Chapter 2 - Naval Tradition
The air was cloyingly hot in the main hold of the Divine Right of Might
. The 9th Akarak "Demoralisers" had been there for the better part of a month, at the command of Inquisitor Darkium; by the Emperor, when will we get there?
thought custodian Khofi, standing from his bunk and moving to the door. He opened it and the stench of sweat assailed his nostrils; earlier in the month this would have made him step back in disgust, but by now he had adjusted. He straightened his uniform, checked that his painstick and set of keys were in position; started walking down the walkway and looked to the barracks-cages on his left.
Inspecting the cages was his daily routine, and his assistants knew to leave him to it: ten minutes before the official wake-up time, he expected the inmates to be standing to attention in two rows (as there was not enough room for them to stand single-row), with their uniforms in order. As he reached the third, final cage of ten men under his command, Khofi saw one man's collar was slightly asymmetrical; stopped in his tracks, smiled sadistically. He took a single step towards the cage gate, breathed out. Everyone in the cage stood a little straighter; a trickle of sweat ran down the shaved brow of the man in Khofi's gaze.
"You." spoke Khofi, raising his arm to point at the man; "Madrin. Come to the front of the cage."
This had only happened twice to unit 14c, but they knew well what to do and stepped aside as Madrin moved to the front of the cage, his eyes fixed at a point beyond the custodian's head. Two assistant custodians walked briskly to each of Khofi's sides, painsticks armed and in hand.
"The rest of you: compliance position three."
Everyone but Madrin sat cross-legged, hands placed flat on their heads. Khofi took another step towards the cage, looked straight into Madrin's eyes.
"Hal Madrin, prisoner number 14c09; for infraction of the uniform codes, I sentence you to a level two punishment beating. Compliance position two." - breathing heavily, Madrin placed his hands behind his head, threading his fingers together. Khofi selected the appropriate key from his keyring and unlocked the door.
"Come out here."
Khofi felt a sense of satisfaction at seeing how Madrin's legs trembled as they moved. He looked the man - more of a boy, really,
he mused to himself - up and down, wetted his lower lip in anticipation. The custodian closed the sliding cage door as soon as Madrin exited.
"Turn to face the door," he said, the contempt dripping from his voice disguising his sense of arousal; "and take off your top - leave it on the floor."
As Madrin unbuttoned and removed his top, Khofi walked around behind the man and took off his belt; looped it to create a sturdy club. He took a moment to admire the man's supple, smooth back; then he pulled his arm back and brought the belt down in an arc, gently tapping Madrin's back - though the man flinched as if he had been hit full-on. Khofi sniggered.
"Hold on to the bars of the cage, Madrin. The next one will be harder."
Just an instant after the young man's hands made contact with the bars, the first blow struck. After the third blow, Khofi started watching unit 14c in their cage. Some of them were sitting with their eyes closed, trying to ignore what was going on; most were flinching in time to the sound of the blows (like a rock hitting raw meat); one - Vimel Casari - was looking straight into Madrin's eyes, with an inscrutable, blank expression. On the fifth blow Madrin let out a low, pained moan. After the eighth blow his breathing deepened; he swallowed, trying to hold back the tears already beginning to stream down his face.
After the twelfth blow Khofi stopped. He looked at Madrin's back, now a mass of swolen red flesh. He ran his hand slowly down the man's back, savouring the way Madrin convulsed and tried not to make a sound. He took a step back and stuck again; this time Madrin cried out. Thank the Emperor for this uniform,
thought Khofi, hitting again, and again. Madrin's knees buckled; he tried to steady himself against the cage, but another blow came, and another; his palms were covered in sweat, and he collapse onto his knees. Khofi hit him one more time for good measure. Madrin was sobbing, tears and snot combining to form a shiny film over his lower face.
Slowly, Khofi put this belt back on. He pushed Madrin aside with his foot and opened the cage door.
Slowly, holding onto the edge of the door frame for balance, the man obeyed. Khofi kicked his top in after him and slammed the door. He looked at his watch, then back at the quivering body, then around at the unit.
"All at ease. ALL AT EASE." - he shouted for the benefit of 14b and 14a, who he was sure would have stood to attention throughout the whole thing.
"Morning fire drill is in fifteen minutes. Make sure he is able. Madrin, check your uniform this time."
Admiral Kil-ban-Ocean yawned loudly, stretched his arms. The air in his cabin (it pleased him to think of his four-room suite in such terms) was refreshingly cool against his naked flesh (for he was wearing only undergarments), the excess heat being dumped in the main hold. It was made all the sweeter by the Inquisitor's complaints on the issue; oh I am sorry,
Kil-ban-Ocean had replied; but it is an unavoidable malfunction. I am quite sure the tech-priests will have it fixed in a few days.
Of course the truth was that the admiral had been the one to alter the heat distribution in the first place.
It had occurred to him that the regiment staying down in the hold might not appreciate a five-degree increase in temperature, but he had taken a dislike to their colonel when he referred to his men as 'the worst dregs of subhuman scum ever to be collected in a single place'. Ah well,
he thought happily; with an attitude like that, the man will be dead within a day of landing.
The thought made the admiral chuckle merrily; that (not inconsiderate) movement of mass made him realise that he was feeling hungry. He pulled on the soft rope hanging from the ceiling; not two seconds later one of the cabin-boys entered his bedroom. Kil-ban-Ocean smiled at the boy's complete lack of reaction to his near-nudity.
"Why hello there ... Regalis, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir." - his voice was half-broken, on the cusp of adolescence.
"Mm, be a darling and fetch me a chocolate cake from my holy refrigeration unit."
The boy walked swiftly into the next room. Kil-ban-Ocean could hear the automatic Hymn of the Open Door
('By the holy machinations / of the blessed Omnissiah / may this machine never falter / may He guide us to the future...' and so on, for three more increasingly tedious verses); then he heard footsteps coming towards him. The boy was carrying a silver tray with the cake on top; next to the cake was a small silver plate, a cake knife and a tiny fork.
"Shall I cut the cake, sir?"
"Yes, Regalis; a large slice, please."
Kil-ban-Ocean farted with excitement as the boy put the tray on the table and cut it so efficiently. Regalis handed him the plate and watched intently as the admiral ate the delicious slice of cake. Kil-ban-Ocean noticed that the cabin-boy's gaze wandered to the cake, how his nostrils flared up at the sickly-sweet smell. When he was finished, he passed the plate back. Do net let it be said that I am not generous,
"You may eat the crumbs, Regalis."
"Th-thank you, sir."
Kil-ban-Ocean smiled magnanimously; watched Regalis' lips as they brushed against the fine silver of the plate. It is going to be a good day,
"You missed a spot, you shit-eating son of a whore
"A-ah, I'm sorry, chief, please, I haven't slept in-"
Dutal saw the booted foot coming towards him, but he couldn't move out of the way in time (though doing so would only have made things worse). He was sent sprawling across the corridor, hit his head on the bulkhead. He didn't move, except to look at chief petty officer Travis with nervous apprehension.
"You dare- You dare
talk back to me, you worthless little scrap of nothing!?" - Travis took a step towards Dutal; "What are you?"
"Ah- I'm a worthless li-little scrap of nothing, chief."
Travis placed his foot on Dutal's thigh, just below where the dirty rags the man was wearing ended. Dutal could feel his bladder screaming for release, tried with all his might to avoid soiling himself.
"That's right. That's right. You are a smear of shit on the face of humanity, Dutal. But I am a man. You will spend your whole pathetic life toiling down here, but I have no intention of ending my days in your company. The admiral could come down and inspect here at any
time, and I won't allow your incompetence- is that blood!?"
Travis leaned down, pulled Dutal's head away from the bulkhead wall. He quivered with anger, breathed heavily; then slapped Dutal's face with the back of his hand and let go of his hair.
"You are bleeding
on my corridor? You worthless, donkey-fucking whoreson! Get up!"
Dutal scrambled to get up off the floor; Travis pulled a knife from his belt, placed it at Dutal's throat.
"Don't you speak - you breathe one more word today and I'll cut out your tongue. Just listen. I'm going to go and inspect the work of your fellow bastard slaves. When I'm back, this floor will
be suitable to eat off of; or I will slit your throat. Do you understand, fuckwit?"
Dutal nodded slowly, horribly aware of the blade at his throat.
"Good." - spat Travis, spittle sprinkling Dutal's face.
Midday feeding (not lunch,
they had been told; lunch is what men get; animals just get fed
) in the main hold. Unit 14c were sitting around their table (a plain, cold metal table with hard steel benches), hunched over their bowls of thin soup and single slice of bread. Madrin was sitting next to Casari, but everyone was avoiding his gaze. Conversation was muted but constant, and there were two topics that kept coming up: exactly how long custodian Khofi would last planetside; and what, exactly, they were going to fight.
"I know," said Larek Dag; "I know what we're fighting. Cyril Slani, he's one of the colonel's personel men - he overheard a meeting, and he told me."
Dag stopped, took a sip of his soup; then another, eliciting a groan from the man sitting opposite - Fier Caman, the smallest man in the group; but someone the others knew not to mess with. Dag ignored him, ate a mouthful of the sour bread.
"Well?" snapped Caman; "You gonna share with the rest of us, or what?"
"Mm. Okay. So he told me: we're going to be fighting little flying horses."
"Horses. Fuck's sake, Larak - you shitting me, or are you that stupid?"
"Well, not actual horses
, you know; shaped like them, though. But that's not the best bit, not by a long shot."
"Go on then, what's the good fucking news?"
"Well-" - he took a slurp of his soup, leaned a little closer; "-you'll love this: their population is nine-out-of-ten female
Caman snorted with laughter, nearly spilled his soup.
"You'd do the little flying horses, Larak? You're fucked in the head."
I'd do the little flying horses. I mean, unless you're volunteering, Fier."
Dag realised his mistake a second after he spoke. Ashen-faced, he looked at Caman; saw that the other man had lowered his spoon. Casari was looking at both of them, his face (as always) a mask of indifference. Caman spoke with a tone of barely-controlled anger.
"You fucking watch
yourself, horse-fucker. I could snap you in-"
"Unit 14c!" - it was Khofi, striding towards them, flanked by his assistant custodians; "Compliance position three!"
They all placed their hands on their heads, stayed exactly still. Khofi walked around the table, behind Madrin and Casari.
"Madrin. Stand up. You're coming with me."
Everyone there recognised the sadistic glee in Khofi's voice. Madrin and Casari glanced at each other as the younger man rose. A flicker of emotion moved across Casari's face - anger, perhaps - and he turned around to face Khofi.
"Custodian. How long do you think you'll live, when we get where we're going?"
Khofi drew his painstick from his belt; it crackled into life, electricity arcing over it's surface.
"What did you just say?"
"You're going on like this: how long-"
Khofi slammed the painstick over Casari's face, then pulled him back and hit him again. Casari was laying on the floor, blood leaking from a thorougly broken nose; Khofi stamped on his chest.
"Insolence and threatening a custodian - that'll be a level three beating, and your unit will be on half-rations for a week, you walking piece of shit
." - he looked up at the assistant custodians; "Take him. We're going to the stockade."
After they had left, dragging Casari's numb form behind them, Madrin sat down. He started to sob quietly; the rest of the unit tried their best to ignore him.