"Colonel's given the all-clear. Let's go."

The lock opened, and the scoot kicked free from the Arracourt's hull. The firing had been done for hours, the surviving Imperials had managed to reach the jump point and left the system, and the medics had already been out to collect the wounded. Now it was our turn. Jones looked at the display. "Nearest one's about five minutes off," she said, and worked the controls so that we headed toward it even as she spoke.

There was no friendly blinking transponder signal to home on, but there usually wasn't. When a gunship was killed, the power systems were the first to go. If the crew was lucky, that's where the damage would stop. Unfortunately the Imperials had caught on quickly to the fact that a Terran gunship they shot up today as a soft kill could and would be fixed, turned around, and back on the line within a day, so we didn't find so many like that any more.

This one wasn't one of them. It looked like the crew had been a little slow, not paying close attention to the threat display, and had paid for it the hard way, The entire front end of the gunship looked punched in.

"Namu Amida Butsu," Yoshikawa chanted quietly. "Mark Six, you think?"

"More than likely," Bowles answered. "This close to the carrier, it'd almost have to be."

We slid up to the hull and switched on the grapples. "Whiskey Kilo five-eight-eight-niner-one-zero," Yoshikawa read aloud as she punched the numbers into her pad. He squinted. "Brazen Chariot," he said, reading the crudely scrawled inscription done with white paintstick against the dull green cermet of the hull. "I think that's one of the new crews."

"It's not redlighted," Jones said nervously.

"Great," I said. "Everyone do their shots this time?" Four helmets nodded. The last time out, Bowles had nearly killed himself by trying to breathe his own vomit after we found one crew splattered all over the inside of their cockpit. He was still new and hadn't been on salvage duty very long. He'd learn. The anti-nausea drugs made you feel queasy, but they did a good job of keeping your bile and your breakfast in your stomach where they belonged.

"Popping the hatch," Yoshikawa said. No air puffed out as she engaged the controls, but at least the door still worked. You could cut your way into a gunship, but that was a last resort, to be tried when none of the normal ways in worked - usually if a ship was that badly chewed up, the tugs would just dump the whole ship into the maw of a refining barge and that would be that.

It wasn't like we ever shipped the bodies home, anyway.

Once the hatch was open, we scattered through the gunship with our pads. I stuck my head into what was left of the cockpit, but there wasn't much left to see. The kinetic warhead that had punched in the front of Brazen Chariot hadn't left much of the crew or the controls. The crew were still pinned into their seats by the shock frames, riddled with fragments large and small from the inner hull, while the controls and instruments were a mass of shredded electronics. There was nothing here worth the time of going through it. I turned around and headed back down the short corridor to see how the others were getting on.

Jones came up from the power section. "It's good," she said before I could ask. "The battery's nearly 100% - must have shut down right away after the cockpit got smashed. Anything up there?"

"Nothing," I replied tersely. Nobody really wanted a blow-by-blow description, and we'd all seen - or would see - enough of that sort of thing anyway.

Yoshikawa dropped down from the top turret. "It's good," she said, "and the other pods look solid as well. I don't think they even got a shot off before they got creamed."

"Environmental systems are clean and green," Bowles offered.

I nodded. "Okay, then. I'll mark this one down as a Cat B and we'll move on to the next one. Let's go." Everyone filed out the hatch and mounted the scoot. Jones fired up the thrusters and we moved off to the next wreck as I jotted a few notes on my pad. We had four more to survey before heading back to the Arracourt.

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