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Authors: Glen Cook

Passage at Arms

BOOK: Passage at Arms
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Passage at Arms

A Starfishers Novel

Glen Cook



In a desperate galactic war, they are the confederation's only hope -- and the fiercest fighting fleet ever known.


In The War For The Human Race...

The Confederation calls them "climbers." Stripped-down tin cans that bristle with weapons, they hit and run, ducking when they must into the frightful void of Null space before emerging to strike again -- or die in an overpowering barrage of enemy fire.


Crewed by hardened and hard-living fliers trying to stay alive, they're engaged in a brutal, do-or-die struggle. For across the frontier of known space, an army billion of soldiers strong implacably advances towards the Confederation's worlds. And its mission? The total enslavement of all mankind...

Passage at Arms

A Starfishers Novel

Glen Cook

Copyright © Glen Cook 1985

Cover Art : John Berkey

Cover Design : Don Puckey

All rights reserved.


A Popular Library Edition published by Warner Books, Inc.


First Publish: April 1985

ePub edition v1.0 by Dead^Man Jan, 2011

ISBN : 0-445-20006-5


Note: This book is a prequel to the series. It does not use any of the characters or locations of the remainder of the series. While it can be read first (or alone), I would suggest reading the other three books before reading this one.

Table of Contents

1 Welcome Aboard

2 Canaan

3 Departure

4 First Climb

5 On Patrol

6 First Contact

7 Orders

8 Rathgeber

9 Pursuit

10 Homeward Bound

11 End Game


1 Welcome Aboard


The personnel carrier lurches through the ruins under a wounded sky. The night hangs overhead like a sadist’s boot, stretching out the moment of terror before it falls. It’s an indifferent brute full of violent color and spasms of light. It’s an eternal moment on a long, frightening, infinite trail that loops back upon itself. I swear we’ve been around the track a couple of times before.

I decide that a planetary siege is like a woman undressing. Both present the most amazing wonders and astonishments the first time. Both are beautiful and deadly. Both baffle and mesmerize me, and leave me wondering, What did I do to deserve this?

A twist of a lip or a quick chance fragment can shatter the enchantment in one lethal second.

I look at that sky and wonder at myself. Can I really see beauty in that?

Tonight’s raids are really showy.

Moments ago the defensive satellites and enemy ships were stars in barely perceptible motion. You could play guessing games as to which were which. You could pretend you were an old-time sailor trying to get a fix and not being able because your damned stars wouldn’t hold still.

Now those diamond tips are loci for burning spiders’ silk. The stars were lying to us all along. They were really hot-bottomed arachnids with their legs tucked in, waiting to spin their deadly nets. Gigawatt filaments of home-brew lightning come and go so swiftly that what I really see is afterimages scarred on my rods and cones.

Balls of light flare suddenly, fade more slowly. There is no way of knowing what they mean. You presume they are missiles being intercepted because neither side often penetrates the other’s automated defenses. Occasional shooting stars claw the stratosphere as fragments of missile or satellite die a second death. Everything consumed in this holocaust will be replaced the moment the shooters disappear.

I try to pay attention to Westhause. He’s telling me something, and to him it’s important. “... instruments are rather primitive, Lieutenant. We get around on a hunch and a prayer.” He snickers. It’s the sound boys make after telling dirty jokes.

I’m sorry I asked. I don’t even remember the question now. I just wanted to get a feel of the man who will be our astrogator. I’m getting more than I bargained for. The fifty-pfennig tour.

That’s one of the tricks of telling a good story, Waldo. Before you start talking you identify the parts that are important only to you and separate them from those everybody else wants to hear. Then you leave out the insignificant details only you care about. You hear me thinking at you, Waldo? I suppose not. There aren’t many telepaths around.

Now I understand the sly smiles that slit the faces of the others when I started with Westhause. Took them off my hook and put me on the astrogator’s.

I shuffle the mental paperwork I did on the officers. Waldo Westhause. Native Canaanite. Reserve officer. Math instructor before he was called to the colors. Twenty-four. An old man to be making just his second patrol. Deftly competent in his specialty, but not well-liked. Talks too much.

He has that eager-to-please look of the unpopular kid who hangs in there, trying. He’s too cheerful, smiles too much, and tells too many jokes, all of them poorly. Usually muffs the punchline.

I don’t know much of this by direct observation. This is the Old Man’s report.

Experienced Climber officers are taut, dour, close-mouthed sphinxes who watch everything with hooded, feline eyes. They all have a little of the cat in them, the cat that sleeps with one cracked eye. They jump at odd sounds. They’re constantly grooming. They make themselves obnoxious with their passion for cool, fresh air and clean surroundings. They’ve been known to maim slovenly wives and indifferent hotel housekeepers.

The carrier heaves. “Damn it! I’ll need my spine rebuilt if this keeps on. They can use my tailbone for baby powder now.”

Some closet Torquemada had pointed at this antique, crowed, “Personnel carrier!” and ordered us aboard. The damned thing bucks, jounces, and lurches like some clanking three-legged iron stegosaurus trying to shake off lice. The dusky sorceress driving keeps looking back, her face torn by a wide ivory grin. This particular louse has chosen himself a spot to bite if she’s ever stupid enough to stop.

The ride has its positive side. I don’t have to listen to Westhause all the time. I can’t. I can’t keep tabs on the raid, either.

Why must I chase these incredible stories?

I remember a story about bullriders I did before the war. On Tregorgarth. Fool that I am, I felt compelled to live that whole experience, too. But then I could jump off the bull anytime I wanted.

I hear the Commander’s chuckle and look his way. He’s a dim, golden-haired silhouette against the moonlight. He’s watching me. “They’re only playing tonight,” he says. “Drills, that’s all. Just training drills.” His laugh explodes like a thunderous fart.

Squinting doesn’t help me make out his expression. In the flash and flicker it jerks like the action in an ancient kinescope, or some conjured demon unsure what form to manifest. It doesn’t settle. The Teutonic shape fills with shadowed hollows. The eyes look mad. Is he playing a game? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I survey the others, Lieutenant Yanevich and Ensign Bradley. They haven’t spoken since we entered the main gate. They hang on to their seats and count the rivets in the bucking deck or recall the high points of their leaves or say prayers. There is no telling what’s going on in their heads. Their faces give nothing away.

I feel strange. I’m really doing it. I feel alone and afraid, and fall into a baffled, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here mood.

There is a big explosion up top. For an instant the ruins become an ink-line drawing of the bottommost floor of hell. Forests of broken brick pillars and rusty iron that present little resistance to the shock waves of the attackers’ weapons. Every single one will tumble someday. Some just demand more attention.

The silent monument called Lieutenant Yanevich comes to life. “You should catch one of their big shows,” he says. He cackles. It sounds forced, like a laugh given in charity to a bad joke. But maybe he’s right to laugh. Maybe Climber men do have the True Vision. To them the war is one interminable shaggy-dog story. “You were too late for the latest Turbeyville Massacre.”

Our driver swerves. Our right side tracks climb a pile of rubble. We crank along at half speed, with a thirty-degree list on. A band of spacers are trudging along the same trail, lurching worse than the carrier, singing a grotesquely modified patriotic song. They are barely visible in their dress blacks. Only one man glances our way, his expression one of supreme disdain. His companions all hang on to one another, fore and aft, hand to shoulder, skipping along in a bizarre bunny hop. They could be drunken dwarfs heading for the night shift in a surreal coal mine. They all carry sacks of fruits and vegetables. They vanish into our lightless wake.

“Methinks they be a tad drunk,” says Bradley, who is carrying no mean load himself.

“We looked Turbeyville over on our way here,” I say, and Yanevich nods. “/saw enough.”

The Fleet’s big on-planet headquarters is buried beneath Turbeyville. It gets the best of the more serious drops.

The Commander and I had looked around while the dust was settling from the latest. The moons had been in conjunction nadir the previous night. That weakens the defense matrix, so the boys upstairs jumped through the hole with a heavy boomer drop. They replowed several square kilometers of often-turned rubble. They do it for the same reason a farmer plows a fallow field. It keeps the weeds from getting too tall.

The Commander says it was a tease strike. Just something to keep the edge on their boys and let us know our upstairs neighbors may come to stay someday.

The abandoned surface city lay immobilized in winter’s tight grasp when we arrived. The iron skeletons of buildings creaked in bitter winds. All those mountains of broken brick lay beneath a rime of ice. In the moonlight they looked as though herds of migrating slugs had left their silvery trails upon them.

A handful of civilians prowled the wastes, hunting dreams of yesterday. The Old Man says the same ones come out after every raid, hoping something from the past will have worked to the surface. Poor Flying Dutchmen, trying to recapture annihilated dreams.

A billion dreams have already perished. This conflict, this furnace of doom, will consume a billion more. Maybe it feeds on them.

The carrier lurches. A track has missed its footing and we chum in a quarter-circle. Someone remarks listlessly, “We’re almost there.” I can’t tell who. No one else cares enough to comment.

What I see over the carrier’s armored flanks makes me wonder if the Old Man and I ever got out of Turbeyville. We might be Fliegende Hollandren ourselves, pursuing that infinite path through the ruins.

The Pits are another popular target. The boys upstairs can’t resist. They’re the taproot of Climber Command’s logistics tree, the point where the strength of Canaan coalesces for transfer to the Fleet. The Pits spew men, stores, and materiel like a full-time geyser.

All they ever reclaim is leave-bound Climber people wearing the faces of concentration camp escapees.

I was planning to do an eyewitness account of the bold defenders of mankind. The plan needs revision. I haven’t encountered any of those. Climber people are scared all the time. They shy at shadows. The heroes are merely holonet fabrications. All these people want is to survive their next patrol; Their lives exist only within the mission’s parameters. My companions have left their pasts in storage. They look no farther ahead than coming home. And they won’t talk about that, for fear of jinxing it.

We’ve crossed some unmarked line. There’s a difference! in the air. The smells are changing. Hard to recognize them amid this jouncing...

Ah. That’s the sea I smell. The sea and all the indignities; unleashed upon it since the Pits were opened. The bay out there is the touchdown cushion for returning lifter pods. Maybe; I’ll be able to watch one splash in.

BOOK: Passage at Arms
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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