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Authors: Chris Bunch; Allan Cole

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BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
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He tapped the scar.

"That's how I got this. They let somebody—somebody just like one of you clowns—into my tacflight.

"Midair collision.

"Eighteen dead.

"My job now is easy. All I have to do is keep one of you from killing anyone but himself.

"Maybe you've heard something like this from another instructor, and think I'm just talking.

"Wrong, clots.

"I personally hate each and every one of you."

He looked up and down the formation. Sten chilled a little. He had, indeed, heard variations on that speech from DIs.

But Sten had the feeling that Mason really
meant
it.

"I've got one peculiarity," Mason added. "I'm going to make sure that every one of you washes out, like I said.

"But every selection course, there's one person that, for some reason, I hate more than most of you trash.

"And I pick him out early.

"And he never makes it."

Again, Mason looked up and down the class.

Sten knew, moments before the snake's head stopped, whom he would be looking at.

Clot, clot, clot, Sten thought, while remaining as petrified as any chicken caught by the glare of the snake.

CHAPTER SIX

B
y the time Ferrari and Mason had finished the torment they called "muscle toning," it was late afternoon. The master's mate—and Sten would never learn his name—took over the formation, doubled the trainees back to the barracks they were assigned to, and dismissed them.

The exhausted candidates timidly entered the brick building through double glass doors, knowing that inside would be another werewolf masquerading as an IP.

They also expected that the barracks, no matter how good-looking on the outside, would be polished plas floors, echoing squad bays, and clanging elderly lockers, just like in basic training.

They were very wrong.

Drawn up inside the foyer, which resembled the lobby of an exclusive small hotel, were about fifty middle-aged beings. They looked and were dressed like the retainers Sten had known at the Imperial palace.

One of them stepped forward.

"I would imagine you young people might like a chance to relax in the recreation room before we show you to your quarters. We hope you find the facilities adequate."

He waved them through sliding doors into a large wood-paneled room twenty-five meters on a side. At one end was a large stone fireplace. Along the walls were drink and food dispensers and, between them, computer terminals and game machines. Above them hung abstract paintings.

In the room were games tables and luxurious easy chairs and sofas.

Sten's alertness went to condition red! He saw one candidate gape an expression accentuated by the double rings of white fur around his eyes. The candidate scrubbed a small black hand over his gray-furred chest in excitement.

"Beer! They have a beer machine!" He started forward.

"Maybe you don't want to be doing that."

Sten, also about to say something, saw that the caution came from that scarred infantry sergeant.

"Why not?"

"Oh, maybe because they told us they were gonna be testing us for physical dexterity and like that, and a hangover doesn't speed up your reaction time.

"Or maybe they're watching that machine, and anybody who uses it gets down-carded for lack of moral fiber."

"That doesn't make sense." That came from a very small, very exquisite woman. "Every pilot
I've
ever known swills alk like it was mother's milk."

"No drakh," the sergeant agreed. "But that's
after
they get their wings. And maybe Selection is what makes 'em drink that way."

Maybe the sergeant was right, or maybe he was just paranoiac. But regardless, the beer machine sat unused throughout Selection.

Sten's quarters were also quite interesting. They consisted of two rooms—a combined bedroom/study decorated in soothing colors, and a 'fresher that included not only the usual facilities, but an elaborate Jacuzzi.

Sten had the idea that Ferrari's muscle toning would continue throughout Selection.

Unpacking took only moments—Sten, as a professional, had learned to travel light. The only extraneous gear he had in his duffel was the fiches he'd collected over the years, now micro/microfiched, and his miniholoprocessor that, in off-duty hours, he used to recreate working miniatures of industrial plants.

Sten had gotten the idea that he would have little time to play with the holoprocessor, but decided to hook it up regardless.

The manufacturers were lying, he decided after a few moments. Their universal power connection wasn't that universal, at least not universal enough to include the powerplate hookups that his room had.

Sten went out into the corridor, intending to see if his cross-hall neighbor had a diploid plug that would work, and also to check the terrain.

He tapped at the door, a tentative tap meant to tell whoever was inside that this was not an IP, so he/she didn't have to conceal whatever he/she might have been doing.

A sultry voice came through the annunciator, a voice as soothing as any emergency surgery nurse could have.

Sten told the box what he wanted.

"Orbit a beat, brother, and I'll be with you."

Then the door opened, and Sten dropped into horror.

Sten was not a lot of things:

He certainly wasn't ethnocentric. The factory hellworld he'd been raised in had given him no sense of innate culture.

He was not xenophobic. Mantis training and combat missions on a thousand worlds with a thousand different life forms had kept that from happening.

He also was not what his contemporaries called a shapist. He did not care what a fellow being looked or smelled like.

He thought.

However, when a door is opened and someone is confronted by a two-meter-tall hairy spider, all bets are off.

Sten was—later—a little proud that his only reaction was his jaw elevatoring down past his belt line.

"Oh dear," the spider observed. "I'm most sorry to have surprised you."

Sten really felt like drakh.

The situation called for some sort of apology. But even his century had not yet developed a satisfactory social grace for a terminal embarrassment. Sten was very pleased that the spider understood.

"Can I help you with something?"

"Uh… yeah," Sten improvised. "Wanted to see if you knew what time we mess."

"About one hour," the spider said after curling up one leg that, incongruously, had an expensive wrist-timer on it.

"Oh, hell. I'm sorry. My name's Sten."

And he stuck out a hand.

The spider eyed Sten's hand, then his face, then extended a second leg, a pedipalp, laying its slightly clawed tip in Sten's palm.

The leg was warm, and the hair was like silk. Sten felt the horror seep away.

"I am Sh'aarl't. Would you care to come in?"

Sten entered—not only for politeness but because he was curious as to what sort of quarters the Empire provided for arachnids.

There was no bed, but instead, near the high ceiling, a barred rack. The desk took up that unoccupied space, since the desk chair was actually a large round settee.

"What do you think—so far?"

"I think," the lovely voice said, "that I should have my carapace examined for cracks for ever wanting to be a pilot."

"If you figure out why, let me know."

The social lubricant was starting to flow, although Sten still had to repress a shudder as Sh'aarl't waved a leg toward the settee. He sat.

"I involved myself in this madness because my family has a history of spinning the highest webs our world has. If you don't mind a personal question, why are you here?"

Sten knew that if he told Sh'aarl't that the Eternal Emperor himself had punted him into this mess, he'd be ascribed either a total liar or someone with too much clout to be friendly with.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Perhaps I might ask—what is your real rank?"

"Commander."

Sh'aarl't exuded air from her lungs. Of course she was female—even huge Araneida seem to follow the biological traditions. "Should I stand at attention? I am but a lowly spaceman second."

Sten found himself able to laugh. "Actually, I'd like to see it. How does somebody with eight legs stand at attention?"

Sh'aarl't side-jumped to the center of the room, and Sten tried not to jump vertically. Attention, for a spider, was with the lower leg segments vertical, the upper ones at a perfect forty-five-degree angle toward the body.

"At full attention," Sh'aarl't went on, "I also extend my fangs in a most martial attitude. Would you like to see them?"

"Uh… not right now."

Sh'aarl't relaxed and clapped a pedipalp against her carapace. Sten surmised, correctly, that this signified amusement.

"I guess you had no trouble with the push-ups today."

Again the clap.

"How serious do you think these beings are?" Sh'aarl't asked, changing the subject.

"I dunno about Ferrari," Sten said. "But that Mason scares the clot out of me."

"I also. But perhaps if some of us hang on and survive until others are washed out… Certainly they
can't
throw everyone away—given what the Tahn are preparing. Am I right?"

Sten realized that she was desperately looking for reassurance, and so modified his answer from "I think these people can do anything they want" to, "Nope. There's got to be a couple of survivors. Speaking of which—why don't we go downstairs. See if this—" Sten almost said spider-web "—tender trap they've put us in also feeds the fatted lamb."

"Excellent idea, Commander."

"Wrong. Candidate. Or Sten. Or you clot."

Again the clap.

"Then shall we descend for dining, Sten? Arm in arm in arm in arm…"

Laughing, the two went out of the room, looking for food.

Later that night, there was a finger tap at Sten's door.

Outside was one of the barracks staffers. If the staff members all looked, to Sten, like palace retainers, this man would be the perfect butler.

After apologies for disturbing Sten, the man introduced himself as Pelham. He would be Sten's valet until Sten completed Phase One.

"Complete or get flunked, you mean."

"Oh, no, sir." Pelham appeared shocked. "I took the liberty, sir, of looking at your file. And I must say… perhaps this is speaking out of school… my fellow staff members and myself have a pool on which of the candidates is most likely to graduate. I assure you, sir, that I am not being sycophantic when I say that I put my credits down on you with complete confidence."

Sten stepped back from the doorway and allowed the man to enter.

"Sycophantic, huh?" Sten vaguely knew what the word meant. He went back to his desk, sat, and put his feet up, watching Pelham sort through the hanging uniforms.

"Mr. Sten, I notice your decorations aren't on your uniform."

"Yeah. They're in the pocket."

"Oh. I assume you'll want—"

"I will want them put in the bottom of the drawer and ignored, Pelham."

Pelham looked at him most curiously. "As you desire. But these uniforms are desperately in need of a spot of refurbishment."

"Yeah. They've been at the bottom of a duffel bag for a couple of months."

Pelham collected an armload of uniforms and started for the door. "Will there be anything else required? You know that I'm on call twenty-four hours."

"Not right now, Pelham. Wait a moment. I have a question."

"If I may help?"

"If I asked you who Rykor was, what'd be your reaction?"

Pelham was very damned good—the only response to Sten's mention of the walruslike being who happened to be the Empire's most talented psychologist was a rapidly hidden eye flicker.

"None, sir. Would you explain?"

"I'll try it another way. What would you say if I suggested that you, and all the other people in this barracks, all of you who're so helpful and such great servants, were actually part of Selection?"

"Of course we are, sir. We realize that the candidates desperately need study time and relaxation time, and we try to help by taking care of the minor—"

"Not what I meant, Pelham. One more time. What would be your reaction if I said I thought that all of you are trained psychs, and this whole barracks, relaxed and gentle, is a good way to get us off guard and find out what we're really like?"

"You are joking, sir."

"Am I?"

"If you are not, I must say I am very honored. To think that
I
have the talents to be a doctor." Pelham chuckled. "No, sir. I am just what I appear."

"You did answer my question. Thank you, Pelham. Good night."

"Good night, sir."

Dr. W. Grenville Pelham, holder of seven degrees in various areas of psychology, applied psychology, human stress analysis, and military psychology, closed the door and padded down the hall. Some meters away from Sten's room, he allowed himself the luxury of low laughter.

CHAPTER SEVEN

T
he first weeks of Selection were quite simple—the IPs bashed the trainees' brains out in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. There were also unexpected alerts in the middle of the night, although the callouts were always handled by the staff. The IPs never entered the barracks.

In between the physical and mental harassment, the tests went on. To a large extent, they duplicated the basic exams—reflex testing, intelligence quotient testing, and so forth. The testing standards, however, were far higher than when a being entered the military. Also, the tests were readministered severally and at unexpected times.

Sten was not impressed.

He had the idea that this duplication wouldn't have happened before the Emergency began. There must have been better, if slower, ways to test for the same abilities.

Sten was starting to develop an active hatred for the Tahn.

Sten's belief that the testing was catch-as-catch-can turned from theory into certainty the day he was shuttled into a tiny room that had nothing more in it than a large chair and a livie helmet. His instructions were to seat himself, put the helmet on, and wait for further developments.

BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
8.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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