Chapter 53 ROLL CALL
Haides had never been to space before, let alone set foot on a starship. Some Akakians did go into space: navy servicemen, merchant crews, orbital workers, and the like. But ordinary people had little reason to leave the homeworld. Akakians were not by nature, an adventurous breed. Few citizens had any desire to venture into the greater galaxy just for the fun of it.
The closest to space Haides had ever been was flying the family hopper. It had a contra-grav unit that could theoretically let it escape the planet entirely, but the turborotors didn’t deliver much thrust once you got above ten thousand meters. Plus, the cabin wasn’t pressurized, which made it unpleasant as soon as you hit four or five klicks. Higher up, you’d pass out from a lack of oxygen, then freeze to death when the environmental system couldn’t cope with the extremely low temperature outside the hull.
If you wanted to go into space, a hopper wouldn’t do. You needed a lander or a shuttle. Landers were optimized for surface-to-orbit transfers but could go a bit further in a pinch. Shuttles were bigger and had greater endurance, and could carry you into high orbit, even onto a moon or L-point habitat. You could, in theory, take a shuttle and go visit a planet in the same solar system.
Both kinds of craft defied gravity using the same contra-grav coils as the hopper, but were sealed and pressurized, and had multipurpose engines that could provide full thrust at all altitudes, up to and including actual space flight. And they had shielding, which was kind of essential if you wanted to cut back on cosmic radiation and land again without burning upon reentry. What these small vessels lacked, which set them apart from real starships, were translight drives. Without the ability to generate an event horizon, they were limited to whatever sublight speed they could accelerate to, which, particularly in the lander’s case, was extremely limited.
The craft Haides was in looked a lot like a lander. Not much more than an elongated box with engines on it. It had a pair of stubby wings and rudimentary streamlining. Contra-grav provided most of the lift, so the wings and aerodynamic shape were there mainly to give it a little extra stability—boxes didn’t maneuver very well. The inside of the vehicle was just as bland: a cabin with room for about eighty people, with the entrance at the rear, the cockpit at the front, and a cargo hold under the passengers’ feet.
After a stomach-churning ascent at full burn, the landing craft settled down as it left the atmosphere. After a while, the main engines cut off. There was no sense of weightlessness—the gravitics seamlessly compensated for the loss of acceleration and Akakios’s diminishing gravitational pull.
Another ten minutes and Haides could feel thrusters firing, and the lander began to slowly rotate. If Haides craned his neck, he was able to look out through one of the viewports. They were nearing their destination, a space leviathan idling in low orbit. The pilot was merging vectors with the larger vessel, edging closer and closer to the metal monstrosity.
Haides was no expert when it came to starships, but could see this was no combat vessel, but a merchantman. Warships were almost universally shaped like snub-nosed daggers, covered with point-defense blisters, armored gun ports, massive ordnance turrets, and crenelated spinal shields. This ship looked nothing like that. It had an elongated box-like body, not too different from the lander, only magnitudes larger. Moreover, there wasn’t a single weapon aperture in view. That didn’t mean the ship had none—it was large enough to carry many concealed guns—but it definitely wasn’t built for combat.
The colossal merchantman measured a kilometer and a half, maybe a little more—size was damn hard to judge without points of reference—front to aft. That meant it was only a little shorter than a Coalition battleship, but it’s fat, boxy hull meant internal volume was eight or ten times that of even the largest warships. As starships went, it was pretty large, but nowhere near the big macro-haulers of the Syndicate.
A gaping maw opened in the ship’s metal flank and swallowed the lander whole. The diminutive craft passed through a poorly-lit tunnel before finally settling on a landing deck. There were clanking and hissing and roaring and shaking. The shuttle must have been in a horrible condition, and the pilot was either completely incompetent or intoxicated. If Haides had been in charge, he would have spacewalked the pilot and shot whoever was responsible for maintenance.
The restraining harnesses lifted, and the twenty or so young men and women traveling with Haides were herded out of the lander and onto the metal deck of the ship’s small craft bay. Those who were not quick enough got smacked around a bit. Those who were too fast got prodded with shock rods for their troubles. Haides kept to the middle and tried to avoid attention.
He had a quick look around. The bay wasn’t that large, maybe a hundred and fifty meters wide and fifty deep. The ceiling was high enough to fit shuttles twenty meters tall with room to spare for maneuvering. An interplanetary shuttle, much larger than the lander, stood parked to the right. Another lander, identical to the one they had arrived in, stood parked in the far left corner. Several access panels had been removed, and there were people in coveralls working on it, aided by a couple of banged-up android menials.
After a bit of milling around—the youngsters had no clue what they were supposed to be doing—a liberal dose of slaps and shocks herded them into a ragged formation of rows and columns. As musters went, it was a poor one. They would never have passed inspection if Sergeant Blano had been in charge. The ones actually in control—four black-clad assassins—didn’t seem to care about the niceties of formations.
No sooner had the young Akakians been assembled before they were moved out of the landing bay in two columns through an internal airlock. Their feeble attempt at marching would have caused Sarge no end of grief, but the captors cared no more about marching than they did formations. As long as the youngsters kept moving, shut up, and looked down, they were mostly safe from the shock prods and neural whips. Haides kept a low profile but snuck glances whenever he dared. Most of the others looked meekly at their own feet or stared lamely into space.
They passed along several wide corridors and through multiple access hatches. The lighting was dim, the air stale and warm. On two occasions, there were minute fluctuations in the local gravity. Overall the ship gave the impression of considerable age, insufficient maintenance, and limited cleaning.
The Akakians had no clue where they were going. Not that it mattered. It was pretty evident to all of them—Haides included—that any form of escape attempt would be utter foolishness. They were trapped aboard an unknown starship, escorted by the same men and women that had captured them and kept them under guard during the flight up. They didn’t stand a chance. And even if they could break free, where would we go? They were on a ship, with no way out.
One of the four guardians was the sneaky bastard that had taken down the Ghost of Thira, a tall man with broad shoulders and narrow hips. His body was covered top to toe, head included, in tight-fitting black armor. The topmost layer looked like it was woven together, each link fitted into six others, almost like ancient chainmail. It made no sound when he moved, so the links weren’t made of metal. He wore his armor under a long cloak that seemed impossibly dark and matte. It had to be a chameleon cloak, able to alter its texture and coloration to blend in with the surroundings. Now it was deactivated and hung limp and dull around its owner.
The other two males were smaller in stature but radiated the same lethality. The sole female assassin was slender as a reed, but the way she moved screamed of perfect body control and wiry muscle—after the leader, she was the most dangerous in Haides’s not so humble opinion. All three wore variations of the same kind of body armor and cloaks.
Just one of them would have sufficed as an escort for the misshapen group of lost boys and forlorn girls. If the youngsters attacked jointly, without care for injury or death, they might take out one of the assassins. But they were neither in a position to coordinate anything nor willing to risk their lives for one another. So instead, they plodded meekly along, each person trapped inside a waking nightmare.
After walking for what seemed a very long time, but probably wasn’t, they arrived at a place that looked like a livestock processing center. There were pens and sluices, machinery, cyber-enhanced menials, and foul-looking overseers. Haides’s rational mind told him the assassins would not have gone through all that trouble just to butcher everybody, but that didn’t prevent his heart from pounding like crazy.
They did not, however, make delicate filets, boneless steaks, or minced meat out of the Akakians. Instead, young men and women were stripped, thoroughly searched, shaved like sheep, hosed down, bathed in antiseptic fluid, before finally receiving inoculation shots. The menials assigned to the job weren’t all that bad. They were coarse, heavy-handed brutes, but they just did their job, methodically and thoroughly. The overseers were worse. There were beatings to go around, and some of the recruits received extra attention—of the entirely unwanted type.
Processing took a while, so Haides had time to study their surroundings and think things through. They were not the first batch of kids to come this way. In fact, there had been another group here recently—the menials hadn’t had time to clean up between herds. That meant there were more groups like Haides’s on the ship. He didn’t know exactly what it meant, but there was comfort in knowing that others shared in his misery.
That they had bothered to capture, then fly a large number of Akakians into orbit, and had gone to such trouble to improve personal hygiene and health, made Haides confident they were not going to be killed out of hand. They were going to be used for something, that much he had figured out. That realization raised an important question: what would a group of interstellar assassins want with a whole bunch of children and teenagers? Most of the answers he came up with were appalling—so Haides quit thinking ahead and focused on the now.
The captives were issued with coarse brownish robes that reached to mid-calf, then a thick wire with a self-contracting mechanism was fastened around their necks. They got a demonstration when two of the boys started whispering to one another. Soon they were twitching on the deck, clawing futilely at the wires around their necks. The captors released them before they asphyxiated, but the point had been hammered in: none would speak unless bidden to do so. It suited Haides just fine. He had absolutely no desire to talk to any of his fellow Akakians.
After the processing chamber, they were herded into a wide corridor and marched down it. From time to time, Haides heard a rumbling sound, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. Transport tubes were running on both sides of the corridor, separated from it by bulkheads. A couple of times, they passed access points for the tube network but kept on walking. Transport pods were be reserved for the ship’s crew and not to be used by lowly captives.
Occasionally, they came across other people going about their business. There were a few armored assassins, similar to their guards, but most were ship’s crew wearing simple coveralls or environmental suits.
Haides had a vague idea that they were being marched towards the stern, but he wasn’t entirely sure. In fact, it was hard to comprehend they were on a ship. There were no viewports—all they saw were lots of corridors and rooms, pipes and cables. It could just as well be one of the sub-levels of a Thiran hospital.
They passed through a massive double access hatch into a cavernous space deep within the vessel. There were three more of these great airlocks, one for each cardinal point of the compass. The room was octagonal, with rows of elevators between the hatches. The Akakians were stuffed into two of those, and down they went, into the dark bowels of the ship.
The elevator ground to a halt, and Haides and the others were herded out into the open area beyond. This was the end station. He looked around, trying to peer through the gloom. To the left and right, the walls disappeared into the darkness. Above was open air. They were in one of the ship’s cargo holds. The space was vast—he didn’t see it as much as he felt it.
Two hundred plus children and adolescents were already present, mustered into groups of between twenty and thirty. Haides’s group shuffled forward, guided by whips and prods—or softly choked. The wire-collars were simple devices, directed by small control rods the assassins kept close at hand. To punish a prisoner, a guard had to hold the rod and point it at a collar. The rods didn’t appear to have a much range, ten meters tops. They weren’t very accurate—Haides saw an assassin point a control rod at a girl that wasn’t paying attention, but it was the boy next to her that got strangled.
That was useful knowledge: if he was to slip away at some point, they wouldn’t be able to remote-choke him. Haides was concerned that the collar might contain a locator beacon, however, like the one the GIs had strapped on him that time back in Thira. If it did, running would be futile. He had to wait and learn more.
The assassin who had brought in Haides took up position in front of their group. His three subordinates moved to the back. The entire thing reminded Haides of the 57th Loches’s morning muster. Platoon officer in front, grunts by columns and rows, NCOs in the rear.
A heavy-set man of middling height stepped out of the shadows. He also wore black—clearly the color if you wanted to be an interstellar assassin. He went without a cloak, and his armor was unlike that of the others. It was made of black-on-black scales that seemed to change shape as he moved. The strange rippling effect was almost hypnotic. He carried no weapons or other war-gear, only a baton in his left hand. His face was uncovered, revealing a man of middle age with craggy features, cunning eyes, and a cruel smile.
“Prefects of the Hand, attend me!” his deep and rich baritone lashed out across the open space, augmented by unseen speakers.
A roll call commenced, with each group captain calling out his name and how many recruits he had brought as tribute to the Hand. Haides’s group was the last to arrive and the last to be called.
“Murash, report.” Haides’s captor had a name now.
“Lord Malachite, I have twenty-three candidates for you.”
Malachite. Haides instinctively knew this was a person who could make him or break him.
“For me? For the Veiled Hand, you mean,” Malachite replied.
“I am humbled, Lord Malachite,” Murash replied with exaggerated deference. “I put my life in your hands.”
“Don’t be daft, Murash.” He dismissed Murash’s notion with a curt gesture. “Attend me,” Malachite said, moving to inspect the group.
Murash Ball-kicker fell in next to Lord Malachite as the elder assassin started his inspection. Soon he was looking over the row in front of Haides. There was a blur of motion, and a boy standing only a few steps away, grabbed at his throat, trying to stop the blood fountaining from his neck. After a few seconds of frantic gurgling, he toppled forward.
Malachite continued the inspection without missing a stride. He reached the end of the row and started on the next. The master assassin briefly looked at each recruit, never slowing down—until he halted in front of the girl standing next to Haides. She was a few years older, about the same age as Haides’s treacherous sister. Pretty enough that he had noticed, even though he wasn’t that interested in girls.
“This one is too old. Give her to the officers.” The screams of protest were quickly strangled by the wire around her neck, and she was half dragged, half carried away.
Haides was up next. Malachite struck him in the side of the head without warning. The fallen Ghost of Thira saw the blow coming but had no time to duck, even had he wanted to. The world went from a dimly lit cargo hold to pitch darkness. When he came to, he was lying on the deck. Malachite was standing over him. Haides fought to get back up, was nearly overcome by nausea, but persisted. Malachite remained rooted to the spot until Haides had resumed his place in the ranks, then continued the inspection.
Murash and Malachite completed their circuit and returned to stand in front of the formation.
“You must learn to count Murash. I see only twenty-one.”
“Yes, My Lord. Only twenty-one. I will do better next time,” Murash replied in an even voice.
“There will be no next time, Murash. You brown-nosing has finally paid off,” Malachite said, just loud enough for the front rows to hear. “It has been made known to me that Princess Ghaela has demanded your services. As soon as we return to the Spire, you are to abase yourself before her and beg her to take you in. She will accept, and then you can waste what little talent you have in her service.”
Murash made no sound, merely bowed his head in deference. Malachite returned to his position in front of the assembled companies.
“Listen up,” he shouted, and the speakers amplified his voice a hundredfold. When he saw that he had the recruits’ attention, he continued. “Rejoice, little maggots. Rejoice, for you are no longer rebellious citizens of Protasia. Or Akakios or whatever you like to call that bloody pit. Rejoice, for you are no longer traitors.
“Lady June I Othrys, Countess-Planetar of Protasia by the will of the Gods of the Pantheon and the Archon of the Coalition, has pardoned you. She has also given you over to the Veiled Hand. You are—all of you—payment for services rendered to the Countess by the assassins of the Hand. From this moment until the day you die, you belong to the Hand. I am Lord Malachite, and I am your master.
“Your fate is to train. To train hard in the hope of becoming the next generation of assassins serving the Veiled Hand. Chances are that only one in five of you will make it. Perhaps as few as one in ten. Depends on the quality of the raw material. In your case, I’m not overly impressed.” He made a little pause to allow the good news to sink in. “I can hear you thinking: Those who do not make it, what of them? I’ll tell you: Those who complete training but are unworthy of joining the Hand will be sold off as indentured servants—to serve as mercenaries and bodyguards or whatever else their owners require. Those who fail the training die.
Technically there was a third path: Haides had already witnessed a boy fall, only to be reassigned. But that kid had some unique skills while Haides didn’t.
“If you think that sounds harsh, think on this: those that try to run...none of them make it. Not ever. But you are welcome to try. Hunting runaways is a good sport for the rest of the recruits.”
And with that, he stepped back into the shadows and was gone.