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For Family

 

Marsh and his team left Alpha for Delta Camp before sun-up. They hiked all morning without incident, but three hours after their lunch break, Garvin signaled danger and the three of them darted into the underbrush. From cover twenty yards off the trail Marsh, a three-share in the company, whispered, “What’s the problem?”

“Something is coming down the path,” Garvin said. “Right at us.” Garvin was a nine-share, a true executive, a member of the secretive board of directors. He was older than most people in the company, but still vital and strong. A leader. This was his mission.

“Some-thing?”

“I heard voices. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but it was definitely voices.”

“Scaff?” Hatch, an edgy one-share and the youngest member of the team, said in a nervous whisper. “Oh man. I knew this would happen.”

Swirling gusts rustled the tree tops and made it hard for Marsh to hear. It took concentration, but he finally detected the voices; two men in casual conversation. As they grew closer, he picked up the stilted dialect of the company’s only competition for the resources on this planet.

Scaff was the slang term for the group, a name they used for themselves as well. Just like lower-level staff members referred to the company as a family because of the way the executive board exerted parental-style control over member’s lives. Meaning, you were asked to put the company first, above everything else in your life. Also because the company operated on insular networks that took loyalty and maneuvering to penetrate. Marsh had no taste for maneuvering. And the word family had too much meaning to him to use it so casually.

The scaff were really separatists. Mostly service staff - cleaning, kitchen, and maintenance crews - the scaff were a tight community of men, women, and their children who broke away from the company when they all became stranded on the planet. The scaff rebelled for the right to live free from company rule, a right they would never have earned on their shared home world. Marsh didn’t blame them, they were second-class citizens because they chose to work in service of the company class, marginalize and ill-treated.

The scaff were about to the section of trail where Garvin’s detail had jumped for cover. Their conversation seemed to be about a women they both knew. Intimately.

“They’ve been tracking us.” Hatch said, his body rigid with tension. He was propped over the top of a boulder. His rifle was aimed toward the trail.

“Shut the fuck up, or they’ll hear you,” Garvin hissed and yanked Hatch’s belt to pull him down. “Stay focused and let them pass.”

The conversation on the trail stopped. One voice asked clearly for the other to wait. Marsh listened as someone stumbled off trail in their direction. Then he heard the whoosh of urination. “Hurry the fuck up,” the other man said from the trail. Only when the first man finished, and his heavy footfalls began to recede, did Garvin relax his grip. “I am thinking of the mission,” Hatch hissed. The footsteps stopped. The two scaff exchanged words in a low and urgent tone. Garvin put a finger to his lips and shook his head slowly.

They listened for two minutes to wind noise and the scittering of wildlife. Then Garvin nodded at Marsh and Marsh unholstered his pistol. He cocked the trigger, muffling the sound with the palm of his hand. He edged to the corner of the boulder he had hidden behind. He peeked until he could see the trail. It was empty. He nudged forward. Still no scaff. He stood and leaned forward to get a better view. Satisfied, he turned back to his teammates. He got halfway through the phrase “All clear” when he was tackled from behind.

He hit the dirt with a slide, the weight of a large man furrowing him into the ground. A strong hand tattooed in an intricate pattern of whorls and dots trapped his wrist and hammered it against the ground until he released his pistol. He resisted as best as he could, but was immobilized by a thick forearm at the back of the neck.

“Relax, fuck face,” the man said, then started to rifle the pockets of Marsh’s jacket. Marsh thought of the satchel, which he wore under his long coat, and of what it contained. He wriggled to keep it trapped under his body and out of reach.

“Take what you want and be on your way,” he said to the man on his back.

“Shut your mouth,” the man barked. Then, to his companion, said. “Herc. Get those other packs.”

The second man, smaller than the the first, had Marsh’s teammates at rifle point. He ordered Garvin and Hatch to drop their packs. Like most scaff men, tattoos covered every exposed patch of skin.

“Where are you all going?” the man on Marsh’s back said.

Garvin started to answer but Marsh held up a hand. “Delta camp,” he said. “I’m a doctor. I’m needed there.”

“You from Alpha?”

“Yes.”

“There are no medical provisions in your pack?” Marsh kept his mouth shut and his body against the satchel under his coat. The two men exchanged a look. “You look like an executive."

Marsh forced himself to not look in Garvin’s direction. “I’m just a medic. A member of staff.”

The bigger man narrowed his eyes. His hand hovered over the butt of his pistol. “What’s an executive doing traveling between camps with an armed escort?” Marsh focused on his breathing. He had sworn to protect the information in the satchel with his life if necessary. He didn’t want it to come to that.

“What do you think Herc? Is this the guy we’re looking for?”

Marsh formed his next sentence carefully, but then Hatch was already in motion, rolling toward his rifle. He came up in a crouch and got a shot off at one of the scaff. He missed, but not by much. The younger man sprinted for the nearest boulder. The man behind Marsh scrambled and started to bolt toward the trail. Hatch fired two more shots. One exploded a sapling just to the right of the running men. The second spat up a dramatic puff of dirt between the smaller man’s legs. The young scaff paused and returned fire. His shots pinged off the boulders and trees all around Hatch. Hatch retreated behind a rock, hugging his rifle.

“Stand down, dammit,” Garvin yelled.

Hatch took a deep breath, re-positioned his rifle stock against his shoulder, and steadied his aim against the rock face. He lined up on the running figures. Marsh hissed at him, “Boss says stand down, man. Don’t shoot.” Hatch calmly pulled the trigger twice.

 

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