Chapter 21
ESS Iberia, Martian Sphere
Date: Sun 10 May 123
Time: UST 0820

Four shuttles touched down in the hangar and once the hangar was repressurized, the passengers began to disembark. Following standard protocol, the first one on and the first off any craft was the highest ranking among them. You could not be much higher ranked in the military than Space Marshal Donovan Graves, Commandant of the Marine Corps. The living legend, one of the original Heroes of the Union, cut a striking figure. His custom dress white uniform added to the uniqueness of his presence. He was one of a kind, a mythic figure much like Chesty Puller for the USMC in the days before the Blackout. His name would be a byword for generations of Marines to come.
As he passed through the airlock and entered the quarterdeck, he saluted the ensign and then approached the officer of the deck.
Holding up his ID, he said, "Space Marshal Donovan Graves, requesting permission to come aboard."
Normally, anyone coming aboard would also present orders, but the Marshal did not have any orders with him and the officer of the deck was not going to ask for them. Instead the officer of the deck promptly swiped Marshal Graves' ID and punched in an override so the system would not complain about the lack of orders.
"Permission granted," the officer of the deck said. Though it was not part of normal protocol, after handing back the Marshal's ID, the officer of the deck delivered a smart salute and added, "It's an honor, sir."
Marshal Graves returned the salute and stepped to the side of the officer of the deck's station.
"I'll let my entourage get checked in before we head up," he said.
"Yes, sir," the officer of the deck replied. "I'll get them processed as quickly as I can."
"No rush, no rush," the Marshal said good-naturedly. "You're doin' good, son."
"Thank you, sir."
The Marshal cracked a grin and said, "Don't thank me. Thank your recruiter."
The officer of the deck returned his grin.
"Aye-aye, sir."
The Marshal's entourage consisted of nearly a full company's worth of Marines. Once they were all cleared to board, they formed up in in four blocks.
Standing in front of the formation, the Marshal told them, "You all have your assignments. Execute. Now fall out."
The assembled Marines raised a great shout of "Oorah!" before falling out and filtering into the personnel lifts. The Marshal went to one lift accompanied by his adjutant and four Marines from his security detail and headed up to the bridge.
The first person to catch sight of him entering the bridge shouted, "Attention on deck!"
For the bridge crew of a ship underway, protocol only required crewmembers who were already standing to stand at attention when called while the operators at work sat at attention. There were, of course, allowances made for crewmembers occupied with critical tasks, but all the same, the Marshal did not intend to keep them from their work on his account.
"As you were," he said.
While the bridge crew returned to their duties, Li the captain and Ibañez his XO approached the Marshal.
"Good morning, sir," Captain Li said. "Welcome aboard the Iberia. Forgive me, but I do not recall this visit being scheduled."
"That's because it wasn't scheduled, Captain," the Marshal replied. "I'd appreciate it if you got Reynosa in here."
"Of course, sir," the Captain replied. "I will call the Admiral now."
Captain Li went back to his chair to call the Admiral while his XO remained behind. The XO exchanged glances with Marshal Graves.
"Sir," he said.
Marshal Graves nodded to him. They did not say anything further, though. It was not long before the Captain returned.
"The Admiral will be here shortly, sir," the Captain said.
"We can wait," the Marshal replied.
The Marshal and his entourage stood still as statues while they waited, leaving Captain Li to stand there shifting his weight uncomfortably until Admiral Reynosa finally arrived on the bridge. The Admiral was an unimpressive sort of man, soft and greying with a good extra twenty kilos to him. Like so many of the general and flag officers, he was just another politician in uniform, not the sort of person Marshal Graves had much respect for. The Marshal did not make his contempt too obvious, a well-practiced an necessary skill as he started his climb up the ladder.
"Marshal Graves, this is an unexpected surprise," the Admiral said.
Marshal Graves grinned and replied, "Just because the war's over doesn't mean we should get slack on readiness. Gotta keep people on their toes."
Even though he was put on the spot, Admiral Reynosa was quick to respond.
"I can assure you this crew is at the top of its game," he said. "Isn't that right, Captain?"
"Yes, sir," Captain Li replied dutifully.
"Let's get started then," the Marshal said. "Get your boys and girls ready."
"Aye-aye, sir," the Captain replied. He promptly went back to his chair and announced over the intercom, "All hands to quarters for muster, instruction and inspection. All hands to quarters for muster, instruction and inspection."
"All non-critical personnel will be in their quarters in under ten minutes," Admiral Reynosa said.
"Refresh my memory," the Marshal said. "What's the bare minimum crew for one a' these Imperiums?"
"Imperia, sir," the Admiral corrected. "And if you scraped to the very bone and didn't have to worry about any significant problems or major combat action, you could operate the ship with as few as ten people, but everything flows much smoother with eighty to a hundred."
"That makes it pretty easy."
"We don't need very many a' you after all."
Without another word, Marshal Graves drew a boxer pistol and put two rounds in Admiral Reynosa's chest and two more in Captain Li. The MAs at the door were gunned down by his security detail before they could even draw their weapons. There were some screams from the bridge crew, some panic, but all that was quickly put to a stop by the authoritative voice of Marshal Graves shouting over all the noise.
"Return to your posts!" he barked. "Sit down!"
A testament to the commanding quality of his voice and presence, the bridge crew sat back down and were quiet. If any of them were thinking about trying anything, the initiative was lost as the heat of the moment passed.
"Admiral Reynosa and Captain Li have just been relieved of command," the Marshal said. "The ship is now under my control. Captain Ibañez will be replacing Captain Li and if any of you don't wanna be similarly replaced, you'll continue to perform your duties as directed. I don't want any fool heroes gettin' themselves killed. Do I make myself clear?"
There was no response, but the Marshal was not going to allow that.
"Sound off!" he shouted. "Do I make myself clear!?"
For many of the bridge crew, it was entirely unwitting that they joined in the chorus of "Aye-aye, sir!" They were all like well-tuned clockwork automatons.
"Good," the Marshal said approvingly. "Good ta see we've got an understandin'. Now let's start lockin' down those berthin' spaces till we can sort the sheep from the goats."
"Lock down the berthing spaces," Captain Ibañez said.
There was no response.
"You were given an order from your captain," Marshal Graves said. "Execute."
"Locking down berthing spaces, aye," one of the operators replied.
The Marshal then said, "Disable external comms."
"Disable external comms," Captain Ibañez echoed.
"Disabling external comms, aye."
With all the non-critical personnel on lockdown and all contact with the outside cut off, all that remained was to neutralize any problematic factors that remained.
Tapping his earpiece and the throat mic hidden underneath the collar of his uniform, he said, "Blackbird One-Oh-One, this is Falcon One. Begin sweep. I repeat, begin sweep."
Inaudible to anyone save the Marshal himself, the head of his tactical response team Captain Mauro replied, "Copy that, Falcon One. Blackbird One-Oh-One, out."
Captain Mauro and his men were among the best in the Corps. They were more than a match for any spooks and Specials who thought they could interfere with the Marshal's plans. Still, there was no point in giving them a fighting chance.
Tapping his mic again, Marshal Graves switched over to a different frequency and said in a low voice, "Sauro One, this is Falcon One. Guadalete is a go. Proceed with CCM. Fumigate the rats."
"Understood," the modulated voice replied.
The moles would do their work digging out the rats. Captain Mauro's men would deal with the rest. The Iberia would be completely under the Marshal's control in a matter of hours and then the real work would begin.
Marshal Graves walked to the Admiral's chair, stepping over Admiral Reynosa's corpse as he did. Taking his seat, he said, "Captain Ibañez, get someone to stow those bodies."
"Aye-aye, sir," the Captain replied.
While the Captain tasked a few members of the bridge crew to dispose of the bodies, Major Mustafa his adjutant stood by his side and asked him, "You really think this is going to work, sir?"
The Marshal liked to keep Mustafa around because he was always such a contrarian. He hated yes-men even if that was the name of the game for most climbers in the service or anywhere else for that matter. He wanted to hear someone tell him no so he could be the one to say yes and make it happen.
Leaning back in his new chair, the Marshal looked out on the obedient bridge crew at their posts, acting no differently than when they did before he killed Admiral Reynosa and Captain Li. Even if the whole crew knew what he had done and what his plans were, how many would even resist? Ten percent? Twenty? They were all so well conditioned that it really didn't matter what they were doing or who they were doing it for. They might grumble and complain, question and doubt, but when it was time to execute, most of them would execute. It was all the answer he needed.
A grin crossed the Marshal's lips as he answered Major Mustafa's question.
"Everything's gonna work out just fine."