The bare steel walls of the old battlecruiser seemed to sweat; the air was thick with the acrid scent of coolant mixed with spilt blood. Somewhere in the distance, Maxwell heard a man scream in pain. The sound was drowned out by the sound of a bulkhead cutter barking to life.
A pair of hulking vat-marines flanked him, each with on massive paw wrapped around each of his upper arms. They were dragging him down the dimly lit corridor like an spacesuit, letting his broken legs bounce and wobble over every airlock lip and floor vent. Overhead, the flourescent lights flickered intermittently, bathing the battle-scarred armor of the two vatters in long, bestial shadows. Fighting to stay conscious through the pain, Maxwell could barely make out his apparent destination: a battered steel door bathed in orange light, the words ‘DETENTION 5’ stenciled at its center.
It may as well have read ‘HELL.’
The door opened as the vat-marines approached and they released him. He dropped to the floor, smacking his chin and biting off a piece of his tongue. He was too tired to make more than a soft whimper as the blood filled his mouth. Then a pair of massive, genetically modified hands were grabbing him by the belt and collar and hoisting him up. A heave-ho later, he was left sprawled on the floor of a plain gray room bathed in antiseptic white light. The door closed behind him; he was alone. He let himself lie for a few moments, trying to catch his breath.
“Get up, if you please.” The voice was clear, crisp, with a military accent.
Maxwell gradually lifted his face from the floor. In the center of the room was a table with two chairs. In one of these chairs was a thin man, graying at the temples, with the pinched features of someone used to sneering. He wore a form-fitting black uniform with a pair of silver skulls at his collar. He was unarmed, save for his hard black eyes. “I can call for a vat-marine, if you require assistance.”
Maxwell spat blood on the floor. “Go to hell.”
“I’m afraid you’re making a poor impression, Lieutenant Maxwell. I wouldn’t recommend continuing in that course.”
Maxwell blinked. “How do you know my name?”
“Almighty Glohrr, Lord of Space, makes it a point to download the complete memory banks of every ship his Invincible Fleet boards and sizes. The rest is just simple facial recognition software. Will you sit down, or should I ask the brutes outside the door to come in here and bring you down to the galley?”
“Galley?” Maxwell’s stomach rumbled.
The man smirked. “Oh, my apologies–I was unclear. They’d take you to the galley to eat you, of course, not feed you.”
Maxwell pulled himself into the chair a few seconds later. “Who are you?”
“I’m Commander Eris, Primary Logistics officer to Lord Glohrr aboard the Bloody Carnage. Pleased to make your acquaintance, I presume.” Eris’s eyes drifted to some distant point on the wall for a moment as Maxwell presumed he reviewed some kind of incoming data to his retinal display. “Ah, good–you’ll be delighted to know that the last remnants of your Republican Fleet have been reduced to scrap and atoms. No one is coming to save you.”
“Why would I be delighted about that?” Maxwell slurred, trying absently to straighten his naval uniform. Part of it had melted onto his body, however, and wouldn’t move without taking a good chunk of himself with it. What had done that? He didn’t remember getting hit by a wavebeam…maybe it had been the fire. There had been so much fire…
“I have found that, during these interviews, the prospect of a coming rescue often clouds an applicant’s judgement. The lack of such allows them to think much more clearly.”
“Wha…what are you talking about?”
Eris shrugged. “I’ll come right to it, then–you look quite spent, in any event, so we haven’t that much time. You are aware of who Glohrr, Lord of Space and Ruler of the Black Armada is?”
“Yeah, he’s a giant goddamned vat-marine gone crazy. Flies around the galaxy burning worlds and exacting tribute from whoever he likes. He’s a big freaking bully and a monster and a…”
“A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed, thank you. Well, as it happens, Lord Glohrr, while quite adept at boarding actions, killing things, and crushing skulls and so on, is less well-versed in the actual ins-and-outs of starship tactics, operations, and engagements. As such, he is always looking for likely candidates to fill out his operational staff here aboard theBloody Carnage. He, by which I mean myself with his approval, have identified you as one such candidate.”
Maxwell blinked. “You…you want me to join you?”
Eris nodded. “Yes, indeed.” He placed a blank data pad on the table. “A thumbprint here and I’ll have the two vatters out there take you down to medbay, where you’ll be treated, given a new uniform, quarters, food…”
Maxwell spit blood on the datapad. “Why would you think I’d do that? I’m not betraying the Republic so that big oaf can keep…”
Eris held up a hand. “I understand, of course–that’s a common reaction. Allow me to explain the benefits: Firstly, if you refuse, the fellows out in the hall will take you down to the galley. Your biomass will be processed into neat little patties which will serve as food for both myself and my staff for the 1900 hour meal. I expect you will be delicious. Secondly, you are a coward, as we both know. Lieutenants in the Republican Navy aren’t supposed to kneel and beg for their lives when hostile forces overrun their posts; they’re supposed to go down fighting. Lucky for your, Lord Glohrr makes no such requirement of his natrual-born crew–he actually prefers us to get the hell out of the way so his vatters can get to the grisly work of ripping the enemy to little bloody pieces. If we surrender, he doesn’t give a damn, either, incidentally. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Lord Glohrr gives a trained naval officer like yourself certain opportunities unavailable while engaged in…well, let’s just call it the public sector, shall we? Easier that way.”
Maxwell gaped at Eris, but the Commander showed no real concern or interest in his reaction. He kept going. “Lord Glohrr, as a creature solely interested in blood, war, and conquest, doesn’t care much for material wealth save as a means to securing more power. As crewmen such as myself and, prospectively, yourself represent a path to that power, he is uncommonly generous. You can expect an increase in your salary of about 250% to start, provided Lord Glohrr keeps finding planets to extort and invade. I, for instance, made about four million standard credits last year–tax free, obviously–and that’s only counting liquid assets. I also own my own ship, have access to some of the finest food, own an estate on Ceres VI, and I maintain a harem of about…”
“H…harem?” Maxwell coughed. “Really?”
Eris locked his black eyes with Maxwell’s swollen ones. “Look, let’s not lie to each other, shall we? You weren’t in the Republican Navy because you believe in the causes of freedom and justice or whatever the hell it is they peddle in schools these days. You were in it because your parents couldn’t afford to send you to a university that didn’t have a service requirement, and you were just killing time before your tour was up and you could go back to whatever backwater rock spawned you, marry some boring sphere-jockey wench, have a few kids, and sell shoes for the rest of your life. Am I right?”
Eris shrugged. “Like it really goddamned matters, anyway. Like I care about your life’s story or your problems or your stupid dreams–they’re over, Maxwell. They ended as soon as Lord Glohrr raked his fusion blisters across the bow of Protector and the sooner you accept that and move on, the sooner we can finish this tedious conversation.”
Maxwell tried to think clearly, but was having trouble. He had been awake for almost forty-eight hours, his face and chest and legs were a symphony of different pains and agonies, and he had trouble wrapping his brain around the deal being offered. “What if…what if I sign up and then betray you later.”
Eris rolled his eyes. “Let’s put it to you this way: if you screw up, Lord Glohrr will crack open your ribcage like a soda can and suck down your heart and lungs like jelly beans. If I catch you screwing up, I’ll kill you myself. You’re about to join a crew full of pirates, turncloaks, and homicidal warbeasts–we aren’t exactly a trusting bunch. That said, if you do your job well, you can retire before you’re fifty.”
Maxwell realized his chin was practically resting on the table. He slowly pulled himself up. “Uhhhh…”
Eris sighed. “Look, Maxwell–yes or no? It makes no real difference to me.”
Maxwell squared his shoulders. “I’m no coward. Go to hell you soulless…”
He didn’t get to finish the curse before the two vat-marines stomped into the room and dragged him away by his hair. As he was swept away, he noted that the expression on Eris’s face had barely changed. It was like someone had taken away an hors’devres tray that he hadn’t really liked anyway. That image stayed with him for the rest of his life.
All twelve minutes of it.
Commander Eris repositioned the chair, sat back down, and rubbed his temples. That had been the fifth one in the past hour, but he’d almost sold that one. “What an idiot.”
He brushed the comms stud on his wrist. The guttural affirmation of a vat marine rumbled in his earbud. “Yes, Tyvosh? Bring in the next one, if you please.”