CLEAR GANTRY! CLEAR GANTRY!”
The squeal of metal and the thrum of moving metal vibrated the deck of the dropship as the internal bays were hastily reconfigured for use as troop and vehicle bays. Hawk stood clear of the ballet of machinery and men. He made his way to the port loading ramp, where he stood looking to the hills and the smoke just beyond the horizon.
“Sir.” The voice was prim, proper and firm.
“It’s almost time to go, we need you in command.” Hawk shook his head. “No, you really don’t. The Captain has this. There’s nothing for me to contribute at this point.”
“Look, don’t push it. You can handle the details of this for me. Can’t you?” Percival nodded and then retreated into the depths of the ship. A klaxon sounded and the loading ramp began to retract, the bay doors following suit. When the doors came to a final thunderous close Hawk turned back to the bays and made his way to the ones assigned to the Aces. He found Melia and Leo by their mechs. The two empty bays for Sokar and Raven were in the final phase of being converted into infantry stowage. The two mechwarriors looked the despair that Hawk felt.
“You two, with me.”
Hawk made his way into the interior of the ship as announcements over the PA warned of imminent launch. He ignored the warnings, his mind elsewhere. Eventually he reached his quarters and ushered Leo and Melia in; finding them seating on a small couch.
“You better put on the restraints, they’re under the cushions. “ The two warriors obeyed silently. Hawk pounded a code into a safe on the wall and pulled out a tall clear bottle filled with amber liquid. The bottle label featured the grim face of a one-eyed man, lit cigar clenched between his teeth, a ring of fire around his head.
“This is something a friend brought me from New Abilene in the Magistracy of Canopus. A rare limited run whiskey named after some neighboring pirate warlord in the periphery.” Leo stared blankly. “The magistracy is all about pleasure, did you know prostitution is legal there, along with exotic gambling and fights?” Melia nodded. “I was told to save this for when something special happened.” Hawk began pouring the whiskey into zero-g compatible bulbs. “Aces and Eights, the dead man’s hand.” Do you know the origin of the name?” Melia nodded affirmative, Leo sat silent; lost. “It’s not really all that important, but what is, is that we know that every time we go out there… we run the risk of losing our lives on a gamble.” He handed the bulbs to Leo and Melia. “We have retreated from multiple planets, and lost some very good people, but until today… I would not say we have known defeat.” Hawk raised his bulb in salute. Leo and Melia followed. “To defeat, may it burn less than this.” The three warriors drank their whiskey in one gulp. It burned like napalm and left an aftertaste of tobacco and a slight coppery tinge like blood. Leo began gagging, Melia let out a slight cough. Hawk quickly filled their bulbs again, strapping himself into his seat after. “We may be defeated but we are NOT beaten.” He stared down Leo and Melia in turn; holding their eyes. “May we find our comrades, wherever they may be.” He held the bulb aloft in salute again. The trio took another shot. Leo’s eyes were watering, Melia was looking flushed and Hawk felt a bit light headed.
“ALL HANDS, ALL HANDS STAND BY FOR DEPARTURE BURN AND STARSIDE OPS!”
The dropship began to vibrate and the sound of the engines struggling to lift the ship free of gravity was like a waterfall.
“LOOK AT ME YOU TWO!” Hawk hollered to be heard over the cacophony. He held their eyes again “WE ARE NOT DONE, THERE WILL BE A RECKONING AND WE WILL BE ITS DELIVERENCE!” Leo and Melia seemed to nod. Hawk grabbed the bottle “One last drink” he thought “for the starry highway and the road to vengeance.” The liquid seemed to burn less on the way down, but his whole body seemed to be burning now. It almost matched the rage he felt for the Clans.