A short story from The Cruel Stars.
Hi, it’s me JB. I know I don’t write to you very often, because I promised you I wouldn’t unless I had good reason. And I do.
I’ve written a short story with my friend and occasional co-conspirator Jason Lambright about Lucinda Hardy’s first day at the Royal Naval Academy of Armadale. It comes from a longer story we’ve been noodling around with for a while, a novel of the Javan War, which forms the backstory to the whole series of The Cruel Stars.
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I have to finish the final instalment of the trilogy before I can lean into that, but I liked this as a standalone piece that goes some way towards explaining Hardy’s great love for the RAN.
I hope you dig it.
I’m also getting the ebook release of American Kill Switch ready since that whole series is about to escape from Audible jail.
I’ll let you know when that’s closer. I’m also gonna throw in some links to Jason’s work at Amazon, because he’s generously dropped some of his earlier sci-fi to free, and his latest, really cool book, The Storyteller’s Heaven, to a buck.
You can check out his stuff here.
But seriously, grab The Storyteller’s Heaven. It’s great.
For now, though, let’s join Ms Hardy at the Royal Armadalen Naval Academy.
By Jason Lambright and John Birmingham.
Standing in the cold, drifting drizzle on a real-grass parade ground, Cadet Lucinda Hardy felt slight discomfort and profound wonder. Discomfort at the sodden feel of her good grey dress; wonder that fresh water was falling from the sky. She knew of rain, naturally. But feeling it. Being in it on a real world, she felt refreshed and somehow more.
The guy standing next to her, not so much. Some baby baron named Thiessen complained continuously and bitterly.
“The nerve of these people to keep us standing out in the elements like this.”
No one was listening except Lucinda, and she had him half-tuned out. She was still getting used to standing on the surface of a for-fucking-real planet, in the middle of this vast green square. The cadets all stood in blocks of one hundred and twenty: twelve across and ten rows deep. There were five blocks, each known as a company. The whole formation of six hundred students was called a squadron.
Royal Armadalen Naval Cadet Lucinda Hardy stood in the Third Squad, 2nd Company, Squadron 506. Everyone still wore their civilian clothes and quite formal clothes at that. Lucinda’s dress was the finest she had ever owned, but next to the tailored perfection of the baby lords and ladies salted throughout the squadron, she looked like a bag of shit. More than one of the assholes had let her know it, too.
Still, they were all wet and muddy together now.
A double row of hard-faced men and women stood in long lines facing the student squadron. Chief Petty Officers. They wore black patrol caps with golden rank insignia and the traditional Navy blue mottled ensemble. Behind the Chiefs, a review stand climbed away, seating dignitaries in uniform, protected from the rain by a visible field effect. A little way above them floated the biggest fucking Intellect Lucinda had ever seen, possibly even bigger than the Intellect at the heart of Coriolis, her home world. A little off to the side of the bleachers, a military band held curious bag-like instruments with pipes sticking out of them. Lucinda had no idea what they were.
One Chief stood front and centre with more gold stripes than the others. Lucinda assumed she was the Squadron Master Chief. At precisely 1200 hours, the woman braced herself to attention and yelled, “Squadron, ATTENTION!”
The rows of chiefs snapped out of their parade rest and moved with machine-tooled precision. Even the dignitaries stood and braced themselves. The intellect pulsed a deep shade of midnight blue. Most of the cadets had the sense to at least stop moving.
The band came to life.
Lucinda instantly recognised the Armadalen anthem, but the sound of it playing on those weird plaid, piping bags was… disturbing. The little hairs on the back of her neck all stood up, and she felt an uncomfortable stirring in the pit of her stomach. Finally, the anthem ended. The dignitaries sat down, and the Master Chief roared out again.
“Squadron, Parade Rest!”
Other voices joined hers like an echo.
“Squadron… squadron… squadron…”
And then, all at once, “PARADE REST!”
The cadets relaxed. Lucinda executed a half-decent parade rest, as she’d been taught on the long fold to Armadale. The Sub Baron to her left? Again, not really. Thiessen made a face and brushed water from his clothes.
The Intellect spoke, projecting her voice through the assembled cadet’s neural nets. Her tone was formal yet conversational.
“Squadron 506, my name is Dartmouth, and I am the Intellect of this Academy. Allow me to introduce the fifth-life Princess Adaline Elizabeth, Holder of the Grand Cross of Armadale, Rear Admiral of the Royal Armadalen Navy and Commander of this Institute.”
A woman stood and stepped forward to speak at a tiny wooden podium. She wore Navy Black-and-Whites, a single campaign ribbon and the Grand Cross. Her voice, like Dartmouth’s, was suddenly inside Lucinda’s head.
“Cadets of Squadron 506, my comments will be brief. First, congratulations. You have been selected from the best the Commonwealth has to offer. It is an honour for you to stand upon this field today.”
She paused; her tone turned hard.
“That means that you have met the bare minimum intellectual and physical standards required of an officer of the line. If you are to wear the Black-and-Whites, you must prove that you are worthy. Many of you are not. The weak, the lazy, and the incompetent and dishonourable have no place in the Royal Armadalen Navy.”
Her face bore a grim frown.
“No matter your lineage or station.”
Nobody was fidgeting now; all eyes were on the Princess as she continued.
“Today is the Chief’s Orientation and the first day of your instruction. Petty Officers are the backbone of the Navy. They will be your primary instructors. Learn from them. The Cadre at the Academy is the very best, and His Majesty affords them his personal sanction to instruct and enforce discipline at this school.”
Lucinda could have sworn that the Princess-Admiral smiled faintly.
“All of you are now under military discipline. Any rank you had outside of these gates is worthless here. Do not, cadets, do not imagine your family’s status, should they have any, will protect you from the Naval Code of Conduct should you attempt even some petty slight upon your instructors. Your punishment will be swift and terrible to behold.”
“Bullshit,” the young man beside Lucinda muttered.
The Princess let her statement settle in for a moment before her tone brightened considerably.
“But once again, congratulations, Cadets. I wish you the best in your endeavours. And I now release you to your Instructional Cadre.”
The Master Chief bellowed. “Squadron 506, Attention!”
On cue, the band began to play an unfamiliar, jaunty tune. Lucinda chanced a query over the neural net. It was called “Scotland the Brave.”
The Master Chief bellowed again. “Non-Commissioned Officers, instruct your cadets!”
The two rigid lines of Chiefs broke apart and ran toward the cadets. Like, fucking charged at them. Lucinda flinched. Others stood paralysed in shock and no doubt a little fear.
“Huh?” Thiessen said, next to her.
A few cadets started to turn and run. They didn’t get far. Lucinda stood her ground. She knew what a softening-up looked like. She was a Hab Welfare kid. Not some Elite Fraction Truffled Douchelord. With those unholy pipes screaming and swirling, she braced for impact. Left and right, Chiefs pulled up in front of their charges, bellowing orders at them. Suddenly cadets began dropping to the wet grass. Their formal wear only added to the weirdness of the scene.
A squat, clench-faced woman with one ruined eye appeared before Lucinda while another instructor tuned up the baby baron in her peripheral vision, yelling at the boy in his expensive blue suit to perform “mountain climbers”.
Lucinda knew mountain climbers from the compulsory PT class back at Home 334. It was an exercise guaranteed to burn out your legs and your lungs. She stood perfectly still, eyes straight forward as the Chief spoke to her.
“Look at me, Cadet.”
Lucinda shifted her gaze slightly downward, keeping her face free of expression. The other woman was a good deal shorter than her. The Chief nodded while maintaining eye contact.
“A fuckin’ Hab rat with a daddy in debtor’s prison is what I hear about you.”
Lucinda said nothing, but she felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment. Had anyone heard that? Thiessen seemed too busy with his mountain climbers to have noticed, for which she was grateful.
The Chief smiled. Her name tag read ‘Gorlock’.
“You think you’re good enough to be here, rodent?”
She skinned her lips back from her teeth and made an ugly face and noise that Lucinda supposed was meant to be a rat. She kept her own face utterly expressionless.
“I asked you a question, rodent,” Chief Gorlock sneered. “Do you think you’re good enough to be here?”
Lucinda already knew there was no answer. There was only the truth.
“What I think doesn’t matter. I’m just a cadet.”
The truth didn’t help.
Gorlock cranked her voice down into a snarl. “On your back, smart ass! Time for some good old-fashioned flutter kicks!”
Lucinda dropped, knowing her new dress would be ruined. The only nice thing she’d ever owned.
“At my cadence, rodent! One, Two, Three!”
Lucinda’s legs made scissoring motions in the air, and her soaked and useless skirt rode up. Rain fell in her eyes. After a minute, her abs began to burn. Chief Gorlock walked away, and Lucinda let her feet drop to the ground. She started to adjust her skirt.
Suddenly, the Chief’s face appeared above her, and she leaned over far enough to strike Lucinda with the brim of her patrol cap.
Gorlock screamed at her, “Did I fuckin’ tell you to stop, you worthless fucking rodent! Get your legs back in the air! Let me see those pretty pink panties! And don’t you fuckin’ stop until I give you a lawful order to stop! You worthless bag of pussy hair!”
Lucinda set her face and got her legs moving again. After a while, it felt as if molten lead was trickling through her belly. And then flooding. She couldn’t see much from where she lay but heard plenty.
“How dare you...”
“Are you refusing a lawful order, Cadet?”
An indignant sniffle. “No...”
“Then get on your face, Sucktooth!”
“What’s the third General Order, Cadet?”
“I don’t know!”
“Retard! A buck Seaman knows that! Fucking useless! What the fuck have they even sent us? Position of exercise, move!”
Chief Gorlock came by again. Lucinda thought she recognised the boots.
“All right, rodent, roll over.”
Lucinda did as she was told but felt like balling up into a fetal position. What the Hell had she gotten herself into? You stupid cow, she thought. Sephina’s cargo haulier seemed like an excellent idea at that moment.
Gorlock laughed at her. “You hate the Academy yet, rodent? Then push it away from you. One, Two, Three...”
Lucinda did her push-ups, a lot of them.
She had a good view of the people seated on the reviewing stand, although it bobbed with her aching body. An orderly served them drinks. They were laughing and chatting among themselves. Lucinda felt the red rage come over her and swore that these fuckers wouldn’t break her.
The racket around her was astounding. The terrible bag horns continued their monstrous howling. Cadets wriggled upon the muddy ground, set upon by beasts in black hats. Someone was sobbing, and Thiessen puked. The music went on and on. After a while, she couldn’t move. Everything ached; nothing worked. Her head spun. The patch of grass under her dress was a muddy mess. But everyone was a muddy mess. They were all the same now.
At long last, the howling stopped, and Lucinda looked up. The Master Chief had resumed her place; her Cadre was spread throughout the muddy field. The cadets lay upon the ground, retching and panting.
The Master Chief bellowed. “On your feet, Cadets!”
Singly or in pairs, the cadets regained their feet. Lucinda wobbled on her rubbery legs, but she stood. Sub Baron Thiessen mewled upon the ground. Lucinda offered her hand. He slapped it away and stood with all the surety of a newborn forest fawn. He looked over at her and hissed. “Fuck you and fuck this shit.”
One of the Chiefs appeared as if by magic. His name tag read Hardacre. Chief Petty Officer Hardacre spoke calmly, quietly.
“Did you say something, Cadet?”
Thiessen’s answer was a sullen, “No.”
Chief Hardacre looked at him as if studying an insect beneath a magnifying lens.
“You did say something, Cadet. You have scored a minor minus for your lack of integrity.” He paused. “Tell me, Cadet, would you like to go home to your family estate? How would you be received, do you imagine, coming home on the first day? Do you think daddy might trim your allowance?”
Thiessen looked at the Chief with a murderous gleam. He said nothing.
“It’s so easy, Cadet. Just say the word, and you can leave.”
Thiessen said nothing.
Chief Hardacre stepped right up in his grill.
“You think you’re better than her, don’t you.”
He did. They all knew it, but the baby baron was smart enough to shut the fuck up.
“Do not refuse another cadet’s help, and do not hesitate to offer it,” Hardacre said at last. “In the Royal Armadalen Navy, we live and die with each other.”
The Chief turned on his heel and resumed his place in the formation.
Lucinda noted that other such scenes played out throughout the formation's chaos. The other cadets were as messed up as she felt. Their finery was ruined, and their dignity, too.
When the Squadron was still, at last, the Master Chief pivoted precisely in place and addressed the Princess, who stood.
“Your Highness, Squadron 506 has completed their introduction to their Instructional Cadre.”
“Excellent, Master Chief. You may move the Cadets to their quarters and prepare them for further instruction.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Companies from the right. Column half right! March!”
Squadron 506 moved like a herd of cattle, and Lucinda trudged along within the herd. It couldn’t really be called marching, but it got them going in the right general direction.
Lucinda wanted to strip off her stained and ruined dress. She wanted a shower. She wanted to get right back on the Worstelaar and go home. However, what she wanted and what she got were two different things.
Her company stopped in front of a gleaming, manicured white building. Upon command, the cadets staggered into the building by squads. Before they were allowed to enter, however,
each had to stop for push-ups on two stones that were roughly shoulder-width apart. The rocks had the gold bar of an Ensign’s rank helpfully painted upon them. A Chief stood there and determined the number of push-ups required from each cadet. After that, the Cadet had to do seven pull-ups while reciting the Troop Leading Procedures. Few knew what Troop Leading Procedures were, so this took a while. Thirty sit-ups, flutter-kicks, and on and on it went.
Cadet Hardy endured the process, stubborn, stupid pride keeping her at it. She, at least, remembered the seven points of the Troop Leading Procedures that she’d memorised on board the Worstellar.
Finally, the day ended, and the thirty Cadets of her training squad came to attention by their lockers as the Chiefs came by for final inspection.
As ordered, Lucinda stood in her skivvies, holding a full canteen in her left hand. Her head was muddled; she had no idea what she was doing. All she knew was that the training schedule posted to her neural net said she would be getting up at 0400 the following day. It was 2336 now.
Her Chief, the one-eyed monster Gorlock, was striding through the hall. Bellowing.
“Cadets must be hydrated! Cadets, drink!”
Lucinda put her canteen to her lips and drank.
“I said drink!” Gorlock yelled. “Bottoms up! All liquids gone!”
Lucinda drank. She watched Thiessen drink as well. His Adam’s apple bobbed. She felt full to bursting, but her canteen was empty. She held it back in front of her. After a moment, so did he. The Chief checked in on them and bellowed her next instructions.
“Cadets, hold your canteen over your head, opening oriented downwards! Let me see it!” Thiessen looked sick. Lucinda had a feeling she knew what was going to happen. She held her canteen over her head and upended it. A few drops of water trickled down her face. Thiessen, however, took a bath.
Gorlock was apoplectic.
“Did you fail to follow a lawful order, Cadet? Why have you spilled water all over my floor?”
She pointed at Lucinda. “You saw what was happening, and you said nothing. On your faces, the two of you. Get going.”
Lucinda knew well enough by now what that meant. She dropped and started grinding out more push-ups. Next to her, Thiessen did the same, muttering curses and vengeance but not managing nearly as many push-ups.
Chief Gorlock disappeared and raised some Hell with some other poor bastard. Eventually, two old-fashioned mops landed at the base of the beds with a thump and a clatter.
Thiessens’ muttering ceased. Lucinda heard him rise unsteadily, with groans and more muttered swearing. He half-walked, half-staggered towards her. She shook her head slightly, rose from the floor and faced him, dizzy with exhaustion.
The other cadets said nothing, having learned the importance of never drawing attention to themselves. They watched whatever was about to happen between Lucinda and Thiessen, however.
“Yes, Cadet?” Lucinda croaked.
He pointed at the mop. “Are fucking stupid? Clean up.”
She looked into his eyes. There was nothing there. No fellow feeling, no shared sympathy for what they had just been through together. Just contempt.
“I’d be glad to help you clean up your mess, Cadet Thiessen,” she said carefully, knowing their every word was monitored. Just like at Home 334. “But I’m not your servant.”
His face darkened.
“Do as I say, clean up this mess, or the second I get out of this fucking gulag and back to real life, I’ll destroy you and your whole family.”
Lucinda’s face hardened. She had studied The Cadet’s Handbook on the fold from Coriolis. She knew that teamwork was required among cadets, but obedience was not. Even so, her pulse raced.
She crossed her arms.
A collective intake of breath from their audience.
Thiessen paled then reddened.
“I’ll teach you your place, bitch. Turn around!” He twirled his hand, a practised gesture as if Lucinda were to turn in place and lift her skirt in some palace scullery.
Lucinda shifted her position slightly. This would not end well, and who would the cadre believe? A hab rat or a baron? She could already see her future going down in flames, but she’d had enough of this shit.
When it sunk in that she wasn’t going to do his bidding, Thiessen lashed out with an obvious right haymaker aimed at Lucinda’s face. Lucinda thought that, even if he hadn’t been so completely fatigued by the tortures of the day, it probably wouldn’t have been much of a punch. Unlike her, he hadn’t learned to fight for real on the plates of Coriolis. He probably had access to dozens of expensive combat scripts he could load at home, but all he had here was his rage and entitlement. And it wasn’t nearly enough.
Lucinda leaned back and let his fist sail harmlessly past her face. With her left arm, she hooked his right, shifted her hips, and allowed his momentum to spin him around while she hyperextended the elbow joint. Thiessen climbed onto his tiptoes, trying to escape the sudden, unexpected pain. He squealed and sucked air in through his teeth. Lucinda contemplated breaking his elbow, but instead, she lifted her fist to flatten his fine-looking nose. A smile ghosted across her face. This was gonna be fucking sweet.
Both warring parties froze. The entire platoon came to attention. It was Dartmouth, the Intellect. Lucinda released Thiessen and snapped to attention. A second later, Thiessen straightened himself up, too. Seconds passed while the Intellect floated into the barracks. Both cadets’ eyes were fixed on the wall opposite.
Finally, Dartmouth spoke. “Cadet Thiessen. You have been recorded attempting the sexual coercion of a fellow cadet. You will face a full disciplinary board in the morning. Until then, you will be held as a prisoner.”
A null-grav field effect lifted the young noblemen six inches off the floor.
He struggled and swore but could no more break free from his invisible bonds than Lucinda could escape her astonishment at the idea that someone so highborn could be punished for attacking someone as lowly as her. A hab rat.
Dartmouth turned slightly towards her.
“Cadet Hardy. If you are going to land a blow, do so immediately instead of foolishly savouring the moment. You have scored a minor minus on your record and will report to your instructing chief for punishment detail in the morning.”
“But she almost broke my arm!” Thiessen wailed.
“Indeed. She should have, but she hesitated for which failure she will answer to Chief Gorlock. Tomorrow. I expect Cadet Hardy has a lot of potato peeling in her immediate future. You, on the other hand, are going to prison. Guards.”
Two MPs marched into the barracks and took Thiessen under float with impeller sticks.
Disbelief spread through the thirty cadets on a wave of murmuring shock.
Dartmouth spoke for the last time. “That is all, cadets. I will now release you back to the care of your instructional cadre.”
The Intellect winked out of existence with a small pop of displaced air. Simultaneously, the door to the cadet’s room opened with a boom, and Chief Gorlock strode in with murder in her good eye.
“Hardy! Clean up that fucking mess as I told you. The rest of you, get into bed. You two,” she roared at the guards. “Get this bag of dripping shit out of my barracks.”
Lucinda thought she saw one of the guards smile.
What she didn’t see was Sub Baron Riley Thiessen, ever again.
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