Cat O' Nine Tails can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Future Science Fiction Summer 1957

CAT O' NINE TALES

by Thomas N. Scortia

Something was broadcasting the secret thoughts
of men, feeding their hidden fear and guilt back
to them, amplified. It was like the brainwashing
methods of the alien Troats, but far, far worse.

SIX MONTHS to the day after he had assumed command of the eight man picket ship Abalon, Lt. (JG) LeFarge blew out his brains with his own ceremonial revolver. His second, Ensign Hartmann, found him in the dispensary, floating amid the debris of his own self-destruction and the splintered fragments of the ancient 30mm pistol which had exploded in the very act of destroying its owner.

Five days later, the Quartermaster ship received his grey body in its issue plastic case, ticketed and coded like some inanimate piece of equipment.

Lt. Goetering, LeFarge's replacement, watched from the hold port of the QM ship until the transfer was complete, and wondered how many more grey plastic-enclosed things would make the same sort of trip before the war with the Troats was at an end.

As soon as the transfer was completed, Goetering rode the shuttle, carrying the Abalon's fuel and food rations for the next month, across the quarter mile of separation to the waiting picket ship. A taped whistle, sounding on the small ship's inter-com, piped him aboard and to the bridge where Ensign Hartmann reported.

AS THE QM ship blasted far aport, Goetering asked, "What happened to LeFarge?"

"Well..." Ensign Hartmann ventured, "you know how things happen."

"That's hardly an answer," Goetering said stiffly.

Ensign Hartmann stood silently. He seemed to be listening for something. "LeFarge was always rather moody."

When Goetering started to say something else, Hartmann said, "That's the K Force, isn't it?" He gestured at the faded patch on Goetering's right shoulder with the "K" and "F" sprawled across a thick circle. The thread forming the insignia was frayed and discolored compared with its mate with the bright V Picket Fleet insignia on Goetering's left shoulder.

"That's right," Goetering said, coloring. "I was one of the survivors."

"Then you're one of the few to see those butchers close at. hand."

Butchers? Goetering thought. Hate-love-agony blending. Could he ever forget that two months? "I was a prisoner for two months, until they sent me and the other four back with their message."

Message: You are vermin we cannot tolerate. We will wipe you out and try to forget the filth that you are.

"I saw quite a bit of them," he said.

"And the others, the rest of the fifth?"

"The lucky ones... dead. You knew what the Troats do with prisoners." He felt sick, wherever he went. If they could forget...

"I'm going to my quarters," he said. "Wake me at the end of this watch."

HARTMANN NODDED absently and saluted. Goetering left him on the bridge, staring at the air in front of him as though listening. It wasn't until the metal door of his tiny cabin slid softly shut behind him that Goetering remembered he had failed to meet any of the other members of his new command.

He unbuckled the ceremonial revolver at his side and stared at it moodily. LeFarge, he wondered, what sort of a man was he? Younger than he, of course. (No one bothered to ask why Goetering was still a Lieutenant, not after seeing the frayed K. F. patch. Everyone knew what had happened to the men the enemy had released.)

He pressed the button that lowered the bunk and threw himself on it. Well, he could understand it in a way—at least the impulse. Lord, the times when he had wanted to end his own life. And not for the reasons the brass thought.

"Give him a line command, an easy one," they said. "The Troats did something to him. But we need men in the line. We have to use him, him and the others."

If they had known the whole story...

...of endless horror and self-loathing...

He almost sobbed aloud at the intensity of the memory. ... and smothering black hatred, haired you can drown in ...and the fostered awareness of massive power... of untouchable force...

"Oh, God," he said aloud. They were in his mind... again!

HE SAT erect, feeling the horror wash over him and...

...image of love, of strength whom I shall hate, .and love with a cruelty that I destroy and...

"No, I've killed him once already."

...to bu...

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