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Authors: B. V. Larson

Steel World (6 page)

BOOK: Steel World
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The centurion who had greeted me with flinty eyes at the exit of the lifter arrived and stood in our midst. None of the recruits smiled when they saw him, and neither did he.

“Good morning recruits,” he said. “I’m Centurion Graves, your commanding officer. Welcome aboard the dreadnaught

No one said anything. I suspected there were some hard feelings among the troops.

“You almost wiped,” he said. “Only a few made it to an exit at all, and only McGill here managed to get one open.”

A few eyes drifted to linger on me. I didn’t look back. I stared at the centurion instead.

“Normally,” he continued, “if this had been a real emergency, McGill’s action would have been worth a promotion. But since it was only a training exercise, he’ll gain a commending mark on his record instead.”

I thought I deserved more, but I wasn’t going to complain now. I’d learned something, however: this legion wasn’t for the faint of heart. Whatever our missions were, we played for keeps. I’d read a bit about training exercises, and I’d never even heard of an outfit killing their recruits wholesale on the first day as part of a routine.

Graves stood easily in the middle of the recruits, as if he didn’t know many of us already wanted to kill him. Or maybe he just didn’t care.

“Now that you’ve been properly introduced to Legion Varus,” he continued, “I want you to find your assigned bunk and take a break. If you died, you’ll find it takes a few hours to feel right again. A veteran can go straight back into combat after a revive, but most recruits can’t. I’m giving you all twelve hours leave until we do any more training. Meet me in the exercise rooms after that at 0500.”

On the way out, the centurion came by and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good work,” he said, without smiling. “I’ve never seen a man manage to open that door single-handedly. You’re supposed to get there and do it with a partner who provides a fulcrum. You happened to be tall and determined enough to do it alone.”

I nodded, but I didn’t smile at him. He was a prick, I knew that now. He’d made us all suffer in what I thought was a needlessly cruel way. I understood we’d all learned a lesson, and I understood the power of training, but tricking people like that…I wasn’t happy.

The centurion eyed me for a moment longer, then nodded as if satisfied. After he left, Carlos came up to me and shook his head.

“The Great James McGill!” he shouted, throwing up his arms in a victory salute. His tone wasn’t mocking, however. He didn’t sneer; he seemed bemused, like he didn’t quite know what to make of me.

“I guess I owe you for coming back to get me,” he said.

I shrugged. “It wasn’t real.”

“Yeah, it was. Plenty of guys
for God’s sake! The more I think about it, I’m realizing it was worse than it will ever be again. We didn’t know that the disks we gave them when we boarded the transport had all our data, enough for a revival. As I passed out, I thought I’d been permed. It will never be that bad again. From now on, whenever I die, I’ll know I’m probably coming back.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right about that. I figured we were screwed, too.”

“What did you see when you opened the door?”

“Centurion Graves. He was just standing there, and he gave me the thumbs-up when I got it open at last.”

“What a smug dick,” Carlos said, laughing and shaking his head. “So Graves was watching us the whole time? He didn’t lift a finger to help? I can’t believe he had the gall to just let us all die while he sat in there. You’re sure about this?”

“Looked that way.”

Carlos’ face shifted as he thought about it. He looked more serious than he ever had. “I owe you, buddy. I owe you.”

“Owe me what?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll jump on a grenade for you one day. It will be something cool like that. You’ll see.”

Somehow, I had my doubts that Carlos would do that when the time came, but I appreciated the thought.



War in my time was different than in the past. For one thing, it was more regulated. I’d learned in school that the Galactic rulers had decided long ago they couldn’t directly govern thousands of worlds with alien populations. While humanity was still squatting in trees, the Galactics had decided it was best to invent a simple set of ground rules for their empire and enforce them vigorously.

The Galactics weren’t a single species themselves. They were made up of the original elder peoples, mostly from the galactic center, where stars and planets were very close together. That core group that ran the Empire had battle fleets, but no one on Earth had seen one for more than fifty years. The fleets themselves were reported to be vast, but usually they were only used as a show of force.

They’d come to my planet in 2052, long before I was born, and they’d delivered an ultimatum. It was same choice they’d given to every other species they’d discovered to be experimenting with space flight: humanity must join the Galactic Empire, if we could qualify for membership. In return, we’d be given a wealth of technology and access to interplanetary trade. They made it clear that this was not an annexation—not exactly. We would be allowed to run our own planet pretty much however we wished. Internal matters were none of their affair. From their point of view, we were a primitive wild species that had always been within their sphere of influence. We were akin to an anthill in a wilderness preserve. They couldn’t care less who was queen of our anthill, or who had mistreated whom. In their eyes, we’d only just become advanced enough to bother with.

The ultimatum wasn’t entirely positive, however. If we refused membership, or could not qualify for it, our species would be erased from Earth and removed from the cosmos forever. As far as the Galactics were concerned, we were squatters on a planet which they owned. In their minds, they were being generous to offer us membership in their vast union.

Not left with much choice, humanity had quickly opted to join. There were only two requirements, and they were fairly simple: first, humanity was not permitted to build starships or any other device capable of leaving our star system. They knew we’d already sent out probes, but that was forbidden in the future. From now on, we could only leave the Solar System by paying for the privilege with Galactic credits.

Their second requirement was harder to meet. We had to have something of value to trade with the rest of the member worlds in order to pay the Galactic government. In other words, we had to demonstrate we could pull our weight and pay our taxes.

At first, the requirement to provide a trade good had been problematic. Our technology was pathetic by Galactic standards. Our foodstuffs and raw resources were, at best, mundane. An alien counselor was appointed to see if something could be worked out before our scheduled demise. This snail-looking official was aloof, but she’d done her job thoroughly. She determined that humanity had been discovered early in our developmental cycle as a species. We didn’t even have a world government yet, which made us a throwback amongst the membership. We frequently engaged in bloody wars against one another, and had a long history of conflict, something most worlds had left behind in their histories. She recommended we hire out as mercenaries to other, more civilized planets that lacked professional armies.

Earthers latched onto the idea immediately. Within a month, there were literally millions of volunteers. Joining the legions was the only way to earn Galactic credit or to see the stars.

Many years after our membership in the Empire had been established, I now found myself onboard
. She was a dreadnaught, a huge capital ship that was capable of transporting an entire legion from one world to the next. The ship wasn’t outfitted for battle in space—that too, was against Galactic Law. But it could provide bombardment to support a landing if a contract called for it.

Despite being a warship,
was surprisingly comfortable. Whatever types of missions Legion Varus specialized in, I could tell they’d gathered enough loot to keep their vessel in good condition.
was about three miles long, with forward prongs and a spinning central cylinder. The ship displaced something like a billion tons of mass. Most of that tonnage was in the engines and fuel, of course, but our quarters included enough space to make up a small town. There were practice fields that encompassed cubic acres of space. There were centrifugal swimming pools, null-grav rooms—even entertainments, such as a movie house and a small park full of trees.

The ship itself was run by an alien race, the Skrull, who looked like spindly spiders with hard shells and wizened monkey-faces. They didn’t interact with the legionnaires much. They kept to their quarters and their strange duties, and we kept to our generous portions of the ship.

The Skrull were another member of the Galactic Empire. Like us, they’d been required to trade something to maintain membership—and thereby continue breathing. They were good at building ships and running them, so that’s what they did. Being a peaceful race, they didn’t do any fighting—that was our job.

As I understood it, every legion fielded by Earth had a ship like this.
was independently operated by the tribune of the Varus Legion under the loose supervision of the Hegemony people back on our Earth. For the most part, we did whatever we wanted. Like every legion, our task was to scrounge up every credit we could to enrich ourselves and our home planet.

Varus Legion, however, did this in their own distinctive way. I hadn’t figured out yet what kind of missions we specialized in, but I was sure it was dangerous and well-paid.

I’d met many of my fellow recruits, including some fine-looking female specimens. I noticed that whatever special criteria Varus had for recruiting, it included making sure we were all physically fit. Most of us were young and well-built. There were a few overweight recruits, but the veterans were already picking on them. I had a feeling everyone was going to be in shape before we reached our mission world six months from now.

At 0500 every day I got up and showered. I didn’t have much choice in the matter, as the ship’s klaxons blew me right out of my bunk. By 0600, we were on the practice fields. Our day was divided up into eating, sleeping and training. Of the three, the training part took the greatest portion of time. Most of it involved physical exercise and basic combat training. I did okay with guns, but like most of the troops I needed a lot of practice with hand-to-hand.

The one of few times we got to socialize was in the mess hall. I’d somehow grown a rep among the recruits, probably due to my early recognition by Centurion Graves. My table was always full, and new people often asked to sit with us. Carlos, who’d never left my side, had appointed himself as bouncer in these situations.

On a Thursday morning in what was the month of May back home, a new person wandered into the mess hall. Everyone stared, but we didn’t stop chewing. You didn’t have enough time to fill your body with calories if you did that.

The unfamiliar person was a recruit with curly brown hair. She was attractive, tall and muscular. She veered toward my table and approached with her tray in hand.

“Hold on,” Carlos said importantly. “State your business, Recruit.”

“I’m a transfer from 3
Cohort,” she said.

Carlos frowned. The cohorts rarely interacted and maintained separate quarters. The only time we met up was when we were on the parade grounds under the big star-speckled dome on top of
, or when we passed one another as one group left the training grounds and another moved in.

“A transfer?” he asked. “What did you do, piss off an adjunct?”

She smiled quietly. “Something like that. Now, am I sitting here or what?”

I saw Carlos ruffle up. He didn’t like anyone who didn’t respect his authority, imaginary or not.

I lifted my hand. “Please, take a seat.”

Carlos shot me a look of annoyance. I’d stepped on his toes, but that happened all the time, so I didn’t worry about it.

“I want to hear what it takes to be transferred out of a cohort.”

The recruit sat across from me and introduced herself. Her name was Natasha, and she had a soft-spoken manner, but she seemed very self-confident. Her cheeks were perfectly shaped, and she had eyes that disappeared when she smiled. I found her interesting.

Several other female recruits around me looked disdainful. If anything, they were more annoyed than Carlos was. Sexual activity was pretty common among recruits and wasn’t frowned upon by the officers. I’d hooked up with one or two of the women in the unit, and they clearly did not appreciate any new competition.

“I can see this unit isn’t much different than the one I left behind,” Natasha said.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Full of petty cliques and jealousy. You’d think with more men around than women, the women would feel they had the upper hand.”

I smiled. “Maybe they do. But you haven’t answered my question.”

She addressed her food and didn’t meet my eyes as she answered. “I was just like anyone else. I met new people and did what I felt like. Unfortunately, there are some rules involved.”

BOOK: Steel World
13.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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