Kejora made his final notes and closed Feltz's file. The last phase of training for the current group of inmates would begin today. "Graduation day," he said with a thin smile.
He gave the command to the Icehouse staff.
"Final exams approved. Spike the next food batch and activate all predators in two hours. Time to cook the Icehouse."
* * *
"Something's off, man."
Gabriel smiled at the Lisk. "You've been saying that the last two days."
The Lisk spooned another beige lump into his mouth. "You know what I'm talking about."
Gabriel had to admit that the Lisk was probably right. Their training had plateaued. They'd even had enough free time to get a decent amount of sleep for two days in a row. That couldn't be good.
The Lisk slammed his palm flat on the table, making his half-empty bowl bounce off the surface. "I can't take much more of this."
Gabriel flinched. "I know."
"You don't know!" The Lisk jumped up, snarling. "None of you do. Especially you! I'll kill you first, right now!"
Gabriel stumbled to his feet and backed away. This wasn't the normal Lisk. If he didn't shut his mouth, Gabriel might have to kick him in his teeth and rip his head off and then get to work tearing apart every other one of the recruits until he, and only he, stood alive...
What? Gabriel was jolted back to lucidity.
Madness swept over the entire mess hall. Fists clenched; faces contorted in anger. It started with shoving, then grappling, and in seconds punches were being thrown. The Lisk seemed to have lost focus, searching wildly for someone to fight and grinding his teeth loudly.
Gabriel looked down at his bowl. The food. Of course. This had to be Kejora's game. Fury burned like acid in his chest, and his lips pulled back in an involuntary grimace. Kejora would pay. In blood. For everything: for the training and the dead and especially for Dennis—
Stop it! Gabriel forced the rage down by sheer will. "Lisk! Back off the throttle; it's the food! It's just the food!"
The Lisk didn't hear him. He was walking in a small circle as if he were in a cage. Gabriel grabbed him by the arms.
"They've put something in the food!" The Lisk was shaking his head, but Gabriel pressed on. "There's no zerg here, right? Nothing's worse than the zerg! That's what you told me!"
The Lisk's eyes focused on him. "Yeah," he managed. "Nothing worse than the zerg..."
Gabriel almost fainted with relief. So, Kejora wanted them spooked and angry but able to control themselves. This had to be part of a new test. What would come next?
The mess hall was emptying as inmates made for the exits, shouting and flailing. Several prisoners lingered, Polek among them. Gabriel dragged the Lisk over to him, resisting the red voice in his veins. "We've got to get going too."
Polek sneered. "In what universe do we listen to you, runt?"
Gabriel jerked a thumb behind him. "You wanna end up like them?"
Seven of the inmates had reacted very, very badly. Four of them were already dead from repeated blows to the head; another was clutching his ruined face. The last two were trying to crush each other's throat. Even Polek looked sick.
"Come on; we gotta get out of here." Gabriel led them away.
They left the frenzy of the canteen to find the corridors flashing. The adjutant's voice boomed through the complex. "All trainees, proceed to armory bays 1 through 8 and prepare for combat. This is not a drill. I repeat—"
"We're riot police now?" someone asked.
Gabriel kept his head on a swivel, searching for new threats. "This is still training. Stay alert."
"Hey! You hear that?"
Steel claws clacked on the ground.
Something was crouching farther down the hall. It looked and moved like a cat, but it was a machine the size of a vulture bike. It turned its bullet-shaped head toward the inmates and opened its metallic maw. A bloodcurdling shriek assaulted their ears.
They bolted through the corridors, the galloping stamp of metal feet not far behind. One man was dumb enough to look back. The mechanical beast had him a moment later, jaws snapping around his torso.
Dictate the battle to your enemies. Leave them no option but to face you in the manner of your choosing.—Icehouse Precept #7
The others kept their heads and ran on until the open doors of an armory loomed ahead of them. They hurled themselves through the opening as if it were the path to heaven.
"Shut the doors!"
The doors started to close, too slowly. The machine slammed into the gap, unable to force itself all the way in, yet its blood-flecked head squeezed through, snapping its terrible mouth. At last Polek freed a gun from the racks and emptied it into the robot, shredding it like paper.