“Tell me again what we are doing out here, sir?” The driver steered the van through the opening in the barricade and parked to the side near the local guardian vehicles.
Jason smirked. “Well, I’m here to observe and be on-hand should the locals request Dawn’s Light input. Sergeant Tibbs,” he tipped his head towards the man in the back of the van, “is here in case we need any tech support. And I imagine you, Chief, are here to keep an eye on the brand new baby Commander and make sure I don’t screw things up too much.”
Jason’s reply drew a grin from the older woman. “Self-awareness is a good trait in an officer, sir.” She looked out the window at the burned out husk of a warehouse and quirked a brow. “We’re really just here to observe? Nothing more?”
“Our orders were clear: we are not to influence the direction of the investigation in any way. That means we do not comment, speculate, hypothesize, or offer any opinions or suggestions unless requested by local authorities.”
The chief shrugged and the team climbed out of the van. Local guardians sifting through charred rubble paused in their work, and soon a call went through the site to halt work. A local commander scurried towards them, hiding his frustrated scowl as he drew closer. “Dawn’s Light? Commander Dawson,” he introduced himself. “Didn’t think you guys would be interested in an abandoned warehouse. I’ll call my people off…”
“No need to do that, Commander,” Jason assured. “We aren’t here to assume the investigation — just to observe.”
“Dawn’s Light wants to observe a burned out warehouse?”
Jason nodded to the side and led the commander a few steps away. He lowered his voice. “See this?” He tapped his commander insignia. “Got it last week. And Chief Clayton and Sergeant Tibbs over there have been guardians since I was in diapers.”
“Puffball assignment to test the newbie?” The corner of Dawson’s lips twitched.
Jason didn’t answer directly, but lifted his eyebrows and tilted his head slightly. “So we’ll stand back, watch you guys do your work while I issue a few token orders and Clayton comes up with ways to make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.”
“Fair enough,” Dawson chuckled. “We’ll be done in a few hours. I can give you a walkthrough of the site and go over our findings with you for your report.”
“Thank you, Commander. I appreciate it.” Jason shook Dawson’s hand before returning to his team.
“Orders, sir?” Chief Clayton’s expression remained stoic but there was a glint of approval in her eyes.
Jason turned to look over the scene before answering. “Sergeant Tibbs, find their tech team and get a feel for their hardware and procedures.”
The sergeant nodded. “Yes, sir. If I may, sir, we have some new scanning drones R&T wants field tested. Mind if I break them out?”
Jason nodded. “Check with the locals first.” He turned to Chief Clayton. “You and I will move through the site, starting with a sweep of the perimeter. Everyone keep comms open.” At his nod, the team split up to address their respective tasks.
Jason had barely stepped away from the van before Tibbs and a local technology officer gleefully dashed up to retrieve the drones. He watched them scurry back to the tech station before continuing his patrol.
He walked slowly across the front of the warehouse, studying the soot-blackened walls. He paused and backed up a few steps to re-examine a spot. He reached a hand out to the wall but stopped short of touching it. His finger traced the shape of a dent and then moved outward to the nearly-obscured burst-shaped burn mark.
“Find something?” The lieutenant monitoring the mission from headquarters asked over comms.
“This doesn’t look like fire damage,” Jason replied absently as he studied the marks.
“The mission is to observe,” the lieutenant reminded him.
“What’s the point of observing if we don’t take note of what we see?” Jason countered. “Continuing my observations.”
A soft whir drew his attention overhead where Tibbs’ drones were recording, categorizing, and cataloguing everything in sight. One of the drones left the others to fly closer to the wall where he’d been standing, and began taking detailed recordings and measurements of the dent and scorch marks. Jason glanced back to the tech stand. Tibbs’ attention was on the drone controls, but the sergeant glanced up long enough to toss a wink his way.
“Commander? You should see this.” Chief Clayton’s voice over comms was guarded.
“On my way,” Jason replied and quickened his pace. He watched another drone peel away from the flock to head towards the Chief’s location.
He rounded a corner and found her standing about six meters back from a particularly damaged part of the wall. She waited for him to join her before nodding back towards the wall.
An abandoned truck parked next to the warehouse wall was blackened by the fire and partially buried under charred debris from the collapsed wall above it. But the side facing away from the warehouse was untouched by the flames, and the word “AMARRAH” was painted on in thick, red letters.
Jason felt his throat tighten. Between the red paint and a long, low pile of debris on the ground, his mind immediately went back to discovering Jeff Socci and Amanda Flynn in Raqmu. He clenched his jaw to fight back his memories and nausea.
“Sir?” Chief Clayton had turned her attention from the burned out truck to the newbie commander. “Is everything…?”
“Thelos team, this is Paladin Darris Harson assuming control of HQ command for the remainder of this operation.” Jason and Chief Clayton exchanged glances at Darris’ announcement.
“Acknowledged,” Jason answered. “I will inform Commander Dawson we are taking over the investigation.”
“Negative, Commander,” Darris replied. “Mission objectives have not changed. You are there to observe. Leave the investigation to the locals.”
“Those are the orders, Commander Wolfe. Observation only.”
Jason swallowed and nodded. “Yes, sir.” He looked to Chief Clayton, who was still studying him with concern. “Continue as we were.”
She nodded slightly, but still watched him like a hawk. “Is everything all right, sir? And before you say anything, I already know the answer.”
Jason couldn’t help but let out a slight chuckle. “Something about this,” he gestured towards the truck without looking at it, “brought back memories of my last combat mission. It was… not good.”
“Been there.” She nodded. “You need to hold it together and finish this mission.”
“You don’t pull any punches, do you?”
“I always find it helpful to communicate clear expectations, sir.”
Jason chuckled. “Understood, Chief.” He took a deep breath and looked back to the truck. “Continue around the perimeter. I’m going to see what Commander Dawson makes of this.”
As Jason walked away, he noticed more drones had come over to record the scene, and made a mental note to buy Sergeant Tibbs a drink or three when they got back to base.
He found Commander Dawson inside, standing before the collapsed remains of a raised office and catwalk. He nodded to Jason. “There are still hot spots in the wreckage so we’ve got bots poking around, but we believe point of ignition was in the office. Everything we’ve seen so far points to errant sparks and worn out wiring.”
“What about the truck behind the building?”
“Commander, you are not to influence the investigation in any way,” Darris’ reminder was firm.
Commander Dawson shook his head. “Civil monitoring in the area isn’t working, so we don’t have any direct recordings of what happened, but archived satellite scans show that truck has been sitting there for ages. No reason to think it’s anything more than another casualty of the fire.”
“And the grafitti?” Jason pressed.
“Bored kids?” Dawson shrugged. “Further analysis would just be a waste of time and resources.”
“Let it go, Commander,” Darris warned.
Jason took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Tech is running the bots?”
Commander Dawson glanced out the door to the tech station and nodded. “When they aren’t drooling over the new toys you brought with you, that is. You know I’ll never hear the end of the requisition requests, right?”
Jason grinned. “I could order tech to pack them up, but I think we’d end up with a mutiny on our hands.”
Dawson shook his head. “I’m not paid enough to make tech grumpy.”
Jason chuckled and excused himself to head for the tech station.
“Wise call, sir,” Tibbs greeted him. Next to him, a pair of local techs glances up to nod hellos before turning their attention back to the controls of the two small robots picking their way through the collapsed office.
Jason watched the video feed of a snake-like robot as it slithered through twisted beams and broken polycrete. Once in a while the robot would pause to take measurements, scan the area ahead, and collect samples. The second, larger robot remained stationary until the techs determined they needed to lift something or collect a larger sample than the snakebot could accommodate.
Tibbs completed the hyperscan recordings and piloted the drones, one by one, back to the tech station where he packed them back in their crates. Once the last drone was packed away, he turned to his control panel and typed in a command. “Sending you a copy of everything we recorded.”
A light flashed on one of the control panels, and one of the techs confirmed receipt of the files. “So where do we send order requests for our own set?”
Tibbs grinned and shook his head. “Until our folks are done testing, best to send them to your commander.”
Jason watched as the techs piloted the bots out of the wreckage. Tibbs joined them in removing and storing the collected samples and cleaning the bots before storage.
Commander Dawson approached Jason. “We’re pretty much done here, Commander Wolfe. Sorry it wasn’t as exciting as your usual parties.”
“Exciting isn’t necessarily better.” Jason forced a genial smile. “So what did you find?”
Dawson shrugged. “We need to do final analysis of everything we gathered, but so far everything backs up that the fire was just an accident.”
Jason hesitated before nodding. “Very well. Thank you for putting up with us, Commander. I hope we didn’t get in the way too much.” He extended a hand.
“Not at all,” Dawson assured as he shook Jason’s hand. “It was nice to be able to show off for you folks for a change.”
Jason confirmed Chief Clayton and Sergeant Tibbs were prepared to go before leading his team back to their van. He motioned for Chief Clayton to join him and Tibbs in the back. “Alright,” he said once the door was closed. “Reports.”
Chief Clayton’s eyes glinted with approval. “You saw the truck in the back. They were aware of it, and it’s possible they had already been over it before we arrived, but it didn’t look like they really paid it much attention.”
“I did full scans of the truck and surrounding debris as well as collected samples of the embers and the graffiti,” Tibbs supplied. “I provided a copy of the scan results.”
“How is that not influencing the investigation?” Until now, Darris had remained quiet through the team debriefing.
“Making the information available doesn’t tell them what to do with it or determine if they will even consider it at all,” Jason replied smoothly. “Do archive workstations influence Academy student reports?”
“Continue,” Darris ordered.
Tibbs waited for Jason’s nod. “Not only do we have our drone reports, but since I shared with them, they gave me copies of their bot footage and reports.”
“Chief?” Jason looked back to Clayton. “Anything to add?”
She shook her head. “The truck was the part that stood out to me the most. But it seemed like they arrived with certain expectations and found what would back-up those ideas.”
“In your assessment, Commander, do you think the investigation was compromised?”
Clayton and Tibbs both went still with Darris’ question, watching Jason for his answer.
Jason shook his head. “It’s possible, but we don’t have anything solid. Dawn’s Light has hidden the threat of the Alfath and the significance of Amarrah from local forces, so they would have no reason to find the truck suspicious. The real question is what are going to do about it now? We know the fire is connected to the Alfath.”
Darris was quiet a moment before answering. “Your mission is concluded, Commander. Come on home.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Chief Clayton stopped the van at the edge of the outpost landing pad to let Jason out. He promised Tibbs a drink next time they ran into each other as he climbed out of the van. He started towards the driver’s door to say goodbye to Chief Clayton, and was surprised when she turned off the van and got out.
“You handled yourself well, sir.”
“I didn’t want to risk finding out what you’d do if I didn’t hold it together.”
Jason’s quip drew a slight twitch of her lips. “You need to address it so it doesn’t happen on the next mission or the one after that.”
“I will follow up on this, sir.”
Jason quirked a brow.
Chief Clayton cracked a grin. “I’m retiring, sir. This was my final field mission. I report to Laconia in two weeks to begin out processing.”
Jason smiled broadly. “Then I’m lucky I got to work with you while I could.” He tapped a lightly closed fist to his chest. “It was an honor, Chief.”
Chief Clayton returned the gesture with a slight bow of her head. “The honor was mine, sir.”