The Imperial Planetary Dominator Bermuda cruised silently through the depths of interstellar space. It was huge, menacing, an unstoppable juggernaut which represented the pinnacle of the power of the Imperial Space Fleet. Like gnats around the head of an alligator, patrolling THIGH Fighters swarmed around its mile-long wedge-shaped hull.
The recreation deck of the IPD Bermuda was crowded with off-duty Shock Troopers, mingling with a variety of other personnel.
At one end of the large hall, the food court was a neat cluster of small tables, arrayed in regular rows; behind the tables, several food preparation outlets provided a broad range of meals, guaranteed to appeal to almost every crewmember's tastes. Just beyond the food court, a couple of taverns provided more private and intimate booths for the consumption of an equally broad range of beverages, alcoholic or otherwise. The rest of the room was taken up with a variety of different gaming tables and machines. Discreetly positioned along the opposite wall of the hall, where the lighting was dimmest, were thirty small private rooms, provided for the use of couples who could not find any privacy in their own crowded dormitories. Provided they did not interfere with the chain of command, or distract from one's duties, on-board relationships between crew were not forbidden.
"I'm telling you," said Mikki loudly over the roar of the conversations going on around them, "that's what I heard." He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms above his head. Mikhail 'Mikki the Mouse' Tetrakovavonavich was a little short, for a Shock Trooper. His blond hair was shorn so close to his skull it was practically invisible against the pink of his scalp. His thin face was not unattractive, despite the narrow scar which began beside his left eye and ran up past his hairline. His slender frame belied his wiry strength, and he could move like lightning if necessary. He wore his standard issue fatigues, the shirt sleeves rolled loosely to his elbows. On his breast pocket, an embroidered patch showed a small grey mouse baring improbably large fangs. "Five!" He shook his head.
"But that's crazy," said Izzy around a mouthful of food. Only slightly taller than Mikki, Izzy 'Killer' Jenkins was visibly more muscular than he was. She was dressed to show it off, too; her legs were clad in the same fatigue pants that Mikki wore, but over her athletic torso and small bust she wore a clean white singlet, cut short to expose an inch or two of her taut midriff. As she sliced off another piece of rare, pink steak, the muscles in her arms flexed beneath her tanned skin, and the tattoo below her left shoulder—a grinning white skull, impaled on a dagger dripping red with blood, crossed by a scroll inscribed with the word 'KILLER'—seemed to laugh silently at the world. Her dark hair was cropped short, but not as severely as Mikki's. Her features were blunt and broad, and her flat nose had healed a little crooked the last time it had been broken. "It's always been four to a squad."
"I know," said Mikki. "But this guy I know said he overheard a couple of high-ranking officers talking about it."
"Talking about what?" said Fib. Holding his tray of food with one large hand, he spun a chair around with the other, turning its back towards the table. He straddled the chair and sat down, placing the tray on the table as he did so. Fib was a large man; tall, heavily muscled, he probably outweighed Mikki and Izzy combined. His pale grey eyes were his most striking feature—although the large pale ribbon of scar tissue which snaked its way up the back of his forearm and disappeared beneath the rolled sleeve of his fatigue shirt was also hard to miss. Everybody called Fib 'Fib'; he had various nicknames which were based upon his initials—most of them uncomplimentary—and he swore with a straight face that his mother had christened him Fellatio Brown.
Mikki leaned in closer. "Apparently there are moves afoot to change the size of a squad from four Troopers to five."
To those who didn't know him, Fib was an imposing, scary man. He was rarely seen to smile, his face seemingly twisted into a perpetual scowl. Now, though, he laughed aloud, and loudly, his deep-set eyes twinkling. A momentary silence fell as the people on nearby tables turned to see what was going on. Laughter from Fib was almost as scary as the man himself.
Fib shook his head. "Mikki, Mikki, Mikki. When are you gonna learn?"
Mikki shrugged. "Hey, what can I say? My source is reliable."
"As reliable as the guy who told you that an entire platoon of Troopers got defeated by a bunch of Teddewoks?"
"Well okay, so that was..." began Mikki.
"As reliable," interrupted Fib, "as the guy who told you he saw a damn cow floating through an asteroid field?"
"Hey, it could be..."
"As reliable as the guy who told you that crazy cucumber story?" asked Fib, a hint of anger in his deep voice. "That's the problem with these damn nutters: they always come up with totally unbelievable theories!"
The official story surrounding the disaster in the Yawn system was that Rebel terrorists, in an unprovoked attack, had employed some new, secret Weapon of Mass Destruction to destroy the pride of the Imperial fleet, the Devastator Station—and this only a day after a similarly unprovoked, cruel and savage Rebel attack had resulted in the total annihilation of the planet Alderbark.
As always when events of such magnitude were involved, the conspiracy theorists had come out of the woodwork, whispering of government cover-ups. Some radicals were even saying that the Imperium had caused the destruction of Alderbark at the direction of some shadowy cult which existed behind the scenes, manipulating the strings that made the Imperator dance. A few of the crazier stories suggested that—for reasons unknown—the Devastator Station had been turned into a zucchini, or possibly a cucumber. Needless to say, anyone who might have actually been able to confirm such wild stories had conveniently "mysteriously disappeared", either silenced permanently, or taken away for "re-education".
Such stories were particularly abhorrent to those people who had lost friends on the Devastator Station, or on the IPD Isosceles which had been lost in the same attack. As members of Team Badger, one of the two surviving squads of the Isosceles' Raptor Command, Fib and his comrades had little patience for such nonsense.
"Yeah, okay," said Mikki loudly. "Okay. You've made your point. But I'm telling you, this time it's true. They reckon it's going to be announced in a couple of days."
"But that's crazy," said Fib.
"See?" said Izzy shortly. "It'd never happen."
"Why not?" said Mikki. "I don't see why you guys won't believe me."
"It'd never happen," said Fib with exaggerated slowness, "because it's crazy." He shrugged. "Everything—from the bunk arrangements to the damn troop carriers—is designed around a squad size of four. To even attempt to fuck with something that works so well would be, well, crazy!"
"Well, the way I heard it," Mikki leaned in even closer and lowered his voice to barely more than a whisper, "this comes from Palpator himself."
Izzy and Fib glanced at each other. There were rumours—passed from ear to ear in careful whispers, for one was never sure who might be listening—that Imperator Palpator was no longer entirely sane. It was said that some of the more puzzling directives which had been plaguing the usual ruthless efficiency of the Imperium of late had come directly from his office.
"But even he wouldn't..." Izzy's voice trailed off into a thoughtful silence.
"Surely he can't be that far gone?" said Fib quietly.
"That's what I hear," said Mikki, almost apologetically.
The three looked back and forth at each other. Finally Fib said what they were all thinking.
"Aw fuck! I need a beer!"
"You and me both!" agreed Mikki.
"I'll get them," said Izzy, standing up. "You boys wait right here!"
"Thanks, Killer," said Fib, smiling sweetly. "You're such a darling."
"Fuck you, Fib," she replied automatically. "I'll make sure yours has a little something extra in it, from me to you."
"Knew I could count on you, my girl," said Fib.
With the barest hint of a grin curling her lip, Izzy moved away with all the lithe grace of a cat. Both men watched her go. Mikki let out a small sigh.
"You know she'd chew you up and spit you out, don't you?" said Fib casually.
Mikki glanced at him. "That obvious, huh?"
"Only because I know you so well," said Fib.
Mikki nodded. "Yeah, I do know it. But hell, there's gotta be worse ways to die."
Fib snorted. "Maybe, my friend. But the last guy who put the moves on her isn't dead. Yet. They say he may even walk again, given time."
"I heard something about that," said Mikki. "Ouch!"
"I'm just saying," said Fib, "don't rock the boat!" He lifted the pair of eating sticks off his tray, pulled the bowl of steaming food closer, and lifted a morsel into his mouth.
"Admit it," said Mikki with a devilish grin. "You just want me for yourself, don't you?"
Fib snorted. "In your dreams, perhaps," he said. "I know where you've been! I just don't want there to be trouble in our squad; our future is uncertain enough as it is."
Mikki held up his hands in mock surrender. "Okay. I give in. I wouldn't do anything silly anyway—but a guy can dream, can't he?"
"What you do in the privacy of your own bunk is up to you!"
Mikki chuckled. After a moment, though, his grin became a concerned frown.
"What are you eating?"
Fib slurped a few loose noodles into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "It's THIGH Rong Pong," he said.
"THIGH food?" demanded Mikki. He eyed the mound of odd shapes and slimy noodles in Fib's bowl suspiciously. "Isn't that stuff toxic to humans?"
Fib sighed. "You've really gotta stop listening to the wrong people, Mikki! This stuff is fine. A bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but it's perfectly safe! You should try it some time."
"I'll pass," said Mikki.
"Your loss," said Fib. "Speaking of which, aren't you eating?"
"Not today," said Mikki. "I think I overdid it a little last night. Spent half the night in the can, throwing up. I'm still not ready to tackle solid food. Beer, though—where has Izzy got to?" Mikki looked around for a few seconds, then frowned at the big man across from him. Fib was no longer looking at him; instead his gaze had shifted slightly. Mikki turned to see what had caught his friend's attention. In the shadows across the room, he saw Sergeant Strong talking to someone. Sammy 'Mauler' Strong was the fourth member of Team Badger, their leader and—as much as was possible—their friend. Now he was deep in conversation with—Mikki squinted into the gloom. Oh! The Sarge was with Jenna Lopez, Sergeant of Team Fennec.
"You're not still carrying that torch, are you, big guy?" he said with a sigh.
Fib met his gaze sheepishly. He shrugged.
"After the lecture you just gave me, I'm sure I don't need to elaborate on why it's an extremely bad idea, do I?"
"I know," said Fib quietly. "I know. It's wrong, it's a mistake, it'll never come to anything." He sighed. "But dammit, Mikki, knowing is one thing, but I can't help how I feel, can I?" He curled his upper lip in what might have been a grin as he repeated Mikki's own words back to him: "A guy can dream, can't he?"
Mikki laughed. "So I've heard, buddy. So I've heard!"
"What have you heard?" asked Izzy as she set three large glasses of beer down on the table. She sat down, and wiped her damp palms down her trousers.
"Oh, y'know," said Mikki. "Whatever other shit they throw at us, our dreams are still our own!"
She nodded. "That much, at least, is true. For now, anyway."
Fib nodded, but his gaze drifted across to the far side of the room once more. He took a large swallow of beer, and watched as Strong and Lopez slipped into one of the private suites and closed the door. He sighed.
Elsewhere aboard the IPD Bermuda, a section of cargo bay had been converted to a makeshift dormitory. Guards had been posted, quarantine signs had been erected. Inside slept seventeen THIGH Pilots, among them Lieutenant Colonel Javamaprandarah Rajamajarandaibuggah. His friends knew him as Joe, but at the moment he had no friends. None that knew he still lived, anyway.
A fine, medicated mist drifted through the room, and was continually recycled and refreshed through the fully sealed ventilation system. The drugged air ensured that Joe and his fellow THIGH Pilots slept, and listened.
These were the sole surviving Imperial forces of the Yawn Incident. These were the witnesses of which Mikki's conspiracy theories spoke. These were the sort of people who tended to disappear after an embarrassing incident; all that saved them from a short trip into a garbage compactor was that THIGH Pilots were incredibly expensive.
Piped into the darkened room was a recorded voice. It was only a short message, but it repeated itself over and over: "The Rebels destroyed Alderbark. Their secret weapon destroyed the Devastator Station. There was no cucumber. The Rebels are scum."
A second message overlaid the first, at a pitch which bypassed the ears and drilled directly into their genetically developed cerebral cortices. Apart from anything else, THIGH Pilots had been designed to be programmable. This second message was slightly shorter; it said simply: "Your memories are not your own. Your dreams are not your own."
Joe slept. Joe listened.
Joe's dreams were not his own.
"Damn, Sammy boy, now I know why they call you 'Mauler'; my boobs are gonna be bruised for a month!"
Sergeant Samson Strong lay on his back on the crumpled sheet; it clung damply to his bare skin. He was breathing heavily, and a light sheen of sweat covered his face and upper body.
Sergeant Jenna Lopez lay beside him, on her stomach, her body nestled tight against his. She rested her head on his shoulder, her face turned towards him, and draped one arm limply across his chest. Her leg was wrapped around his. She was breathing heavily too, each exhalation warm against the side of his face. He idly stroked her bare hip with one roving finger.
There was not much room on the narrow bed, but it was meant for purposes other than sleeping.
"You gave as good as you got," said Sammy. "Some of these scratches are going to leave scars."
"As if you don't already have enough of those," she said, dragging a fingernail lightly down a line of puckered white skin which ran across his shoulder. He shivered involuntarily at the sensation.
"Ticklish, Sammy boy?" she chuckled.
"Sometimes," he admitted. He lifted his free hand lazily, and captured hers; their fingers entwined. He raised her hand to his mouth, pressed his lips to her smooth skin. She tasted salty. "But only with you," he added.
"You better believe it, lover," she murmured against his chest. She lay there for a while, content to listen to the whisper of his breathing, the strong rhythmic beating of his heart. Her eyes drifted closed, and for a few moments she allowed herself the luxury of drifting on the edge of sleep.
"How much time do we have?" she asked finally.
"Why?" he asked, his lips curling into a smile. "You want to go again?"
"Soon," she said. "Soon. Are you smiling?"
"How did you know?"
"I can hear it in your voice," she said. She kissed his chest, flicked her tongue idly over his salty skin. "How long?"
"I booked for the whole night," he told her.
"That's what I love about you," she murmured.
"What?" he asked. "My hopelessly romantic nature?"
"No," she said. "Your optimism! You're smiling again."
"Mind if I just doze for a while?" she said.
"Go right ahead," he told her.
She did. He lay for a while, listening as her breathing became slow and steady. Eventually he closed his own eyes, and allowed sleep to claim him.
If he dreamed, he did not remember.
Much later, after making love a second time, they lay facing each other. The top sheet, which had been kicked to the floor fairly early in the proceedings, had been recovered and now lay loosely over their legs, covering them both to the waist.
"You do know he loves you, don't you?" asked Jenna softly.
"Fib? Yeah. I know."
"What are you going to do?"
Sammy shook his head against the soft pillow. "I have been doing my best to avoid that question," he told her. "So far it's worked out pretty well."
"Will it last, though?"
Sammy closed his eyes for a moment, and drew a deep breath. "It has to," he said. "I can't mention it to him—you and I both know that would only end badly."
"What about..." Jenna bit her lip and hesitated.
"Say it," he said.
"What about a transfer?" she said.
"Well, there's the problem. Apart from anything else Fib's a hell of a soldier; I'm not sure I'd want to lose him. And I love the guy like a brother. He's a friend. I can't do that to him."
Jenna stared mutely at him.
"Besides, you know what the Imperial Army is like," said Sammy. "Officially it's an open and accepting policy; unofficially, they'd crucify him. He'd spend the next twenty years pulling sentry duty on some backwoods planet; any chance he might have at a career would be over."
"So ... what? We just pretend there isn't a problem?"
"Is there a problem, though?" he asked her. "Fib's not stupid; he's certainly smart enough to restrain himself. And if he ever does say anything, well, then is the time to handle it. Not before."
She sighed. "Okay. We'll play it your way, but I have a bad feeling about this."
"It'll be fine. Besides," he grinned, "why do you have a problem with it? It's my cute little butt he wants, not yours!"
"And a cute little butt it is," she agreed. "Maybe I'm just jealous. It's mine, not his!"
"That's what I love about you," he told her.
"What? My insanely possessive nature?"
"No," he said. "Your cute butt!"
She sat up. "Don't change the subject," she said. Grabbing the lone pillow, she swung it around and whacked him with it. Sammy rolled and dove for her, and as they began to wrestle, she giggled. "What, again?"
The planet Yawn was different from every other known planet in the galaxy, in that it was not easily described or catalogued. The Galactic Planetary Index, which maintained a short descriptive list of all planets—most of them having one-line entries—would have been only half as long if the entry for Yawn were removed. It was a diverse mix of a multitude of differing environments and weather conditions. Most people—of those who cared to consider the question—agreed that it was a boring planet.
The space above Yawn had been the site of the Imperium's most devastating defeat in the twenty-odd years since Palpator had declared himself Imperator.
Now, the entire system was officially off limits. It was blockaded and quarantined. A small fleet of Imperial scientific ships trawled through the system, collecting and analysing every last trace of evidence in an effort to determine exactly what had happened. Much of the evidence they collected seemed to be organic in nature—and although a strict edict had been passed that the word "cucumber" was not to appear in any reports, many agreed that the "unidentified organic debris" would probably be good in a sandwich.
The ISV Einstein was one of the smaller ships of the fleet. It had been in a slowly advancing orbit around Yawn for several weeks now, collecting everything which had fallen into the planet's gravity well but not yet to its surface.
In a refrigerated storeroom behind one of the laboratories, several small snowballs of dirty greenish ice lay on a steel shelf, awaiting examination. They ranged in size from a couple of inches to about a foot, and were irregular clusters of smaller, frozen organic particles. One of them, about six inches across, had quite a pinkish tinge through the green, with a darker patch in the middle.
There was nobody in the storeroom to observe a strange green shimmer which suddenly emanated from the centre of the pinkish snowball. When the shimmer faded a few seconds later, the pink object at the heart of the snowball had gone. Empty now, the lump of ice sat for a second or two before slowly crumpling, collapsing into its own hollow centre.
The room was silent, and dark.
A broken figure of a man lay on the soft bed, covered by a cool white sheet. He tossed and turned restlessly in his sleep. He flailed one hand around, groping in the dark for something. He only had one hand with which to grope; his right arm was little more than a stump, ending well above where the elbow might once have been. His legs, too, were stumps; the sheet which covered them lay flat on the mattress where his knees would have been.
His face, contorted now by an expression of fear which mirrored the nightmarish images playing in his mind, was scarred and pale.
There was a blue shimmer in the dark beside the restless figure; moments later his flailing hand closed over something soft and pink. He clutched it like a lifeline, bringing it up to his chest, wrapping his left arm tightly around it. His twitching stopped, and rest came at last to his tortured soul.