Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast
Even as Forty-Two stood knee-deep in the muck, his tunic was spotless. “God damn them to hell; if they even have the soul for it,” Halfacre said, enjoying Forty-Two’s reaction to the blasphemy. The lieutenant pulled a charge-rod off the wall and handed it to the ensign. “Wade in there until you find one and deliver a dose to the skull. That ought to rouse them. Call me once you have them all activated.”
That should rub a bit of the orientation shine off the boy. Halfacre pulled himself out of the nutrient bath and headed for the neutralization chamber.
As the chemical shower’s door dilated, one of the grunts was waiting with a freshly laundered uniform. Disgusting things, the grunts, hulking neuters with no clothing but the instrument panels embedded in their arms.
After changing, Halfacre saw the young nelson conversing with the grunts in their abbreviated dialect. How the devil had he gotten them to clean themselves and line up in front of the training receptacles, docile as anyone could want?
He had the boy now. “How dare you dose them without orders,” Halfacre shouted. Forty-Two must have cut corners, altering their performance cocktails.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but their glands haven’t been cracked yet.”
Swearing under his breath, Halfacre quickly replayed video of the scene in the berth while he’d been away. The boy had just wiped down the charge-rod and put it back on the wall, then spent a few minutes singing out in gentle tones. Before long they started to rise out of the mess.
“You went wireless,” Halfacre said, horrified. A nelson with his receivers open would be easy prey for French cryptographers. He pulled his side-arm. The boy could already be infected.
“No sir, it was just a song. They let them keep memories of the crèche, so they feel safe in the baths,” Forty-Two said. “That’s one of the nonsense rhymes they use to implant language.”
“But I specifically ordered you to shock them.” Good, another young horatio off to the renderer; with any luck, they’d be feasting on him by noon. Halfacre’s ganglia interfaced with two of the nearest grunts. Using the nerve endings of his phantom arm, he over-rode their basic programming and instructed them to take the ensign to the captain. “You disobeyed orders,” Halfacre said. “Its Majesty’s Navy will not stand for insubordination.”
Captain “Firefight” Nelson looked flushed when he accepted them into his cabin. The entire ship knew that he was playing an ancient and dangerous game amongst nelsons, wooing Minister Nelson’s hamilton. That was one reason admiralty had sent them out to the fringes of the war, doomed to play out tiny trafalgars around Barnard’s Star, little skirmishes where disgraced nelson fought disgraced tourville.
“Another one, Mr. Halfacre?” he said.
“He disobeyed orders. The punishment is clear.”
“We’ll let admiralty decide that.” He let the boy have the hint of a smile and said, “Go to the brig, Mr. Forty-Two.”
Once the boy had left, he said, “Why do you persist in this, Halfacre? Rear Admiral Nelson keeps pardoning and reassigning them. It’s only more work for you.”
“They never obey.”
“The technicians surely miscalculated their temporal dynamics when they plucked you out of your timestream.”
Halfacre fought to ignore the comment. He’d heard similar from far more well-regarded nelsons. Let them carp. He knew his duty.