"No," Root replied, "I'm checking up on everybody after the big damn air battle that nearly got everyone killed. Nice to see you're the same lil' ray a' sunshine."
Dakota gave him the reverse V, which earned her a smack upside the head from Rockhart.
"Manners, Kota."
Dakota shot him a mean look but that was the end of it.
Moving right on along, Root asked, "How are things comin' along?"
Rockhart looked around and said, "We got a big damn mess here. Feel sorry for the poor bastard that's gotta drive the truck 'cause we can't replace the damn busted win'shield."
"Anyone hurt?"
"Yeah, that one Souki fella... Creamy, was it?"
"Kareemi," Dakota corrected him. "God, Rock, it ain't like we ain't been ta Marsouk before."
"How's ya gonna figger I'm gonna keep ever' damn body's name straight? Anyway, ol' Kareemi mashed his damn foot all ta shit."
"How'd he manage that?" Root asked.
"Lots a' shit tippin' over an' fallin' out."
"You civilians are supposed to go to quarters when they make the call to combat stations."
Rockhart shrugged.
"What can I say? Shit happens."
That wasn't the answer Root wanted to hear, but if the contractors were going to do their own thing, they'd be responsible for whatever happened to them.
"Where's everyone else?"
"Engineerin' picked 'em up ta help plug holes."
"Why didn't they get you too?"
"Gettin' the vickles ready's an important job too, ain't it? 'Sides, the Blackies insisted."
Of course. Why else would anything counter-intuitive happen on this tub?
"When do you think the buggies'll be ready?" Root asked.
"T'morra, maybe," Rockhart replied. "Top Blacky said the trucks got priority."
"The trucks?"
"That's what he said."
So Tofels was more interested in hauling junk from the crash site than actually delivering the troops to secure the site. It was stupid, but that was how the Blackamoors did things. No point in fighting it.
"Alright," Root said. "Keep up the good work then."
"We don't need ya ta validate us or nothin', Sparky," Dakota grumbled.
This got her another cuff upside the head from Rockhart.
"C'mon, Kota, behave."
She shot Rockhart an accusing finger and said, "Dammit, Rock, hit me one more damn time, jus' one more damn time."
Rockhart patted her on the head like some pet or small child, saying, "Aw, there, there." He then looked to Root and said, "We'll take it from here, LT."
"Yeah, you look like you got your hands full."
With that, Root left the motorpool. It was about time he got Second Section together to discuss the mission.

* * *

Once Root had made the rounds and checked up on everyone under his care, he had Sub-Lieutenant LeGrange gather up Second Section in the briefing room. The three civilian scouts were also added into the mix. Fortunately, none of them were hurt in the exchange with the enemy cruiser. They needed every man they had.
While Second was LeGrange's unit, Root headed up the briefing.
"Alright, people, listen up," he said, prompting Second to quiet down the chatter. "The goddamned Blackamoors aren't gonna let us wait out the front moving in. I'm leading a scouting party out to the site. We've gotta go on foot. It's twenty klicks of snow and ice and we'll be freezing our nuts off the whole way. Fourth Squad, I want you with me. Smitty, you're the best dog handler--no offense, Cale--so I want you and your team along too."
"Aye, Root," Smitty replied.
"We'll bring a wireless, but I don't wanna tip off the people who shot us outta the sky, so there's gonna be radio silence until I say otherwise. If you don't hear from us in 30 hours, assume we're dead. Don't launch a rescue mission. I repeat, do not launch a rescue mission. That's an order. And don't let the Blackamoors push you around to go out there half-cocked either. Wait until you can move the buggies out and proceed to the objective with the rest of the section. Once the objective is secure and the enemy threat neutralized, then you can try to find my corpse so they can ship it back home. My folks would appreciate it."
Some of the younger soldiers looked uncomfortable with Root's black humor, but they'd get used to it.
"Alright, enough joking around," he said. "The weather's gonna be real shitty out there. Remember your training. Keep warm, keep dry as much as possible. Don't get separated. If someone falls out, leave 'im. It's a cold-ass rule, but it's a cold-ass world out there. You trackin' me, Second?"
"Trackin', sir!" the section shouted in unison.
"Good to hear," Root said. "Fourth Squad, Smitty, get geared up. We leave in an hour."
"Yessah!" Fourth's squad leader boomed.
It was good to see them in such high spirits. They were going to need it out there.