…Meyers wasn’t completely wrong, Daivid mused as he hiked hastily toward his quarters. Benjamin Wolfe was very protective of his only son. Except for one thing, the don of the Wolfe Family had paid Daivid the compliment of assuming that he could stand on his own feet. However, that one thing was as dangerous as carrying a planetkiller bomb around with him.
Daivid took a drink of water, hoping he could dilute the alcohol he had comsumed somewhat before he went to sleep. After he undressed he peeled the card off his chest and turned it over in his fingers. A tap on the touch-screen, which analyzed his DNA, scanned his retina and read his pulse, turned the display on. Here was what the others were joking about. This was the Wolfe Family power they meant.
Once Old Wolfe had come to terms with Daivid’s decision, he kept a calm expression on his face, but his eyes were worried. “I am not sending you out there unprotected.”
“It’s the space service, not a wildlife safari!” Daivid had flung himself up out of the armchair opposite his father’s desk and stormed for the door.
“Don’t do it.” Benjamin held up a warning hand. “It may not be the wilderness, but you’re still going to be out there with people. Strangers. You can’t give me an absolute no. I still know people. You walk out of here without protection, and I will make some calls. They won’t process you. You’ll be back here in an hour.” Daivid put out a hand to open the privacy lock. “And if you don’t come back here, out of pique or I don’t know what, pride, I will send Randy and Sven after you.”
Daivid gave himself a moment to cool down. He knew that he’d been beaten. Randy and Sven were the most trusted of what in more respectable families would have been known as ‘loyal retainers.’ Where the Wolfes were concerned, they were more likely to be called henchmen. In fact, Randy, all 2.2 meters of him, had been Daivid’s nurse and protector when he was little and had never let him forget it. It was hard to engender respect in someone who had taught him to wear ‘big boy’ underpants. Fealty and undying devotion, yes. Respect, no. If Randy decided to call him Bucktooth Boy or any of his many other embarrassing childhood nicknames in front of the recruiting officers, Daivid would shoot himself right there. Sulkily, Daivid sank into the chair that his father indicated. “I don’t know why I bothered to tell you I was going.”
“I’d have found out anyhow,” Benjamin assured him. “You wouldn’t have gotten your clothes off for the physical before I’d be down there signing you out. So, are you going to take what I’m offering you, or not?”
“What protection do you want me to take? I can’t bring bodyguards with me into the space service!”
Benjamin reached into an invisible pocket in the breast of his ten-thousand credit tunic and withdrew a small card, which he tucked into his son’s hand. “This. It’s a database of every single person in the galaxy who owes me a favor. There are more listings than any one man can use up in a hundred lifetimes. If you need it, use it. I don’t want you out in the middle of the void with your bare tuchas hanging out when all you had to do was ask somebody for help. Someone who has to say yes. You take it, you promise me you’ll use it if you need it, you can go. Otherwise, you might as well study viniculture, because I’m shipping you to your Aunt Hilda on Crekis. You can help her run the wine business out there.”
It was the compulsory nature of that yes that grated on Daivid’s psyche. But Benjamin Wolfe didn’t hold onto control of the Wolfe Family purely through the charm of his personality. He knew how to get what he wanted, and how to get people to give him what he wanted. Daivid took the card, and promised to guard it with his life and check in periodically, but he had also promised himself that he would never use the database under any circumstances whatsoever….
Loud honking broke Lt. Daivid Wolfe out of a dream. Instantly, the visions of the victory, in which he was leading a shining army into the midst of the rebel stronghold on Pteradon, where the insurgents greeted him with open arms, and the beautiful, scantily-clad women who had been held prisoner by the outlaws showered their rescuer with their gratitude, faded from colorful spectacle to the spider-web crackle of the ancient enameled ceiling in his new quarters.
With a gingerly forefinger he poked the control that operated the window shading, trying to discover the source of the noise. The glass cleared. S-shaped white forms bustled around on the grassy slope just outside that led down to the river that ran around two sides of the spaceport. As his eyes grew used to the faint light of false dawn he realized they were geese. The birds, originally from Terra, were frequently employed as guard animals in low- to medium-security areas. They were cheap to feed and aggressively territorial. The only downsides were that they were noisy, and their droppings made traversing the green lawns an obstacle course.
He glanced at his chronometer. Oh four hundred hours! He groaned. That meant he’d only gotten three and a half hours of sleep. He jerked up into a sitting position, but the stabbing sensation in his head told him that fast movement was a very bad idea. New rule, he told himself, moving more gingerly toward the dribbly shower, no more matching the troops drink for drink. They were used to the effects of their white lightning. He, most assuredly, was not.
He peered out the window for the source of the horn music. Was this a new form of reveille? No, it was Mother Nature. Just beyond the barrier fence was a broad wetland. He was being serenaded by a host of marsh hounds. They were local avians whose baying voices reminded the person who named them of howling dogs. By the look of the colony alighting on the water for a predawn breakfast, their numbers were in no danger of decimation, except perhaps by annoyed service personnel whose precious sleep was interrupted by their noise.
He dragged himself to the bathroom to throw cold water on his face. PT started at 0500. Breakfast ran from 0700 to 0800. There ought to be plenty of time to get the barracks in order before Mason arrived for inspection at 1100. He pulled on a sleeveless tunic, light exercise pants and absorbent-insoled running shoes. No point in showering before he got sweaty.
Well before exercises were scheduled to begin Wolfe ran out onto the yard, the paved area in between the barracks and the mess hall. Running a quick eye around the perimeter track in the twilight of false dawn he judged that eight laps would be a kilometer. The morning was cold and damp, a bleak contrast to the hot sunny weather prediction that had showed up on his clipboard screen. He started jogging, gradually increasing his speed until his heart beat pounded in his ears and he felt a healthy sweat break out on his skin. The headache faded, and he began to feel optimistic about the coming day.
The large chrono on the brow of the mess hall showed 0459 when Borden, also in a singlet, shorts and running shoes, emerged from the barracks. Behind her, in swim fins and a boiler suit, was Thielind. They jogged to the center of the exercise field and stood at attention. Their hands flew to their foreheads in salute. Wolfe joined them and threw them a jaunty salute in return.
“Are the others on their way out?” he asked.
“No, sir!” Thielind announced, snapping off the words like firecrackers.
“Why the hell not?”
“Not their day for it, sir!”
“Rest day, sir!” the thin, darkskinned man explained, still eyes-front. “Firstday, Thirdday and Fifthday, half our force goes back to the main base to train at war games with the other units, and the rest of us helps patrol the spaceport. Secondday, Fourthday and Sixthday, the halves alternate. This is our day off. Sir.”
“They don’t do PT on restdays?” Wolfe asked.
“Nossir! It’s restday!” Thielind announced with conviction. Wolfe shrugged.
“Well, I guess that’s reasonable. They come in for breakfast, then?”
“Nossir! They don’t turn out until maybe ten or ten thirty on restday.”
“That won’t do!” Wolfe said, with a frown. “The commander will be here in a few hours. I want everyone up and dressed in plenty of time.” With purpose he strode toward the barracks. Borden caught up with him.
“I really wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir,” she said, trotting alongside him.
“Why the hell not?” He flung open the door. It crashed against the wall. Twenty bleary faces lifted from pillows or tank, and peered at him.
“Good morning!” he announced. “I know today’s your day off, but we’ve got an inspection later on. Breakfast at 0700! See you there!”
He left Borden and Thielind behind and marched back to his quarters. The pathetic shower stream seemed even lighter than it had the night before. It took three times as long to soap up and scrub down. By the time he got dressed he was fully awake and feeling fit.
By the time he arrived in the mess, he was feeling rather jaunty. The grounds were tidy, his quarters were clean, and he had a hearty appetite for breakfast.
Borden and Thielind flanked an empty chair at the end of one of the two long tables next to the buffet servers. Borden gestured to him and pointed to the chair. He nodded, and turned his attention to the food bins.
One thing he had to hand the Space Service: they provided excellent coffee, and the servobots knew how to prepare it so it was hot and fragrant, never burned or bitter. He took a pot and mug, placing them on his tray with meat-filled rolls, wholegrain cereals, dairy blocks, pastries and a bunch of shiny red grapes. He took his time enjoying each selection. Borden ate like an automaton. Thielind eyed each bite suspiciously before putting it into his mouth.
Nearly everyone in the room had availed themselves of the coffee, though he saw many a heavy head hung over the white china mugs. The three nonhumanoid troopers sat at the far end of the second table. The semicat gave Wolfe a look of slit-eyed annoyance and tore the end of a meatroll off with its pointed teeth as if dispatching prey. Boland, who had drunk plenty of home brew the night before, looked as though he could bleed to death through the eyeballs. Mose did not meet anyone’s eyes directly. Lin held her spoon limply, dozing in between bites. Only Jones seemed to be in good spirits, buttering bread and chattering to his neighbors.
When he finished his meal, Daivid stood up and tapped on the side of his coffee mug for attention.
“Company, the commander arrives in three hours. I want everyone to give this inspection their full attention. Get everything sparkling, and I promise you you won’t regret it. Thank you. That is all. Fall out at will.”
No one raised head, eyes or voice to reply. Things were looking up. No one was going to give him an argument. Then he noticed the glance between his two officers.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing, sir,” Borden replied, and took another precise spoonful of cereal.
Gradually, the troopers drifted out of the dining room, followed at last by Thielind and Borden. Alone in the hall, Daivid thought he would treat himself to just one more cup of the excellent coffee. He savored its aroma and complex, bitter taste, thinking command wasn’t as hard as he had feared it would be.
He finished the last sip just as the wall chrono changed from 0759 to 0800. He set his tray in the hatch, where it was taken out of his hands by the robotic dishwasher. Leaving the machines to do their jobs, he strolled across the exercise yard to check on the progress of the cleanup.
Everyone must still be suffering from mighty hangovers. Daivid could hardly hear a sound as he stepped up into the barracks. It was too quiet. Looking in the door, he realized the big room was empty. Not a bunk had been made, nor had any other efforts to make the place neat been made. The square-bodied automatic sweeper was drifting around the floor, sucking up used pows and sorting fallen cards and gathering glasses. It hummed when it sensed him, and veered around his feet. He sidestepped it and headed for the bathrooms. Could they all be in the showers? He couldn’t hear any water running.
The bathroom, too, was empty. And filthy.
He hurried out of the door and circled around to the junior officers’ quarters. On the threshold he stood panting. Borden, her back to him, kicked the cleanerbot.
“Dammit, I said wipe the windows and sweep the floors, not the other way around!” The small robot paused in mid-movement waved its multiple arms at her. Fine sprays of cleaning fluid splashed her. “Gah! Stupid machine!” She lashed out with a foot again. Thielind looked up calmly from making his bed.
“Don’t do that,” he reproved her. “It will never learn from violence. You’ve got to treat them with love, Lizzie.”
“Dammit, don’t call me that! Sir!” She noticed Daivid and swung into a salute, regaining in an instant her stonefaced aplomb.
“Sir!” Thielind echoed, clapping his hand to his head. It was holding what looked like a solid-gold loving cup. Sheepishly, he lowered it and put it behind his back. “What can we do for you?”
“Where is everybody?” Wolfe demanded.
He didn’t have to explain what he meant. The junior officers glanced at one another.
“It’s restday, sir,” Thielind offered. “Everyone’s resting.”
“Where are they ‘resting’?” Daivid asked, apoplectic with fury. “We’ve got an inspection soon! I’ll ream their asses. Where did they go?”
Thielind shook his head. “Maybe a dozen places. Maybe all over.”
“Name them, ensign,” Daivid insisted. “I’ll get a flitter. No, I’ll borrow a riot van from the brig. I’ll handcuff and haul each and every one of them if I have to!”
“You can’t take the time, sir.” Borden shook her head. “One thing they are very good at is disappearing when they don’t want to be found. They’ll come back when they’re good and ready. We’ll help you clean. There’s plenty of time.”
“The bots will help us,” Thielind promised. He hoisted the malfunctioning automaton and carried it with him.
“Damn them, what were they thinking?” Daivid stormed.
The junior officers followed him in silence, giving Daivid plenty of time to think about what he would do to the company when he found them. Keelhauling? If he could find a keel, he’d tie them all end to end and sling them underneath it until…
“Whoo!” Thielind whistled. “Someone musta had a party in here. It looks worse than when I left, around 0300.” He put the cleanerbot on the floor and flipped open its maintenance lid. “There. It’ll work like new.”
“Good,” said Wolfe. “Now I want you to go out and find them. Tell them that if they are not back here, clean, sober and in their dress whites by 1100 hours their asses will be grass. Is that clear?”
“Yessir!” Thielind said. “Aye aye.” The skinny ensign scooted out of the door.
Borden put her hands on her hips. “It’s not as bad as it looks, sir,” she said. “Between us we can get this done in an hour.”
“Where do we start?” Wolfe asked, looking at the mess in dismay.
“Bathroom last,” she suggested. “It’s what we’ll be clearing the rest of the mess into. Dusting first. The robots will take care of that. Then beds.”
They turned the cleanerbots loose on the dusting and clearing up of the debris from the party, but the beds had to be done by hand. That was a longstanding service tradition. The custom of spacers, in fact members of all branches of the armed forces, straightening up their own sleeping pads was one that went back all the way to Old Earth. No matter what else, no matter what services or technology were available, each man or woman or whatever had to make the bed. Wolfe thought it was a stupid throwback, but rules were rules. Until he was in a position to change them, he had to follow them. He snapped out a sheet, the harsh sound reflecting his bad mood. How dare the Cockroaches flout his order? he thought, stuffing in loose ends with a knife-sharp hand. What the hell was the matter with them?
He was furious to realize that they held the cards on this one. He could report them. X-Ray company would all have to face dereliction of duty punishment, but they didn’t care. They were already in the worst unit in the service. But he, he would be removed from command as being unable to hold his own with them. First impressions: if he was perceived as inept from the very beginning he would have no chance of changing that perception once it got into the minds of the brass. As badly as the people upstairs wanted him out of the regular chain of command they couldn’t leave him in charge of a band of creative screwups. Listening to them last night had convinced him they were guilty of far more than the service had been able to prove. That uncertainty was why they continued to wear the uniform. They had outmaneuvered him first time out of the gate. He had to find a way to turn that around.
Still, there was a homey satisfaction to completing a simple task like making beds. By the third bunk he found himself falling into a rhythm, bending, shaking out the sheets, tucking in the corners.
“This takes me all the way back to summer camp,” he said to Borden, thumping a pillow between his hands. “My dad used to send us to Parker’s Planet for eight weeks every year. It took a week’s transit to get there, and another back again. Those were good times.” Ah, those were the days, he thought, slinging the pillow against the headrail. He had a vision of those carefree summers, full of swimming, hiking, sleeping out of doors, getting bitten by a range of insects and scraping himself up by falling out of trees or off rocks, learning how to make annoying noises and how to tell even more annoying jokes, the bigger boys teaching but just as frequently picking on the younger boys. The counselors attempted to impose discipline from above, but things had a way of getting settled down in the lower echelons by themselves by means of minor torture and often cruel practical jokes. The perpetrators got away with it because to rat out a fellow camper was punishable by even more of the same. Camp and the space service had a lot in common. Simple times. Simple responsibilites. Simple relationships. Simple revenge.
He had held his own back on Parker’s Planet, learning the bigger boys’ techniques and turning it around on them. No one got the better of a Wolfe. No one should. Involuntarily his upper lip drew back, showing his teeth. Suddenly, he caught Borden staring at him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“With respect, I don’t like the look on your face, sir,” the officer said. “You…looked for a moment like you might bite someone.”
“Nothing like that. I just had an idea,” he replied, unable to keep from grinning ferally. “I was just thinking that you learn a lot about coping with life from living with your peer group. Were you ever at sleepaway camp?” Borden nodded. “Ever heard of the Vortex?”
“Well,” Wolfe said, flicking out another bedsheet with practiced hands. “Watch and learn.”
She did watch, respect dawning on her face for the first time.
“Sir, we can’t do that?”
Daivid was in no mood to argue. “This is an order. If I have to earn the privilege from you I’ll do it later. For now, just do it.”
Borden watched him again, as he took all the bedclothes off Ewanowski’s bunk and remade it deftly. “No, sir, you’ve earned this one just for teaching me something new. I never saw that before.”