There are many paths to death. There is only one to victory.—Icehouse Precept #1
Gabriel Feltz couldn't breathe. The recycled air stank of hot trash, getting worse every time the twenty-four other poor bastards in the hold exhaled. They lay on the hard floor in the dark, the shaking of the ship's hull thrumming through them all. Gabriel hadn't managed more than a few minutes of sleep at a stretch for days.
The shaking ended with a thump that caused some passengers to cry out. The doors opened, and light streamed in. They might have been grateful were it not for the simultaneous blast of cold air. It struck like a physical blow, blanketing skin and constricting the throat. There seemed to be nothing outside but the light and the smell of snow.
Then a large shadow strode forward and stood between the doors. Everyone knew what it was. Six feet tall and built like a statue, a massive slab of gun in its hands. It pointed the rifle and shouted.
"Everyone up! Forty seconds till you freeze! Move it!"
Gabriel shuffled out with the rest of them, shielding his eyes against blowing ice. He yelped as his feet left the ramp and landed in a foot of snow. More guards in combat armor herded the prisoners toward a massive set of doors that opened before them like the jaws of hell. Some warmth came from that entrance, and the group surged into it.
When the doors shut, the lights illuminated their new home. It was certainly manmade, all steel and wires, a corridor leading farther into wherever they were. A guard barked a command and they moved on until they reached another door. Beyond that was a hall big enough for five hundred men.
"Line up!" shouted the guard. "The warden shall inspect you!"
* * *
Warden Kejora stood in the very center of the Hub, hands behind his back, looking over the dozens of screens before him. Each one showed new arrivals. He liked the look of none of them. Not a surprise. A small percentage of humanity was resistant to resocialization in some way, but even among that tiny group, his program only received the dregs: pirates, petty crooks, murderers. Maybe a political dissident or two.
Not for the first time he considered having them all shot, but that wasn't his job. Emperor Mengsk wanted reapers, and by god, he'd get reapers.
"Tell me about that one," Kejora said, pointing. "Seventh in line."
It was a short, underfed young man, a boy in truth. His head and bare shoulders were decorated with acid burns, the lower arms crisscrossed with scars. The eyes that looked out from the battered face were like a protoss's, wide open, betraying nothing.
One of the analysts, an ensign, called up the answer. "Private Samuel Lords, age twenty-two. Multiple counts of assault, misuse of military equipment, and destruction of military property. Six counts of murder. Psych profile is a hell of a read, sir."
"I can imagine. What's the story behind his scars?"
"The wounds on his head happened on a zerg-held world, sir. He was one of the first to make the drop against a hive cluster. The op wasn't well planned; whole squad got hit with zerg biotoxins. Somehow he survived. The other injuries were self-inflicted."
Kejora magnified the screen's view over the tracery of ruined tissue about Lords's head, thinking about the boy's crime sheet. Who knew how many synapses had been bathed in alien poison, turning that kid into a golem? The training would discern how much use he was. The warden zoomed out and returned to the others.
Most of the new inmates kept their gazes forward or down. A few looked at the guards in a challenging way. But one pair of eyes darted to and fro, on the verge of panic.
Kejora had never seen anyone so terrified in the hall before. "Who the hell's that? Twentieth in line."
The techs tapped away at their computers, but after several minutes, they still hadn't answered. He turned to find three of them huddled over a screen.
"What is it?"
"We've got next to nothing, sir. Name's Gabriel Feltz, picked up from a colonial outpost. No criminal record, no details, not even a note on neural aptitude."
Kejora frowned. It wouldn't be the first time a bureaucrat had skimped on paperwork. "Send a request to Korhal. We need more than that."
"It will take them at least a day to get back to us. Should we pull Feltz from the lineup?"
"No. Patch me through." A few clicks later, and the yellow light in front of the microphone at the center of the Hub lit up.
Kejora's voice boomed through the hall. "Welcome to the Torus system, prisoners. You are here because nobody else in the entire galaxy wants anything to do with you. This is your final chance to make yourselves useful to the Dominion. There are only a few rules here, but they boil down to a simple concept: you will become a reaper, or you will die trying. Do what you must."
Victory is worth any cost. The cost is always high.—Icehouse Precept #2
Shivers rippled through the line of inmates, as they always did. Kejora never failed to enjoy it.
"Training begins after your next sleep cycle. It ends when I say it does." A pause, and he finished with, "Welcome to the Icehouse."
The guards motioned the inmates to another set of doors, deeper into the complex.
* * *
The guards did not follow them inside, and the heavy doors locked shut. Some of the inmates looked around for their new custodians. Robots, each a head higher than a man, were positioned in alcoves along the corridor, armored and armed with twin gauss cannons. They did not move, but Gabriel imagined they could spring into motion on their tracked wheels any moment.
None of the inmates seemed interested in testing them.
A prim, feminine voice spoke. Some complained, muttering curses on adjutants and the like. The voice formally welcomed them to the reaper training facility, and said it hoped that they would prove worthy contributors to the Dominion. The young man with the scarred head managed a dark laugh at that.
The adjutant happily described the facility as if reading from a holiday brochure. It almost made the place sound attractive, but you didn't have to look far to see the ugly signs of what was to come. The air was dry and cool yet smelled cooked. On a wall panel was a red, dried patch... no prizes for guessing what that was.
The sense of being watched was palpable. Gabriel glanced up and saw clusters of sensory apparatus all across the ceiling—thermal sensors, motion detectors, cameras, who knew what else. So much for privacy.
At last they reached the dormitory. It turned out to be a section filled with cells, and they weren't empty. A hundred men who probably had arrived only a few hours earlier emerged to greet the newcomers.
Gabriel knew this wouldn't be a pleasant encounter. He tried to make himself less conspicuous. Doubtless someone would be sized up, challenged, and made an example of. As if in answer to his thoughts, a rangy hill of a man swaggered toward the new inmates, grinning like a crocodile.
"What's this here?" came a coarse voice.