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Authors: Chris Bunch; Allan Cole

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BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
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Ferrari smiled.

"Any of you who are eco-trained, do not bother to explain how illogical this planetoid must be. I do not set up these problems, I merely administer them.

"At any rate, you see this control room we are standing in? Yes. Terribly ruined by the crash. You see this open hatchway, exiting onto the planetoid, which is quite colorfully provided.

"Personally, I must say that I do not believe that trees can ever be purple. But I wander. Mr. Mason, would you care to continue?"

"Thank you, sir.

"I'll cut it short. You losers have crashed. The only way you're gonna live is by getting your survival kits out. The kits are down this passageway. You got two problems—the passageway is blocked."

No kidding, Sten thought, staring down the corridor. He admired how carefully the problem had been set up. As they entered the huge chamber, it did look as if half of a ship was crashed into a jungle, crumpled and battered.

The inside of the ship was, with some exceptions—and Sten was noting those exceptions carefully—exactly like the flight deck and nearby passageways of a destroyer.

Sten wondered why, before the IPs had led the group into the chamber, Mason had taken Bishop aside and told him something—something very important from the way that Grunt had reacted.

Mason continued. "Second problem is that the power plant is in a self-destruct mode. You've got twenty minutes until this ship blows higher'n Haman.

"If you don't get to your supplies, you fail the problem. All of you.

"If you're still working on the problem when the twenty minutes run out, you fail the problem. All of you."

"Thank you, Mr. Mason."

"Yessir."

"The problem begins… now!"

There was a stammer of ideas.

Victoria had cut in—clot everything. What did they have to take out?

Grunt had said that was stupid—first they needed some kind of plan.

Lotor said that if they didn't know how deep the drakh was, how could any plan be possible?

The situation was simple. The corridor to the survival kits was blocked by assorted ship rubble that could be easily cleared. But x-ed across the corridor were two enormous steel beams, impossible to move without assistance.

Two candidates proved that, straining their backs trying to wedge the beams free.

Lotor was standing beside a much smaller beam in the corridor ahead of the blockage.

"This," he said, "might make a lever. If we had a fulcrum."

"Come on, Lotor," Grunt put in. "We don't have any clottin' fulcrum."

"Hell we don't," Victoria said. "Couple of you clowns grab that big chart chest up on the flight deck."

"Never work," Bishop said.

Sten eyed him. What the hell was the matter with Grunt? Normally he was the first to go for new ideas. While two men shoved the map chest down toward the block, Sten did his own recon around the "ship."

By the time he came back to the corridor, the map chest sat close to the blocking beams. The small beam went under one, and everybody leaned.

The first beam lifted, swiveled, and crashed sideways. The team gave a minor cheer and moved their lever forward.

"This is not going to work," Bishop said.

Another candidate stepped back. "You're probably right."

He spotted a red-painted panel in the metal corridor, clearly marked
ENVIRONMENT CONTROL INSPECTION POINT
.
Do not enter without Class 11 Clearance. Do not enter unless ship is deactivated
.

The candidate shoved the panel open. A ductway led along the corridor's path.

"Okay. This is it," the candidate announced.

"Didn't you read the panel?" Sten asked.

"So? This ship's about as deactivated as possible."

"You're right," Bishop agreed.

Again, Sten wondered.

The candidate forced himself into the ductway. The panel clicked closed behind him. After five seconds, they heard a howl of pain.

The demons who set up the Selection tests had provided for that. In that ductway should have been superheated steam. But this was a dummy, so all the candidate got was a mild blast of hot water—enough for first-degree burns—and then the ductway opened and dumped him out on the other side of the set, where Ferrari told him he was dead and disqualified from the test.

After the "death" of the candidate, the team redoubled efforts to lever the second beam free.

Sten did his basic physics, said "no way," and looked for another solution. He went through the ship and then outside, looking for anything that could become a tool.

He found it.

By the time he'd dragged the forty meters of control cable that must have exploded from the ship's skin into the jungle back into the corridor, the others were panting in defeat.

There was seven minutes remaining.

Sten did not bother explaining. He ran the 2-cm cable down to the beam, looped it, and wrapped a series of half hitches around it. Then he dragged the cable back up to a solid port frame that had pulled away from the ship's walls, and back toward the beam.

Bishop stopped him. "What the clot are you doing?"

"I'm sending kisses to the clotting Emperor," Sten grunted. "Gimme a hand."

"Come on, Sten! You're wasting time."

"One time. Listen up, Grunt. We're gonna block and tackle this cable and yank that beam out."

"Sten, I'm not sure that is going to work. Why don't we talk about it?"

"Because we got five minutes."

"Right! We don't want to do anything wrong, do we?"

And Sten got it.

"Nope."

His hand knifed out, palm up. Sten's hands could kill, maim, or coldcock any being known to the Imperial martial arts.

The knife hand sliced against Bishop's neck, just below his ear. Bishop dropped like a sack of sand.

"Shaddup," Sten commanded against the shout of surprise. "Get this clottin' cable back around and then we have to pull like hell. Bishop was a sabotage factor. I saw Mason give him orders. Come on, people. We got to get out of this place!"

The block-and-tackled pulley yanked the beam free, and the team had its supplies out of the storage room and were clear of the "ship" a good minute before time ran out.

Bishop, after recovering consciousness, told Sten he was right—Mason had told him to be a saboteur.

Ferrari grudged that they were one of the few teams to successfully complete the test in five years.

GRADE: OUTSTANDING.

CHAPTER NINE

S
TEN WAS HAVING PROBLEMS.

It wasn't that he was quite a mathematical idiot—no one in the Imperial Forces above spear-carrier second class was—but he did not have the instinctive understanding of numbers that he did, for example, of objects. Nor could he, in the navigational basic courses Phase One shoved at them, translate numbers into the reality of ships or planets.

And so he got coaching.

From Victoria, there was no problem, since everyone knew that she was the only guaranteed graduate. But Bishop?

Math geniuses are supposed to be short and skinny, talk in high voices, and have surgically corrected optics.

So much for stereotypes, Sten thought glumly as Bishop's thick fingers tabbed at computer keys, touched numbers on the screen, and, with the precision and patience of a pedant, tried to help Sten realize that pure numbers more exactly described a universe than even a picture or words, no matter how poetically or OEDly chosen.

Sten looked at the screen again and found no translation.

"Clottin' hell," Bishop grunted to Victoria. "Get the fire ax.
Something's
got to get through to him."

Victoria found the solution.

It took less than one evening to crosspatch Sten's mini-holoprocessor into the computer. When he input numbers, the holoprocessor produced a tiny three-dimensional star-map.

Eventually, after many many problems, Sten glimmered toward an understanding.

His grade:

MATHEMATICAL PERCEPTIONS: NEED IMPROVEMENT.

For some unknown reason, almost every school Sten had been punted into tested for gravitation sensitivity.

Sten could understand why it would be necessary to know how many gees someone could withstand or how many times one could alter the direction of a field before the subject threw up—but once that was found out, why was retesting necessary?

Sten knew that he personally could function as a soldier, without benefit of a gravsuit, at up to 3.6 E-gravs. He could work, seated, under a continuous 11.6 E-gravs. He would black out under a brief force of 76.1 E-gravs or a nearly instantaneous shock of 103 E-gravs.

All this was in his medfiche.

So why retest?

Sten decided that it was just part of the applied sadism that every school he had attended, back to the factory world of Vulcan, had put him through.

But of all the test methods he hated, a centrifuge was the worst. His brain knew that there was no way his body could tell it was being spun in a circle to produce gravitic acceleration. But his body said "bet me" and heaved.

Of course Phase One used a centrifuge.

Sten curled a lip at the stainless steel machinery craning above him in the huge room.

"You look worried, Candidate Sten." It was Mason.

Sten hit the exaggerated position that the IPs called attention. "Nossir. Not worried, sir."

"Are you scared, Candidate?"

Great roaring clichés. Sten wished that Alex was with him. He knew the chubby heavy-worlder would have found a response—probably smacking Mason.

Sten remembered, however, that Kilgour had already gone through flight school. Since Sten hadn't heard anything, he assumed that Alex had graduated—without killing Mason.

Sten decided that Kilgour must have been sent to another Phase One than this one, made a noncommittal reply to Mason, and clambered up the steps into one of the centrifuge's capsules.

Later that night, Sten's stomach had reseated itself enough to feel mild hunger.

He left his room, still feeling most tottery, and went for the rec room. One of the food machines would, no doubt, have something resembling thin gruel.

Sh'aarl't, Bishop, and Lotor sat at one of the game tables in complete silence. Sten took his full cup from the slot and sat down beside them. Lotor gave him the news.

"They washed Victoria today."

Sten jumped, and the soup splashed, unheeded, in his lap.

Bishop answered the unasked question. "She failed the gee-test."

"No way," Sten said. "She was a clotting gymnast. A dancer."

"Evidently," Sh'aarl't said, "vertigo is not uncommon—even in athletes."

"How many gees?"

"Twelve point something," Bishop said.

"Clot," Sten swore. Even mild combat maneuvers in a ship with the McLean generators shut down could pull more than that.

He realized that all of them spoke of Victoria in the past tense. Phase One may have been sadistic in some ways, but when a candidate was disqualified, he was immediately removed. Sten was a little surprised that the three had any idea at all on what had flunked the woman.

He also realized that with Victoria, their talisman for possible graduation to the next phase, gone, none of them felt any hope of making it.

CHAPTER TEN

T
he bulletin display in the barracks' lobby was known, not inappropriately, as "The Tablet of Doom." Sten read the latest directive as it flashed for his attention: 1600 hours, this day, all candidates were directed to assemble in the central quadrangle. He wondered what new form of mass torment the IPs had devised. There were, after all, only a few days left in Phase One, and there were still survivors in the program, including Sh'aarl't, Bishop, and Lotor. Then he caught the kicker.

DRESS UNIFORM.

Sten was in a world of trouble. He had been quite correct hiding his ribbons upon entering the school. He noticed that those with more decorations or rank than the IPs felt appropriate seemed to get far more than their share of attention and harassment. Thus far, in spite of Mason's evident personal hatred, Sten had managed to run somewhat silent and somewhat deep.

Oh, well. All good things seize their bearings eventually.

"My, don't we look pretty, Candidate," Mason crooned. "All those ribbons and bows."

Sten had considered not putting the medals on. But he knew that under the current circumstances it was an offense of basic regulations for a soldier not to wear the decorations to which he was entitled. It would be just like the IPs to look up everyone's record jacket, then check chests or sashes for exactitude and use any difference to bust another candidate out.

Sten yessired Mason while marveling at Chief Instructor Pilot Ferrari. So much for the theory that fat slobs only get promoted to warrant officer. That might be his current serving rank, but Ferrari was now wearing the stars of a fleet admiral, with decorations banked almost to his epaulettes.

Sten noticed, in spite of his awe, that there appeared to be a soup stain just above Ferrari's belt line.

"If I'd known you had all those hero buttons, Candidate," Mason went on, "I would have given you more attention. But we still have time."

Fine. Sten was doomed. He wondered how Mason would nuke him.

Minutes later, he found out.

Ferrari had called the class to attention and congratulated them. The formal testing was complete. Any of them still standing was successful. All that remained was the final test.

"Do not bother," Ferrari said, "going through your notes and memories in preparation. The end test we are quite proud of, not the least because it has everything yet nothing to do with what has gone before. You have twenty-four hours to consider what such an examination might be. We find that suspense is good for the soul. The test, by the way, will be administered singly. Each instructor pilot will choose candidates, and it is his responsibility at that point."

And now Sten knew how Mason was going to get him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

T
he aircraft—at least Sten guessed it was an aircraft—was the most clotting impossible collection of scrap metal he had ever seen. It consisted of a flat metal platform about two meters in diameter, with two seats, two sets of what Sten thought to be controls, and a windscreen. The platform sat atop two metal skids. Behind it was some sort of power plant and then a long spidered-metal girder that ended in a side-facing fan blade. Above the platform was another fan, horizontal to the ground, with twin blades each about six meters long. The device sat in the middle of a wide, completely flat landing ground. Two hundred meters in front of the aircraft, a series of pylons sprouted.

BOOK: Fleet of the Damned
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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