Colonel Smith was worried. Very worried. More than worried.
He was scared halfway out of his mind.
His staff was way behind schedule. The rocket was supposed to have been launched months earlier with the rest of the fleet, but glitch after glitch had kept it on the ground. Washington had given him until today to get it on its way, but there was still a minor fuel leak.
Leak or no leak, it was do or die... literally. Washington had made it clear to him that not only was failure unacceptable, it would cost Smith his life, and cost it in a very painfully unpleasant way. He paced nervously as the countdown played out over the loudspeakers.
“T minus five minutes,” the loudspeakers spoke loudly, blaring their echoes through the facility.
Johnson was watching from Mars, glad Zales hadn't given him the task of watching that disgusting pair, Washington and Ford. Just thinking about those two monsters made his stomach churn. “Forget those two and watch your screens,” he told himself. “They're not your problem tonight.
“Now pay attention, damn it!” he said to himself.
The Sargent came in, having been busy briefing the Lieutenant about the latest pending launch. “How's the countdown, Johnson?” Zales asked.
“Five minutes to go. What did Maris say? Are we going to shoot it down?”
Zales sighed. “Unfortunately The Lieutenant says no.
“The rest went around the sun and are streaking towards Saturn, and he says this one is probably following the rest of the fleet. He says the technical problems we reported to him probably kept it from launching when the rest of the fleet took off, but if the rest were just a distraction while this one attacked we can knock it down from one of our posts at one of the Earth's Lagrange points.
“How many crew are on that rickety thing?” O'Brien asked.
“Five thousand,” Zales said.
“Galaxy, that's as big a force as our entire military.”
“Damned right,” agreed Johnson. “Of course, their weapons are no match for ours. If they're on their way here they're on their way to their deaths.”
“A lot of Martians died during the last Venusian war,” Zales said. “Hundreds. Of course, the Venusians lost their entire force, hundreds of thousands, but those hundreds of Martians cost Mars dearly. I'll bet if those bastards do attack, Mars will have a lot better opinion of soldiers.”
“Still,” O'Brien said, “I'd rather be looked down on than be at war.”
“T minus one minute,” the screen said, with the loudspeakers echoing loudly through the facility.
Smith was still pacing nervously, trembling a little, with sweat running down his cheek and his metallic skin looking like aluminum.
“T minus thirty seconds.”
A plume of smoke wafted from the bottom of the rocket.
“T minus ten... nine... eight... seven... six... five... four... three... two... one... ignition... liftoff. We have liftoff.”
The rocket rose gracefully off the launch pad as Smith heaved a huge sigh of relief.
It then exploded in a gigantic fireball, and the building shook violently from the Venus-shaking blast.
Colonel Smith unholstered his revolver, put the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Blood and brains splattered everywhere.
Zales laughed. “I feel sorry for the poor slob that's second in command!” he said.
“I don't get it, Sarge,” said Johnson. “Why did he do that?”
“Better than crucifixion,” Zales said.
“They'd crucify him for failure?”
“No, they'd crucify him for sabotage.”
“They'd think he did it on purpose?”
“No, but that's what the propaganda would be. They don't want the populace to know they're launching primitive junk. As far as most Venusians know, the Venus military's equipment is well engineered, intelligently designed, well built, and state of the art. Their ignorance is Washington's bliss.”
On Venus, Lieutenant Colonel Donnoly was injecting himself with a strong narcotic. As he let the tourniquet loose and the drug flowed through his veins and the rush went up his spine he knew he would never wake up.
Not waking up was, of course, the whole point of the injection. Someone was going to be tortured to death, and it wasn't going to be him. He intended to die peacefully in his sleep, sitting right there in his chair, and he didn't care what was going to happen to his family. He wasn't going to be crucified no matter what horror befell anyone.
His family was going to go through hell, but he had no intention of joining them there.
Washington and Ford were watching the liftoff and explosion from the palace. “Sabotage!” they both said in unison.
Washington picked up his talker. “Rocket base Argo, base security,” he said to the device.
“Security, Lieutenant Colonel Ogden here. How can I help you, sir?”
“This is General Washington, Ogden. I want all flightline, liftoff, and mechanical personnel arrested, as well as the highest ranking officer on the base.”
“Y-yes sir, General. Right away, sir! Is that all, sir?” he asked, trembling.”
“Yes, Colonel. That is all.”
The Colonel disconnected, pulled out his pistol, and put the barrel in his mouth. Smith and Donnoly were surely dead, and he wasn't about to take responsibility for this clusterfuck of a fubar.
Zales leaned back and laughed. “My kind of enemy!”
“Huh?” said Johnson.
“The best kind. They save us a lot of ammo, doing our jobs for us. Why don't you get us some coffee, Johnson, I'll watch your screens. I'm enjoying this! Lets see, who's next?”