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Authors: Chris Bunch; Allan Cole

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BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
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Sten had been through this, way back before basic training.

The idea was that, through the livie helmet, he would experience certain events. His reactions would be monitored by psychologists, and from this reexperiencing and reacting, his personality could be profiled.

When Sten had gone through the experience before, the livie tape had been that of some not very bright but very heroic guardsman who got himself slaughtered trying to kill a tank. It had made Sten nearly throw up and had, by his reaction, disqualified him for normal infantry, but made him an ideal candidate for the essentially lone-wolf Mantis Section.

Before he sat down, he went behind the chair and checked the tape in the feed. Various codes appeared, then the title:
SHAVALA, GUARDSMAN JAIME, COMBAT/DEATH, ASSAULT
ON
DEMETER.

Possibly there could be some kind of validity for that choice—for prospective infantry types. But for pilots?

Sten examined the helmet and found the input line. A little subversion was called for.

He curled his right fingers, and the surgically sheathed knife in his arm dropped into his hand. The double-edged dagger was one of Sten's best-kept secrets. He had constructed it himself from an impossibly rare crystal. It had a skeleton grip, and its blade was only 2.5 mm thick, tapering to less than fifteen molecules wide. In other words, it could cut through practically anything. But in this case cutting wasn't what Sten was interested in.

He used the knife's needle point to rearrange a few tiny wires inside the sheath of the helmet input line. Then he replaced the knife and, as ordered, sat down and put the helmet on.

Let's see. The tape has just begun. I should express bewilderment. Fear. Excitement. Doubt as to my ability. Shock on landing. Determination to accomplish the mission.

Sten's Mantis schooling had included indoctrination on the various ways to fool
any
sort of mental testing machine, from the completely unreliable polygraph through the most sophisticated brainchecks of Imperial Intelligence. The key, of course, was to truly believe that what you were thinking or saying was the truth.

This training worked. Coupled with a conditioned, near-eidetic memory, it made Sten mental test-proof.

Let's see now… Shavala should have seen that clotting tank show up… Horror… seen his combat teammates slaughtered… Anger… seen the tank rumble on… More determination… doodle around the tank getting various pieces shot off… Pain and still more determination… hell, the clot should be dead by now. Shock and such.

Sten pulled a corner of the helmet away from his ear and heard the tape behind him click to a halt.

More shock. Pride at being part of this Imperial stupidity.

Sten decided that was enough input, took the helmet off, and stood. He set an expression of sickness and firmness on his face and went out of the room, artistically stumbling just beyond the door.

Sten gasped to the hilltop, then checked his compass and watch. He decided he could take four minutes to recover.

The exercise was a modified version of that military favorite, the Long Run or March. But, typical of Selection, it had a twist.

Candidates were given a map, a compass, and a rendezvous point that they were supposed to reach at a certain time. Once that point was reached, however, there was no guarantee that the exercise was over. Generally the candidate was merely given, by an IP, another RP and sent on his or her way.

The exercise didn't have much to do with pilot training, but it had a lot to do with tenacity and determination. Plus, Sten grudged, it probably showed which beings had learned that their brains were fools, telling the body to quit when the body's resources had barely begun to work.

Again, it was simple for Sten—Mantis teams ran these exercises as recreation.

But it did trim the candidates. Already ten of the thirty-plus candidates in Sten's group had withered and vanished.

Sten, flat on the ground, feet elevated, and in no-mind, heard footsteps.

He returned to reality to see the small woman who on their first day had made the cogent observation about pilots trot smoothly toward him.

Instead of going flat and shutting the systems down, she dropped her pack, went flat, and began doing exercises.

Sten was curious—this was an interesting way to con the mind into going one step farther. He waited until she finished, which added an extra minute to his time.

The downhill side of this part of the course was rocky. Sten and the female candidate—Victoria—were able to talk as they went.

Data exchange: She was a lieutenant in the navy. She was trained as a dancer and gymnast. Successful, Sten guessed, since she'd performed on Prime World. Sten even thought he'd heard of a couple of the companies she'd been with.

So why the service?

A military family. But also, dancing was work. She said being a professional dancer was like being a fish in sand.

Sten found the breath to laugh at the line.

Plus, Victoria went on, she had always been interested in mathematics.

Sten shuddered. While he was competent at mathematics—any officer had to be—equations were hardly something he joyously spent off-duty time splashing around in.

Sten's internal timer went off—it was a break for him. Victoria kept on moving at her inexorable pace.

Sten watched her disappear in the distance and felt very good.

If there was anyone who was guaranteed to get through this guano called Selection and become a pilot, it had to be Victoria.

Sten ducked as the wall of water came green over the boat's bows and smashed against the bridge windows.

The boat swayed, and Sten's stomach did handstands. Shut up, body. This is an illusion. Shut up, head, the answer came back. I am going to be sick. The hell with you.

Sten, puking to the side, had to fight to follow the instructions whispered at him.

"This is a twenty-meter boat. It is used to procure fish commercially. You are the captain.

"This boat has been returning to harbor, running just ahead of a storm.

"The storm has caught your boat.

"Somewhere ahead of you is the harbor. You must enter that harbor safely to complete the exercise.

"Your radar will show you the harbor mouth. But it is a failure-prone installation.

"You also know that the entrance to this harbor crosses what is called a bar—a shallowing of depth. During storm times, this bar can prevent any ship entering the harbor.

"Good luck."

Sten had become experienced enough with the testing to instantly look at his radar screen. Ah-hah. There… somewhat to the right… so I must direct this craft… and, just as implicitly promised, the radar set hazed green.

Sten evaluated the situation—the illusion he was experiencing through the helmet. Unlike the Shavala-experience, in these tests any action Sten took would be "real." If, for instance, he steered the ship onto the rocks, he would experience a wreck and, probably, since Selection people were sadistic, slow drowning.

Simple solution. Easy, Sten thought.

All I have to do is hit the antigrav, and this boat will—

Wrong. There were only three controls in front of Sten: a large, spoked steering wheel and two handles.

This was a two-dimensional boat.

There were gauges, which Sten ignored. They were probably intended to show engine performance, and Sten, having no idea what kind of power train he was using, figured they were, at least at the moment, irrelevant.

Another wave came in, and the ship pitched sideways. Sten, looking at his choices, threw the right handle all the way forward, the left handle all the way back, and turned the wheel hard to the right.

The pitching subsided.

Sten equalized the two handles—I must have two engines, I guess—and held the wheel at midpoint.

Ahead of him the storm cleared, and Sten could see high rocks with surf booming over them. There was a slight break to the left—the harbor entrance.

Sten steered for it.

The rocks grew closer, and crosscurrents tried to spin Sten's boat.

Sten sawed at throttles and wheel.

Very good. He was lined up.

The rain stopped, and Sten saw, bare meters in front of him, the glisten of earth as a wave washed back. Clotting bastards—that's what a bar was!

He reversed engines.

A series of waves swept his boat over the stern. Sten ignored them.

He got the idea.

When a wave hits the bar, the water gets deep. All I need to do is wait for a big wave, checking through the rear bridge windows, and then go to full power. Use the wave's force to get into the harbor.

It worked like a shot. The huge wave Sten chose heaved the boat clear, into the harbor mouth.

Sten, triumphant, forgot to allow for side currents, and his boat smashed into the causeway rocks.

Just as anticipated, not only did his boat sink, Sten had the personal experience of drowning.

Slowly.

GRADE: PASSING.

By now, Sten had learned the names of his fellow candidates.

The hard sergeant, who Sten had figured would be thrown out immediately, had managed to survive. Survive, hell—so far he and Victoria had interchanged positions as Number One and Number Two in the class standings. A specialist in ancient history would not have been surprised, knowing the man's name—William Bishop the Forty-third.

Sten, not knowing, was astonished, as were the other candidates, who had dubbed the sergeant "Grunt," a nickname he accepted cheerfully.

The furry would-be beer aficionado, whose name was Lotor, was a valued asset. He was the class clown.

Since normal military relief valves such as drunkenness, passes, and such were forbidden, the candidates tended to get very crazy in the barracks. Lotor had started the water-sack war.

Sten had been the first victim.

There had been an innocent knock on his door at midnight. He'd opened the door to get a plas container of water in the face.

Sten, once he'd figured out who the culprit was, had retaliated by sealing Lotor in his shower with the drain plugged. He'd relented before the water level hit the ceiling.

Lotor, after drying his fur, had escalated. He had decided that Sten had allies, Sh'aarl't being one. So he'd tucked the floor fire hose under Sh'aarl't's door and turned it on.

Sh'aarl't, awakened when her room got half-full, had sensibly opened the door and gone back to sleep.

Lotor had not considered that making a spider an enemy was a bad thing to do.

The next night, Sh'aarl't had spun her web out from her window up a floor to Lotor's room and gently replaced his pillow with a water bag.

Lotor, again looking for a new target, went after Grunt. He tied an explosive charge to a huge water bag, rolled it down the corridor, knocked on Bishop's door, and then scurried.

Grunt opened his door just as the water bag blew.

His
revenge required filling Lotor's room with a huge weather balloon filled with water. Bishop, being the combat type he was, didn't bother to figure out whether Lotor was present when he set the trap.

It took most of the barracks staff to free Lotor.

At that point, through mutual exhaustion and because no one could come up with a more clever escalation, the watersack war ended.

The only good effect it produced was the linking of Lotor, Bishop, Sten, and Sh'aarl't into a vague team.

The team adopted Victoria as their mascot. She wasn't sure why but was grateful for the company. The four never explained, but it was just what Sten had felt on the map exercise: One of them had to make it. And Victoria was the most likely candidate.

The five had discussed their options—which all agreed were slim—and also what those IPs really would turn out to be if they were required to wear uniforms instead of the blank coveralls.

Victoria had the best slander on Ferrari. She said the sloppy man must have been a Warrant-1, who probably blackmailed his commanding officer while stealing every piece of Imperial property that wasn't bonded in place.

They had laughed, shared a cup of the guaranteed-no-side-effects herbal tea, and headed for their rooms and the omnipresent studying.

At least most of them did.

Possibly the herbal tea had no
reported
effects.

Sten and Victoria bade Sh'aarl't good night at her door. Sten meant to walk Victoria to her room but found himself asking her into his own room.

Victoria accepted.

Inside, Sten gloried and dismayed. Victoria pressured the bed and plumped the pillows. She touched a finger to her flight suit zip, and the coverall dropped away from her tiny, absolutely perfect body.

Sten had fantasized about making love to a ballerina—specifically Victoria. He hadn't suggested it because he had the rough idea that if he suggested and she accepted, his capabilities would be exactly as impotent as Mason daily suggested.

Tension and all that.

Sten may have been accurate about his own potential. But he had no idea how creative an ex-professional dancer could be.

The next day both Victoria and Sten tested very, very low on the various challenges.

They'd had less than an hour's sleep.

CHAPTER EIGHT

S
election moved on from written or livie tests to live problems, giving Ferrari and Mason a chance for real hands-on harassment.

Sten had the idea that the particular situation he was facing would be a real piece, since Ferrari was beaming and even Mason had allowed his slash of a mouth to creep up on one side.

"This is what we call a Groupstacle," Ferrari explained genially.

Group. Obstacle.

The group was Bishop, Victoria, Lotor, Sten, and six others.

The obstacle was:

"We're standing here," Ferrari said, "in the control room of a destroyer. Flower class, in case you're curious. It looks terrible, does it not?"

He waited for the chorus of agreement from the candidates.

"The reason it looks so bad is because it has crash-landed on a certain planetoid. This planetoid has acceptable atmosphere and water. But there is nothing to eat and very little which can be made into shelter."

BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
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