Bren sneaked a look at the time on his data pad as he finished up the weekly exam. He poked the “Finished” icon. The program scored his answers. He got an 86.
“86, Bren,” said Mark. “Pretty good. I bet if you read more closely and thought about things more, you could push that up higher.”
Bren sighed and folded down his ears.
Mark smiled at Bren kindly.
“Bren, what’s the first rule on a starship?”
“No bullshit, sir.”
“That’s right. No bullshit. You’re a smart kid and we all think you can do really well. 80 is just average, but you’re not just average. Everybody on the command staff thinks you can do at least 90 consistently.”
“Okay, then. We’re done here for the week. Time for fencing practice.”
“Yup! Keeps you fit, makes you strong.”
That got Bren’s attention.
“Well, then. Let’s go.”
Bren and the navigator put away their data pads. They left the officers’ quarters and headed down to the hold that had been allocated for physical training. They stopped in at the locker room to change into fencing gear: Canvas jacket, breeches, and wire-mesh helmets. These were in decent shape, though not as nice as what he had worn back home at Feltwig Manor. The jacket and breeches had hard plates sewn into them, and curious metal pads on the insides. Bren picked out a weapon. It wasn’t his own, but it would do. Several others of the crew and passengers had assembled, about two dozen in all.
Master Chief Proudfoot looked up from his conversation.
“Bren! Lieutenant! Glad you could join us.”
Proudfoot looked Bren up and down. Bren looked at him with lips folded over his teeth. Proudfoot smiled. “Welcome, Bren. You’re properly set up. Good. … Take your places, everybody. Spread out arms lengths apart. And now, stance!”
Bren settled easily into his best stance: right foot forward, left foot back and to the side, left arm back, right arm forward. He looked around to see what others were doing: pretty much the same.
“Tail straight back, Bren.”
Bren frowned and concentrated on doing that.
“Good. You’ll be keeping that tail, so I’m gonna train you how to use it.”
Bren looked at him, his quizzical look hidden by his mask.
Proudfoot said, “You need it for proper balance.”
Bren stood prouder and extended his tail.
The fencers stepped forward and extended their sabers forward.
“Step back, step back.”
Bren looked back to make sure he wouldn’t step on anyone—and Proudfoot said, “Keep your eye forward, on your opponent.”
Bren frowned and grunted, but did as told. They worked on footwork for half an hour, then the saber positions. Bren got it mostly right, but everybody was better than him a lot of the time. He frowned and drooped his ears a little.
“That’s enough basic drills. We’re going to do some advanced drills now. These may be different than what you’re used to. Fencing has an ancient tradition on Wolfheim, and we’ve adapted it for special shipboard situations. Question in the back.”
One of the passengers asked, “Wouldn’t a pulse rifle or slug-thrower be more convenient?”
“More convenient, yes, but more dangerous to everyone. If you hit the wrong thing, everybody in the compartment could die, and it’s harder to fix the collateral damage. So in defending the ship, or boarding another ship—which I assure you we never ever do—we use good old-fashioned swords.
“Armor has evolved. Nowadays people wear space suits, and in pirate actions, they will be armored. The weak points are the joints. So we modified the scoring system and the drills. The practice armor takes these changes into account. Those of you who are wearing the armor we provided, go ahead and poke yourself in a joint.”
“Ouch!” said one of the passengers.
“Gently,” said Proudfoot.
“What the hell was that?!”
Most of the crew members suppressed their guffaws.
“That was the scoring system we use. You will learn very fast what needs defending. We won’t blame you if you want to count yourselves out of this practice.”
Proudfoot looked at the passengers. They all stayed. He nodded with approval.
“Bren, stand here, please.”
Bren, wide-eyed, stepped forward and stood at the front of the hold. Proudfoot used him to demonstrate.
“The differences are mostly in the thrusts. Aim for all the points normally considered off-limits in sport fencing. Neck, shoulder, under arm, inside elbow, back of the knee, side of the groin, under the tail. We’ll do the drills slowly, and then at regular speed. Bren, you thrust at me.”
They cycled through the vulnerable points a few times as half-seed drills, then faster. Bren concentrated on keeping proper form throughout.
“Let’s partner off for sparring. Bren, you’re with me.”
Bren’s eyes went wide. Proudfoot was sure to kick the shit out of him!
“Uh, yes, sir.”
Bren tentatively stepped forward and tried to land his saber on Proudfoot’s chest, but Proudfoot deflected and poked Bren.
“Again. Faster. On guard!”
Bren lunged. Proudfoot stepped aside.
“Good. Again. Faster! On guard!”
Bren stood his ground, thinking what to do. Proudfoot lunged on him in an instant. Bren yelped and stepped aside, but followed through with a poke … that landed under Proudfoot’s arm.
“Point! Bren. Well done. On guard!”
Bren hesitated, stepped back, and the moment Proudfoot lunged, he stepped aside—and missed. Proudfoot backed up; Bren pressed the attack. Proudfoot pivoted so Bren missed and got a poke in the chest.
“You win some, you lose some. On guard!”
This time Bren didn’t hesitate. He immediately lunged, batting Proudfoot’s saber aside and poking him in the side.
“Point, Bren! Well done. Well done.”
Bren heard applause. He stepped back and looked around. Everyone had stopped their sparring to watch Bren. He looked around, unsure what to do with all the attention.
“Okay, everybody,” said Proudfoot. “Back to sparring. Switch partners.”
Bren couldn’t tell who his partner was: all of him was covered by mask, uniform, or tailsock. He suspected it was someone he knew, because he wouldn’t speak. He just saluted Bren.
Bren said, “On guard!” and they sparred. Bren detected a very slight limp in one foot, and took advantage, but it was still a good workout: Bren was hard-pressed to get any points in. Hey had been going at it for a while when Proudfoot called an end to the practice.
“Okay,” said Bren. “That was a good practice. You’re pretty good. Now let me see who you are.”
Bren’s opponent nodded, and took off his mask—A wolf with black and blue striped fur!
“Pretty good, huh?” said Timberwoof. “You’re pretty good, too, Bren.”
“Oh, gods and goddesses,” said Bren. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Bren, it’s all good. You did really well.”
Timberwoof extended his paw. Bren clasped it and they shook.
“Okay, everybody,” said Proudfoot. “Hit the showers.”
“Thank you. That was fun.”
“You did pretty well. I hope you keep coming. And keep your tail up!”