Worms wriggled around in his skull. Split. Multiplied. Coursed through his veins. Worked their slithering way down his limbs, into his wings.
“Cracker,” Tax subvocalized, shaking the image from his mind. He wasn’t wormfood yet and didn’t plan to be for quite awhile. Then again, thought of worms set his stomach grumbling. The rations he’d snacked on while awaiting the pantera had long since vanished. The reconditioning dragged on for what seemed like days, but Tax knew was merely a few hours.
He wasn’t sure what the lozenge he’d swallowed had contained but it, along with a few tricks he’d learned toward the tail end of the war, seemed to have kept his faculties his own. He remained slack-jawed, staring at the blue-tinged light overhead when the lab techs loomed into view; otherwise, he wondered what his next steps would be. Once he was released from the reconditioning chambers—provided the charade worked—he’d likely find himself among other provisional recruits, assigned scut work around the ship until he proved himself worthy enough to be promoted. From what he could tell, the provisionals stayed outside the standard chain of command until they were “proven” under fire; then they would be accepted into the regular chain of command and had the same chance of promotion as any other.
The worms wiggled again, and Tax muttered, “Cracker.”
The word acted as a trigger to keep his sense of self grounded where it currently was. It was something he’d picked up from a bison or bovine of some sort he’d met at a bar on Tradosh while he was on leave. He’d been a junior officer in a vessel serving alongside the Pak navy and had done what any self-respecting military type did while on leave in his home port—headed straight to the nearest watering hole before having to face family and in-laws who would do nothing but complain about his being away all the time.
He’d met the bov after a short while, the latter’s partner having slipped into a back booth to deal with a client. They got to talking and soon had circled around to encounters with the enemy. That was when the bov gave a few tips on how to survive standard brainwashing techniques and keep your self together. Tax had figured at the time the bov was just yanking his wing feathers but had gone along good-naturedly (these were in the days before he had command and lost what little patience he had with those around him). Now, he was glad the information held true.
Then the drill came into view above him.
He cursed inwardly and kept thinking cracker as the point touched his forehead and started to turn.