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May 18, 382 AS. 0035 hours.


Wilding lay on his back, reveling in the pain of his sores because that alone could cut through the veils of fever which otherwise isolated him from the universe. His right leg floated in air, and the jungle canopy wove a slow dance above him.

Venus took 257 Earth-days to rotate on its axis, a period useless for short-term human concerns. Colonists in domes beneath the Venerian seas had no interest in sidereal time anyway. They promptly adopted the Standard Day of Earth—and retained it for all purposes, even after nuclear holocaust had converted Earth into another star glowing in the unseen sky.

For the Free Companies, the conceit meant that four months of daylight followed four months of darkness. Wars continued, driven by imperatives which ignored the calendar as wars commonly ignore all other things.

Bozman, Leaf's striker, moaned beside Wilding in his sleep. The second watch was on duty now.

Everyone was exhausted. Brainard had put half the crew on watch at all times, not so much because that many pairs of eyes were constantly necessary . . . but because that way there were enough waking guards that they could shake alert each of their number when he inevitably dropped off.

Wilding was exempt from the watch list, but he was too feverish to sleep. Wheelwright had sprayed Wilding's ankle with a long-term analgesic before fitting the pressure bandage, so the injury did not hurt.

Wilding's subconscious knew that the ankle had swelled to the size of a balloon ascender. It was tugging his whole body upward. The bandaged ankle appeared to be normal size. The back of Wilding's mind told him that was an illusion.

The swollen balloon pulled. Wilding's back twisted queasily against the rock, trying to anchor him.

He stared at the ragged white patch of sky above him. The saw-grass hewed its surroundings clear at ground level, but branches encroached in the third canopy nonetheless. The slight interstices among the high leaves were barely enough to energize the grass for its murderous exertions.

On the other side of Bozman, Ensign Brainard muttered in his sleep. The CO's duties on point had been the most exhausting of all. Despite that, he insisted on adding the weight of the laser communicator to the normal load of pack and rifle.

Flying rays cut through the air 300 feet up, dancing among the knobby branches of a monkey puzzle tree. Each ray was between one and two feet wide across the tips of its wings. The creatures were about as long as they were wide if the length of their slim, ruddering tails were added to that of their bodies.

Though the rays were descended from a purely aquatic species, they carried on an amphibious existence. Their nests were pools in the hollow hearts of mighty trees. Every ten minutes or so, the rays ducked back to wet their gills, but between dips they sailed among the branches and cleared swathes in the flying microlife. Their wings were so diaphanously thin at the edges that the sky glimmered through them.

Wilding watched the rays wheel without slowing. He thought of K67's commanding officer. Brainard went on no matter what, with stolid heroism of a sort that Wilding had thought was only myth.

Nothing fazed Brainard. If he had to carry them all on his shoulders, he would at least try. But the ensign wasn't an inspiration to lesser men like Hal Wilding, because he was too obviously of a different species.

A ray suddenly folded its wings and plummeted toward the ground. Fever sharpened Wilding's sight or else gave him a hallucination of perfect clarity; in his present state, he neither knew nor cared which was the case. A large purple orchid had extended in a sluggish fashion from a monkey puzzle branch. It hung within the circuits the rays were cutting.

The flower's bulbous outline went flaccid when the orchid expelled the bubble of lethal gas which formed within its petals. The stem began to withdraw. The flower's work was done for the time being.

The ray's nervous system was paralyzed. The little creature was dead before it struck the ground. Its body would rot in the damp heat. Some of its matter would be eaten by scavengers. The rest would become a decaying soup, adding its substance to the thin soil at the roots of the monkey puzzle from which the orchid hung.

And the orchid in turn tapped the veins of the tree for part of its sustenance. Life was a chain, and mutual support created the strongest links. Even in a jungle.

Bozman moaned softly. Leaf, Caffey, and Newton were on watch. Good men in their own way, but nothing without Brainard.

Officer-Trainee Hal Wilding was nothing at all, only a burden on the rest of the crew. His leg tried to float him upward, and the stone under his shoulders trembled like a wave trying to lull him to slee—

The rock was moving.

Wilding screamed. He lunged into a sitting position. His leg was a pillar of flame without substance.

Bozman cried out beside him. Wilding grabbed the assistant motorman by the shoulders and shouted, "Help! Help! You've got to get me up!"

Everybody was shouting. Brainard lurched to his feet and threatened the jungle with his rifle. A creature in the high canopy hooted in surprise, then hooted again at a greater distance from commotion.

Wilding lifted himself with hysterical strength. Bozman came with him, but Bozman was a dead weight. The hot barakite flames had broken the outcrop as well as clearing it. In the hours that the men had rested, roots crept through the fractures in quest of nutrients.

They had found Bozman.

Blood sprayed from the young technician's mouth, throat, and the dozen wounds in his chest. One thin tendril had broken off. It waggled a grisly come-on from Bozman's left nostril.

Other roots quivered in circles a hand's breadth out of the rock surface, sensing nearby sustenance. Their tips were scarlet for the depth they had burrowed into their victim.

Caffey pointed his machine-gun at the outcrop and fired. Bullets and rock fragments ricocheted in all directions.

A stone snatched at Wilding's left leg. It missed his flesh, but the tug was all the officer-trainee needed to overbalance him.

"Cease fire!" Ensign Brainard roared. "Cease fire!"

Bullets had blown flat, pale craters into the rock. The roots still waved in terrible eagerness. Wilding started to fall forward onto them.

Leaf grabbed the officer-trainee from behind. Bozman weighed down Wilding's arms.

"Let him go, for god's sake!" the motorman growled. "We can't help him."

Wilding thought the weight had slipped away, but he was no longer conscious of his body. All he could see was the face of Ensign Brainard, surveying the situation with a look of calm control.

* * *



June 4, 381 AS. 1147 hours.


Recruit (Officer) Wilding braced in a push-up position as Chief Instructor Calfredi boomed, "Right! Everybody keeps doing push-ups until fatboy gives me twenty more!"

Calfredi's boot probed the ribs of Recruit (Enlisted) Groves, a pudgy youth of sixteen at the oldest. Groves lay blubbering on the ground, unable to rise.

"I want all you guys to know," the instructor continued to the dozen recruit, "that the reason you're still doing push-ups is Groves here is a pussy."

Recruit (Officer) was not a rank, it was a statement of intent; but the scion of the Wilding Family did not need formal rank to act as anger dictated.

"No," Wilding said sharply. He would have liked to spring up with only a thrust of his arms, but fifty push-ups in the sun had cramped his muscles too. He rose to his knees, then lifted himself to his feet.

"No," he repeated, noticing that when he was angry his voice sounded thin and supercilious. "We're doing push-ups because you are a sadistic moron, Mr Calfredi. Except that I'm not doing push-ups any more. I'm going to take a shower."

The exercise yard was crushed coral that blazed brighter than the cloud-shrouded sun. Waves of dizziness quivered across Wilding's vision, making the chief instructor shrink and swell.

Calfredi stood motionless beneath his broad-brimmed hat. If there was an expression on his face, Wilding could not read it.

Wilding turned on his heel and strode toward the barracks. He expected an order—he imagined a plea—from Calfredi, but there was nothing.

Not a sound from the chief instructor. Gigantic pumps whined from the harbor, refilling a drydock now that repairs to the dreadnought Mammoth were complete. A mile away, railguns crashed and snarled at some creature trying to burst through the electrified perimeter of Hafner Base. A public address system croaked information which distance distorted into gibberish.

Just as he opened the door to the recruit barracks, Wilding heard Chief Instructor Calfredi's voice say, "Down and up and down. . . ."

Wilding slammed the door behind him, shutting out the hot, muggy atmosphere and the sounds of another portion of the universe which had decided it didn't need Hal Wilding.

He'd said he would shower, so he showered. The hot water massaged Wilding's aching muscles, and the dull pressure soothed what it could not wash away: the knowledge that he'd failed again. He had walked away from his commitment to Wysocki's Herd, and nobody even bothered to call him back.

Joining a Free Company had seemed the only way Wilding could express his utter disdain to the Callahan and the whole Twelve Families: disdain for them and for their entire way of life. But the Twelve Families didn't care, and now it was evident that Wysocki's Herd didn't care either.

Wilding supposed he could try to join another mercenary company now that he'd washed out on his first attempt, but that would be pointless. He hadn't wanted to be a Free Companion, he'd wanted to make a statement.

Besides, he might fail ignominiously in training with a second company, just as he had with the first.

It didn't bother Wilding that he wasn't suited to be a mercenary. The problem was that he wasn't suited to be anything except a drone . . . and if it came to that, none of the humans surviving on Venus was really more useful than Wilding was himself. There were ranks and places, but those were merely means of marking time until the holders died or the sun grew cold.

Wilding shut off the shower. He would pack his gear and report to Cinc Wysocki. With luck, the cinc would send him off immediately to Wyoming Keep. It would be embarrassing to wait a day or more for a scheduled run to the keep, sleeping in the recruit barracks with the men he had turned his back on.

The barracks door opened. It had been about time for the training cycle to end anyway. If Wilding had managed to restrain his arrogance for another ten minutes—twenty push-ups—he might not have expelled himself from what he had begun to imagine might be a brotherhood of equals.

The lights went off.

"Hello?" said Wilding.

Boots scuffled on the polished floor. There were several of them. He could hear their nervous breathing.

Calfredi hadn't been ignoring Wilding after all. He'd just waited to gather a couple of his fellow instructors.

Now they were going to give the smart-ass recruit a going away present, off the record.

Wilding ran to the side of the bunk room. His bare feet made only a slight squeal on the floor.

The barracks had a single door. If he could avoid the instructors in the dark, he might be able to duck outside. They wouldn't dare attack him in the open. There couldn't be more than three of them, so they might not have left a guard at the—

Wilding's foot slipped. He hit the floor with a thump. Two pairs of hands grabbed him before he could rise. He kicked with his bare feet, stubbing his toe on a booted shin.

More hands seized him. Many more hands. He tried to swing, but his wrists were pinioned.

"What do you bastards think you're doing?" Wilding demanded in a high, clear voice. He would have screamed if he'd thought there was any chance he could be heard outside the concrete walls of the barracks.

"I got the soap!" rasped an eager whisper. A moment after the words, something hard slammed Wilding in the ribs.

The whispering voice had been Groves.

There was a thump and a curse. "Well, back off!" another voice growled through a muffling towel. Panting, sweating bodies shuffled back, but the hands continued to grip Wilding's arms and legs as firmly as if they were preparing to crucify him.

A bar of soap in a sock whistled through the air and cracked against Wilding's right ear. A similar bludgeon caught him on the left side of the jaw as his mouth opened to scream with pain.

"Now listen, you jumped-up pissant," said the voice through the towel. It sounded like Hadion, the tall, intelligent-seeming recruit who bunked next to Wilding. "Some day we'll have to take orders from you—"

Hadion wasn't wielding one of the socks, because his voice didn't break as two more blows crunched into Wilding's ribs. The soap would deform instead of breaking bones, but the men swinging the bludgeons were putting all their strength into the project.

"—so we're gonna give you a lesson now, before you get somebody killed because you're pissed off."

"Stop, for God's—" Wilding wheezed.

But his fellow recruits didn't stop. Not until they had beaten him senseless.


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