Captain William Sullivan put an arm up to his face but it didn't help much against the blustering sandstorm that moved around him. "Can't see a damn thing."
Sullivan stumbled forward a few feet from his parked car. All he knew was that he was in the parking lot, and the prison administration center was somewhere in front of him, through the swirling sand.
He groped his way forward until he finally felt a wall in front of him. He followed it to a door, which opened easily, and Sullivan fell inside, out of the maelstrom at last.
He shook in an attempt to rid his once-red windbreaker of the brown streaks that had settled upon it, and he blinked a few times to remove stray particles of sand from his dry eyes. He apparantly was in the administration center. He approached the reception desk, where no one was there to greet him. He hit the bell on the desk once, then twice, and finally he gave up after a flurry of rings still didn't summon anyone to the desk.
He looked around and didn't see signs, or anything that would tell him where the rest of his team was. There were a couple of vending machines, so he decided to get a Coke or something with caffeine to keep him up after the twenty-hour drive from Sacramento, during which he had only stopped once or twice, and for gas only.
The machine was as helpful as the desk receptionist. After Sullivan had deposited his seventy-five cents and punched the Coca-Cola button, the machine remained silent. He punched the button again, still to no avail. He then tried another button, Mountain Dew. Still, nothing. He pushed every button on the machine, and nothing came out. Muttering about broken machines that eat some innocent guy's money, he pushed the Coke button one more time, then swore and beat his fist once on the stupid machine before turning around to leave.
As he did so, he heard the clunk of something being forced from the vending machine into the little tray at the bottom. He saw his coke, then picked it up and stared at it like it was from another planet.
"Having a bit of trouble?" asked a familiar voice from behind him. He whirled to see the rough face of Private First Class Avatar standing in a doorway.
"Jesus, Private, it's about time someone showed up and told me what the hell we're doing here at a prison in the middle of nowhere."
"I dunno myself, but rumor says we're shipping a bunch of cons to Io."
"That's our mission? Dammit, we need to be fighting, not babysitting."
"It ain't my fault, Cappy. Come on, some of the guys are here already."
In the changing room, Sullivan set his duffel bag down and looked around. A handful of marines were there already. He saw Sergeant Nielsen in a corner, alone, getting his outfit on. Mark Klem and the Casali brothers were sharing jokes in another part of the room.
When he finished getting changed, he entered the briefing room, which was actually a gymnasium with several rows of bleachers that the troops would be sitting on.
He took his seat at the far right in the front row, a place he'd been sitting ever since he'd taken command of Gamma Team. Seats were done by rank, from right to left, row by row. Soon, most of the other troops were in. Lieutenant Gordon Johnston took the seat right next to Sullivan.
Sullivan surveyed his team. It was one of the finest around, so it wasn't too hard to see why he was pissed at being given this bullshit mission to some bullshit moon to babysit some bullshit convicts...
There was himself, a well-respected Captain who'd led Gamma Team through twelve missions since Captain Jones had bit the dust three years ago. He'd successfully operated through each of them, and had yet to lose a man.
To his left was Lieutenant Johnston. He was young, and not too experienced, but it didn't matter much. He'd proven himself to be very valuable very quickly, and had an excellent mind for the army.
Next in line was Sergeant Jens Nielsen. Nielsen was quiet, and kept to himself most of the time, but Sullivan knew he was a genius. He'd been in the Corps for over ten years, and was as experienced as they come.
The other two sergeants, Mustaine and Helmberger, were the ones that did the yelling and ordering around. Mustaine was a short, fiery, black man who had a good number of missions under his belt, and Helmberger was young, and similar to Johnston in the way that he had risen very quickly (albeit quite competently) to his rank.
Actually, there was a fourth sergeant, and his name was Eric Sargent. It seemed as though he had been destined for this rank, especially with a name like that. Sargent liked to find fault in anything, because any fault meant that the team was no longer a lean, mean, well-oiled fighting machine. When he did find fault, he definately made it known, often using his favorite four-letter words in the process.
Gamma Team had five corporals. Pilot Scott Lampert was a Texan, and had first flown when he was fifteen years old. Denis Moeller was short and stocky, but was an excellent shot, and as strong as anyone twice his size. He also was the team's medical officer. Mark Klem was the Communications Technology Specialist, or Com-Tech officer for short.
Then there was Alden Bates. Bates was looked down upon by almost all of the other troops because he had no right to even belong in the military, much less hold the rank of corporal. He had no skills, wasn't authoritative at all, and basically, when you got down to it, he was a flat-out coward. However, he was the son of one General Kerry Bates, and many of the troops suspected that the prestigious general was the only reason Bates was even in the Corps, let alone a corporal.
The last corporal was the opposite of Bates. Orin Flaherty had been in the Corps for nearly fifteen years, and was brave and fearless. He had turned down countless promotions because he loved being able to be in there fighting, while being able to give orders to a lot of the troops, but not having to worry about commanding them whole-heartedly, like anyone of a higher rank would have to do.
Next to Flaherty, at the end of the row, was Private First Class Avatar. Avatar was not his real name, but no one knew his real name, and no one cared. Avatar was one of the most-respected troops in the team. He had bounced back and forth between corporal and private a lot, and currently he was a private. However, Avatar was always allowed to sit with the corporals, especially when one of the corporals was far less deserving of the rank than he was.
The fourth row contained the rest of the PFCs. Mario Casali was the older of the two Casali brothers. He was short and stocky and sported a big, bushy mustache. Thomas Moeller was Denis' younger brother. Kurt Schmid was the team's engineer, and David Shaw controlled one of the team's three motion trackers, which detected motion within a radius of fifty yards.
The fifth and final row contained all of the remaining privates. Andy Badorek was the sniper. Reggie Barker was in charge of all of the heavy weapons, including (and especially) explosives weapons. Dario Casali, Mario's little brother, was the automatic weapons master, including his favorite, a belt-fed mini Gatling gun. Apart from being brothers, Dario's physical similarity to Mario ended there. Dario was tall, lean, and gaunt, much unlike his brother. David Davidson was Lamepert's co-pilot. Eric Reuter used the second of the three motion trackers (Avatar had the third one), and the final marine was young Eric Reuter, fresh out of boot camp to replace the retiring Lieutenant Miller.
Finally, all the troops had settled in, and a man dressed in dark green fatigues entered the room and moved to a podium in the middle of it. He began to speak.
"Good morning, marines. I am Major McClellan. I'm sorry for the lack of notice, so I thank you all for being here today. I'm here to brief you on your next mission, so please pay attention.
"On Io, one of Jupiter's largest moons, the Union Aerospace Corporation has developed a new maximum-security prison complex which holds all of the state-of-the-art technology required for keeping a prison as safe as possible, and nearly escape-proof.
"Twenty-five convicts who have been convicted of serious crimes, ranging from mass homocide to arson and manslaughter are scheduled to make the trip from here, at Black Sands, to the new Io facility. Knowing the nature of some of these guys, extra help is needed to supervise them while they are being transferred. That's where you come in."
Sullivan knew what was coming.
"Your mission is to safely escort the prisoners to Io aboard the space cruiser Madison, then your job is done."
At that, all of the marines began talking loudly, mostly complaining. McClellan held a hand up to silence them, then continued.
"I know this isn't the most exciting job in the world, but it is necessary, and will only take forty-eight hours at the most. Now, in the event that something happens and some of the prisoners escape, do not hesistate to shoot them if they are threatening to kill one of you. Believe me, murderers will not be missed by anyone.
"That's all. Go, get lunch, then return here at thirteen-hundred hours to for pre-flight checklists and the loading of the convicts. I'll see you then."
Captain William Sullivan stood under one of the space cruiser Madison's four wings, watching the raging sandstorm that was still taking place outside, through a pair protective plastic goggles. Behind him was Corporal Mark Klem, the com-tech specialist, inspecting the wing's hydraulics before the flight began.
"This has got to be the biggest shithole in the universe," Sullivan said to no one in particular, talking about the desolate desert that stretched for hundreds of kilometers in all directions, and the gusting sand that was wailing by outside.
Klem slammed shut the compartment he was checking out, then came up to Sullivan and stood next to him, looking out at the horizon, which was obscured by the storm.
"No, the place we're going is much worse. Imagine this desert, but made completely of dull gray rock. No plants, no animals at all. Not even cacti and horny lizards. Just endless plains of rock, with the occasional small mountain range. There's not even any oxygen."
Sullivan stared at Klem as the corporal walked away towards the next wing.
Jesus, this was going to be a long mission.
From his station just inside the main passenger loading doors of the ship, Lieutenant Gordon Johnston could see the long line of prison guards stretching from the ship to the prison facility. They were set up so that they would be flanking the narrow aisle that the cons would walk down to reach their transportation to a new home.
Standing next to him were sergeants Helmberger, Nielsen and Mustaine. Sargent was further into the ship, rallying the troops, was his excuse, although he was probably just sharing a final drink with them before they left earth.
The four men leaned forward to watch through the dirty window as handcuffed convicts began to march from the door of the prison, through the swirling sand, and down the long path leading to the ship. Twenty-four of them walked across the desert, up into the ship, and past Johnston's security station. He got a good look at some of them as they headed towards the forward lower cargo hold, which had been converted into a makeshift prison. They all looked depressed.
"That's only twenty-four," Mustaine commented.
"You sure?" Helmberger asked. "I counted twenty-four, too, but we mighta missed one. It's pretty god damn sandy out there-"
As if on cue, the twenty-fifth and final convict walked through the door of the prison, heavily surrounded by guards. As he moved from the doorway, the four marines could just barely see what appeared to be a man on the floor just inside the prison, writhing and clutching his wrist in agony.
"Jesus, what the fuck happened down there?" Johnston asked to no one in particular.
As the con was roughly shoved aboard, he stopped and shot an evil grin through the bullet-proof glass at Johnston and the three sergeants. They could clearly see a long, well-defined scar running from the corner of his right eye, down his cheek, to the corner of his mouth. Then, he began to laugh hysterically. The guard behind him smacked the back of his head with the butt of his rifle, along with a coarse "Shut up, you."
But the prisoner just kept laughing as he was shoved down the corridor, further into the bowls of the ship.
Johnston left the watch-station and pulled aside the trailing guard as the hatch leading outside to the desert was pulled shut and sealed for the space voyage.
"What happened back there?
"Rapp broke the guard's wrist," the guard answered as he removed his sand-coated goggles. "The two never got along, and the guard always was giving Rapp a hard time. Rapp decided to dish out a little retribution since he's never coming back here, anyway."
The guard moved on into the ship, leaving Johnston looking stunned.
"Who the hell was that?" Mustaine asked upon Johnston's return to the watch-station.
Johnston leaned over tapped a few things in on an unoccupied console.
"That's Michael Rapp. He's killed over one hundred men on one day alone. He should be on death row, but they don't have enough evidence to convict him of over seventy-five percent of his crimes. Instead, he's a lifer, and he's heading for Io with us and the rest of his buddies.
"He broke that guard back there's wrist," Johnston explained.
"Jesus..." Helmberger said.
Up in the cockpit of the Madison, the preflight frenzy was becoming even more evident.
"Tower, this is Lampert. We're already fifteen minutes behind schedule, what the hell is going on," Texan pilot Corporal Scott Lampert drawled over the small radio that was attached by a spiral, black, plastic wire to his flight console.
"Pilot Lampert, this is the control tower. Please stand by."
"Jesus, what are they doing?" Lampert asked to no one in particular. Co-Pilot Private David Davidson tapped a read-out on the console in front of him with a pen.
"Tank B is only seventy-five percent filled, only fifty percent for C," he said, referring to the gas tanks.
"God damn it, we're behind schedule. Sargent's gonna be pissed, and it ain't even my fault." Lampert flicked a switch on the radio and said into it, "Schmid, how are the engines looking."
The voice that responded was tinny-sounding and the noise of heavy machinery could be heard in the background. "They're looking great, they're just getting warmed up!"
"Good, stand by, takeoff could be any minute now."
"Tank B's done, C is up to seventy-five," Davidson announced. Lampert sat back and sighed.
"Tower to Madison, tower to Madison. Stand by for liftoff."
Lampert jerked forward in his seat. "Action time," he said, rubbing his hands together. The radio came to life again.
"Tower to Madison, liftoff in ten...nine...eight..."
"Schmid, you getting this?"
"I copy," the engineer's voice responded over the countdown. "Engines fully prepped, ready on your mark."
"...three...two...one..." the tower finished its counting.
"Mark!" Lampert shouted.
The five giant engines roared to life as Lampert pressed on the throttle, and the space ship shot upward.
"Clearing lower atmosphere," Lampert said over the intercom to the passenger seating area, where the rest of the marines were safely strapped in.
"Approaching upper atmosphere. Make sure you're buckled in tight," the pilot advised. After shaking for a few minutes, the ship was still as it entered the black void of space.
"All right, we're good for approximately twenty-one hours. Feel free to move about as you please."