THE BUTCHER’S BILL

“You can go a thousand kays any direction there and there’s nothing to see but the wheat,” said the brown man to the other tankers and the woman. His hair was deep chestnut, his face and hands burnt umber from the sun of Emporion the month before and the suns of seven other worlds in past years. He was twenty-five but looked several years older. The sleeves of his khaki coveralls were slipped down over his wrists against the chill of the breeze that had begun at twilight to feather the hillcrest. “We fed four planets from Dunstan—Hagener, Weststar, Mirage, and Jackson’s Glade. And out of it we made enough to replace the tractors when they wore out, maybe something left over for a bit of pretty. A necklace of fireballs to set off a Lord’s Day dress, till the charge drained six, eight months later. A static cleaner from Hagener, it was one year, never quite worked off our power plant however much we tinkered with it. . . .

“My mother, she wore out too. Dad just kept grinding on, guess he still does.”

The girl asked a question from the shelter of the tank’s scarred curtain. Her voice was too mild for the wind’s tumbling, her accent that of Thrush and strange to the tanker’s ears. But Danny answered, “Hate them? Oh, I know about the Combine, now, that the four of them kept other merchants off Dunstan to freeze the price at what they thought to pay. But Via, wheat’s a high bulk cargo, there’s no way at all we’d have gotten rich on what it could bring over ninety minutes’ transit. And why shouldn’t I thank Weststar? If ever a world did me well, it was that one.”

He spat, turning his head with the wind and lofting the gobbet invisibly into the darkness. The lamp trembled on its base, an overturned ration box. The glare skipped across the rusted steel skirts of the tank, the iridium armor of hull and turret; the faces of the men and the woman listening to the blower chief. The main gun, half-shadowed by the curve of the hull, poked out into the night like a ghost of itself. Even with no human in the tank, at the whisper of a relay in Command Central the fat weapon would light the world cyan and smash to lava anything within line of sight of its muzzle.

“We sold our wheat to a Weststar agent, a Hindi named Sarim who’d lived, Via, twenty years at least on Dunstan but he still smelled funny. Sweetish, sort of; you know? But his people were all back in Ongole on Weststar. When the fighting started between the Scots and the Hindi settlers, he raised a battalion of farm boys like me and shipped us over in the hold of a freighter. Hoo Lordy, that was a transit!

“And I never looked back. Colonel Hammer docked in on the same day with the Regiment, and he took us all on spec. Six years, now, that’s seven standard . . . and not all of us could stand the gaff, and not all who could wanted to. But I never looked back, and I never will.”

From the mast of Command Central, a flag popped unseen in the wind. It bore a red lion rampant on a field of gold, the emblem of Hammer’s Slammers, the banner of the toughest regiment that ever killed for a dollar.

“Hotel, Kitchen, Lariat, Michael, move to the front in company columns and advance.”

The tiny adamantine glitter winking on the hilltop ten kays distant was the first break in the landscape since the Regiment had entered the hypothetical war zone, the Star Plain of Thrush. It warmed Pritchard in the bubble at the same time it tightened his muscles. “Goose it, Kowie,” he ordered his driver in turn, “they want us panzers up front. Bet it’s about to drop in the pot?”

Kowie said nothing, but the big blower responded with a howl and a billow of friable soil that seethed from under the ground effect curtain. Two Star in the lead, H Company threaded its way in line ahead through the grounded combat cars and a company from Infantry Section. The pongoes crouched on their one-man skimmers, watching the tanks. One blew an ironic kiss to Danny in Two Star’s bubble. Moving parallel to Hotel, the other companies of Tank Section, K, L, and M, advanced through the center and right of the skirmish line.

The four man crew of a combat car nodded unsmilingly from their open-topped vehicle as Two Star boomed past. A trio of swivel-mounted powerguns, 2cm hoses like the one on Danny’s bubble, gave them respectable firepower; and their armor, a sandwich of ceramics and iridium, was in fact adequate against most hand weapons. Buzzbombs aside, and tankers didn’t like to think about those either. But Danny would have fought reassignment to combat cars if anybody had suggested it—Lord, you may as well dance in your skin for all the good that hull does you in a firefight! And few car crewmen would be caught dead on a panzer—or rather, were sure that was how they would be caught if they crewed one of those sluggish, clumsy, blind-sided behemoths. Infantry Section scorned both, knowing how the blowers drew fire but couldn’t flatten in the dirt when it dropped in on them.

One thing wouldn’t get you an argument, though: when it was ready to drop in the pot, you sent in the heavies. And nothing on the Way would stop the Tank Section of Hammer’s Slammers when it got cranked up to move.

Even its 170 tonnes could not fully dampen the vibration of Two Star’s fans at max load. The oval hull, all silvery-smooth above but of gouged and rusty steel below where the skirts fell sheer almost to the ground, slid its way through the grass like a boat through yellow seas. They were dropping into a swale before they reached the upgrade. From the increasing rankness of the vegetation that flattened before and beside the tank, Pritchard suspected they would find a meandering stream at the bottom. The brow of the hill cut off sight of the unnatural glitter visible from a distance. In silhouette against the pale bronze sky writhed instead a grove of gnarled trees.

“Incoming, fourteen seconds to impact,” Command Central blatted. A siren in the near distance underscored the words. “Three rounds only.”

The watercourse was there. Two Star’s fans blasted its surface into a fine mist as the tank bellowed over it. Danny cocked his powergun, throwing a cylinder of glossy black plastic into the lowest of the three rotating barrels. There was shrieking overhead.

WHAM

A poplar shape of dirt and black vapor spouted a kay to the rear, among the grounded infantry.

WHAM WHAM

They were detonating underground. Thrush didn’t have much of an industrial base, the rebel portions least of all. Either they hadn’t the plant to build proximity fuses at all, or they were substituting interference coils for miniature radar sets, and there was too little metal in the infantry’s gear to set off the charges. With the main director out, Central wasn’t even bothering to explode the shells in flight

“Tank Section, hose down the ridge as you advance, they got an OP there somewhere.”

“Incoming, three more in fourteen.” The satellite net could pick up a golf ball in flight, much less a two hundred kilo shell.

Pritchard grinned like a death’s head, laying his 2cm automatic on the rim of the hill and squeezing off. The motor whirred, spinning the barrels as rock and vegetation burst in the blue-green sleet. Spent cases, gray and porous, spun out of the mechanism in a jet of coolant gas. They bounced on the turret slope, some clinging to the iridium to cool there, ugly dark excrescences on the metal.

“Outgoing.”

Simultaneously with Central’s laconic warning, giants tore a strip off the sky. The rebel shells dropped but their bursts were smothered in the roar of the Regiment’s own rocket howitzers boosting charges to titanic velocity for the several seconds before their motors burned out. Ten meters from the muzzles the rockets went supersonic, punctuating the ripping sound with thunderous slaps. Danny swung his hose toward the grove of trees, the only landmark visible on the hilltop. His burst laced it cyan. Water, flash-heated within the boles by the gunfire, blew the dense wood apart in blasts of steam and splinters. A dozen other guns joined Pritchard’s, clawing at rock, air, and the remaining scraps of vegetation.

“Dead on,” Central snapped to the artillery. “Now give it batteryfive and we’ll show those freaks how they should’ve done it.”

Kowie hadn’t buttoned up. His head stuck up from the driver’s hatch, trusting his eyes rather than the vision blocks built into his compartment. The tanks themselves were creations of the highest technical competence, built on Terra itself; but the crews were generally from frontier worlds, claustrophobic in an armored coffin no matter how good its electronic receptors were. Danny knew the feeling. His hatch, too, was open, and his hand gripped the rounded metal of the powergun itself rather than the selsyn unit inside. They were climbing sharply now, the back end hopping and skittering as the driver fed more juice to the rear fans in trying to level the vehicle. The bow skirts grounded briefly, the blades spitting out a section of hillside as pebbles.

For nearly a minute the sky slammed and raved. Slender, clipped-off vapor trails of counter-battery fire streamed from the defiladed artillery. Half a minute after they ceased fire, the drumbeat of shells bursting on the rebels continued. No further incoming rounds fell.

Two Star lurched over the rim of the hill. Seconds later the lead blowers of K and M bucked in turn onto the flatter area. Smoke and ash from the gun-lit brushfire shoomped out in their downdrafts. There was no sign of the enemy, either Densonite rebels or Fosters crew—though if the mercenaries were involved, they would be bunkered beyond probable notice until they popped the cork themselves. “Tank Section, ground! Ground in place and prepare for director control.”

Danny hunched, bracing his palms against the hatch coaming. Inside the turret the movement and firing controls of the main gun glowed red, indicating that they had been locked out of Pritchard’s command. Kowie lifted the bow to kill the tank’s immense inertia. There was always something spooky about feeling the turret purr beneath you, watching the big gun snuffle the air with deadly precision on its own. Danny gripped his tribarrel, scanning the horizon nervously. It was worst when you didn’t know what Central had on its mind . . . and you did know that the primary fire control computer was on the fritz—they always picked the damnedest times!

“Six aircraft approaching from two-eight-three degrees,” Central mumbled. “Distance seven point ought four kays, closing at one one ought ought.”

Pritchard risked a quick look away from where the gun pointed toward a ridgeline northwest of them, an undistinguished swelling half-obscured by the heat-wavering pall of smoke. Thirteen other tanks had crested the hill before Central froze them, all aiming in the same direction. Danny dropped below his hatch rim, counting seconds.

The sky roared cyan. The tank’s vision blocks blanked momentarily, but the dazzle reflected through the open hatch was enough to make Pritchard’s skin tingle. The smoke waved and rippled about the superheated tracks of gunfire. The horizon to the northwest was an expanding orange dome that silently dominated the sky.

“Resume advance.” Then, “Spectroanalysis indicates five hostiles were loaded with chemical explosives, one was carrying fissionables.”

Danny was trembling worse than before the botched attack. The briefing cubes had said the Densonites were religious nuts, sure. But to use unsupported artillery against a force whose satellite spotters would finger the guns before the first salvo landed; aircraft—probably converted cargo haulers—thrown against director-controlled powerguns that shot light swift and line straight; and then nukes, against a regiment more likely to advance stark naked than without a nuclear damper up! They weren’t just nuts—Thrush central government was that, unwilling to have any of its own people join the fighting—they were as crazy as if they thought they could breathe vacuum and live. You didn’t play that sort of game with the Regiment.

They’d laager for the night on the hilltop, the rest of the outfit rumbling in through the afternoon and early evening hours. At daybreak they’d leapfrog forward again, deeper into the Star Plain, closer to whatever it was the Densonites wanted to hold. Sooner or later, the rebels and Fosters Infantry—a good outfit but not good enough for this job—were going to have to make a stand. And then the Regiment would go out for contact again, because they’d have run out of work on Thrush.

“She’ll be in looking for you pretty soon, won’t she, handsome?”

“Two bits to stay.”

“Check. Sure, Danny-boy, you Romeos from Dunstan, you can pick up a slot anywhere, huh?”

A troop of combat cars whined past, headed for their position in the laager. Pritchard’s hole card, a jack, flipped over. He swore, pushed in his hand. “I was folding anyway. And cut it out, will you? I didn’t go looking for her. I didn’t tell her to come back. And she may as well be the colonel for all my chance of putting her flat.”

Wanatamba, the lean, black Terran who drove Fourteen, laughed and pointed. A gold-spangled skimmer was dropping from the east, tracked by the guns of two of the blowers on that side. Everybody knew what it was, though. Pritchard grimaced and stood. “Seems that’s the game for me,” he said.

“Hey, Danny,” one of the men behind him called as he walked away. “Get a little extra for us, hey?”

The skimmer had landed in front of Command Central, at rest an earth-blended geodesic housing the staff and much of the commo hardware. Wearing a wrist-to-ankle sunsuit, yellow where it had tone, she was leaning on the plex windscreen. An officer in fatigues with unlatched body armor stepped out of the dome and did a double take. He must have recollected, though, because he trotted off toward a bunker before Danny reached the skimmer.

“Hey!” the girl called brightly. She looked about seventeen, her hair an unreal cascade of beryl copper over one shoulder. “We’re going on a trip.”

“Uh?”

The dome section flipped open again. Pritchard stiffened to attention when he saw the short, mustached figure who exited. “Peace, Colonel,” the girl said.

“Peace, Sonna. You’re such an ornament to a firebase that I’m thinking of putting you on requisition for our next contract.”

Laughing cheerfully, the girl gestured toward the rigid sergeant. “I’m taking Danny to the Hamper Shrine this afternoon.”

Pritchard reddened. “Sir, Sergeant-Commander Daniel Pritchard—”

“I know you, trooper,” the colonel said with a friendly smile. “I’ve watched Two Star in action often enough, you know.” His eyes were blue.

“Sir, I didn’t request—that is . . .”

“And I also know there’s small point in arguing with our girl here, hey, Sonna? Go see your shrine, soldier, and worse comes to worst, just throw your hands up and yell ‘Exchange.’ You can try Colonel Foster’s rations for a week or two until we get this little business straightened out.” The colonel winked, bowed low to Sonna, and reentered the dome.

“I don’t figure it,” Danny said as he settled into the passenger seat. The skimmer was built low and sleek as if a racer, though its top speed was probably under a hundred kays. Any more would have put too rapid a drain of the rechargeables packed into the decimeter-thick floor—a fusion unit would have doubled the flyer’s bulk and added four hundred kilos right off the bat. At that, the speed and an operating altitude of thirty meters were more than enough for the tanker. You judge things by what you’re used to, and the blower chief who found himself that far above the cold, hard ground—it could happen on a narrow switchback—had seen his last action.

While the wind whipped noisily about the open cockpit, the girl tended to her flying and ignored Danny’s curiosity. It was a hop rather than a real flight, keeping over the same hill at all times and circling down to land scarcely a minute after takeoff. On a field of grass untouched by the recent fire rose the multi-tinted crystalline structure Pritchard had glimpsed during the assault. With a neat spin and a brief whine from the fans, the skimmer settled down.

Sonna grinned. Her sunsuit, opaquing completely in the direct light, blurred her outline in a dazzle of fluorescent saffron. “What don’t you figure?”

“Well, ah . . .” Danny stumbled, his curiosity drawn between the girl and the building. “Well, the colonel isn’t that, ah, easy to deal with usually. I mean . . .”

Her laugh bubbled in the sunshine. “Oh, it’s because I’m an Advisor, I’m sure.”

“Excuse?”

“An Advisor. You know, the . . . well, a representative. Of the government, if you want to put it that way.”

“My Lord!” the soldier gasped. “But you’re so young.”

She frowned. “You really don’t know much about us, do you?” she reflected.

“Umm, well, the briefing cubes mostly didn’t deal with the friendlies this time because we’d be operating without support . . . Anything was going to look good after Emporion, that was for sure. All desert there—you should’ve heard the cheers when the colonel said that we’d lift.”

She combed a hand back absently through her hair. It flowed like molten bronze. “You won on Emporion?” she asked.

“We could’ve,” Danny explained, “even though it was really a Lord-stricken place, dust and fortified plateaus and lousy recce besides because the government had two operating spacers. But the Monarchists ran out of money after six months and that’s one sure rule for Hammer’s Slammers—no pay, no play. Colonel yanked their bond so fast their ears rang. And we hadn’t orbited before offers started coming in.”

“And you took ours and came to a place you didn’t know much about,” the girl mused. “Well, we didn’t know much about you either.”

“What do you need to know except we can bust anybody else in this business?” the soldier said with amusement. “Anybody, public or planet-tied. If you’re worried about Foster, don’t; he wouldn’t back the freaks today, but when he has to, we’ll eat him for breakfast.”

“Has to?” the girl repeated in puzzlement. “But he always has to—the Densonites hired him, didn’t they?”

Strategy was a long way from Danny’s training, but the girl seemed not to know that. And besides, you couldn’t spend seven years with the Slammers and not pick up some basics. “OK,” he began, “Foster’s boys’ll fight, but they’re not crazy. Trying to block our advance in open land like this’d be pure suicide—as those coppy freaks—pardon, didn’t mean that—must’ve found out today. Foster likely got orders to support the civvies but refused. I know for a fact that his arty’s better’n what we wiped up today, and those planes . . .”

“But his contract . . .?” Sonna queried.

“Sets out the objectives and says the outfit’ll obey civie orders where it won’t screw things up too bad,” Danny said. “Standard form. The legal of it’s different, but that’s what it means.”

The girl was nodding, eyes slitted, and in a low voice she quoted, ” ‘ . . .except in circumstances where such directions would significantly increase the risks to be undergone by the party of the second part without corresponding military advantage.'” She looked full at Danny. “Very . . . interesting. When we hired your colonel, I don’t think any of us understood that clause.”

Danny blinked, out of his depth and aware of it. “Well, it doesn’t matter really. I mean, the colonel didn’t get his rep from ducking fights. It’s just, well . . . say we’re supposed to clear the Densonites off the, the Star Plain? Right?”

The girl shrugged.

“So that’s what we’ll do.” Danny wiped his palms before gesturing with both hands. “But if your Advisors—”

“We Advisors,” the girl corrected, smiling.

“Anyway,” the tanker concluded, his enthusiasm chilled, “if you tell the colonel to fly the whole Regiment up to ten thousand and jump it out, he’ll tell you to go piss up a rope. Sorry, he wouldn’t say that. But you know what I mean. We know our job, don’t worry.”

“Yes, that’s true,” she said agreeably. “And we don’t, and we can’t understand it. We thought that—one to one, you know?—perhaps if I got to know you, one of you . . . They thought we might understand all of you a little.”

The soldier frowned uncertainly.

“What we don’t see,” she finally said, “is how you—”

She caught herself. Touching her cold fingertips to the backs of the tanker’s wrists, the girl continued, “Danny, you’re a nice . . . you’re not a, a sort of monster like we thought you all must be. If you’d been born of Thrush you’d have had a—different—education, you’d be more, forgive me, I don’t mean it as an insult, sophisticated in some ways. That’s all.

“But how can a nice person like you go out and kill?”

He rubbed his eyes, then laced together his long, brown fingers. “You . . . well, it’s not like that. What I said the other night—look, the Slammers’re a good outfit, the best, and I’m damned lucky to be with them. I do my job the best way I know. I’ll keep on doing that. And if somebody gets killed, OK. My brother Jig stayed home and he’s two years dead now. Tractor rolled on a wet field but Via, coulda been a tow-chain snapped or old age; doesn’t matter. He wasn’t going to live forever and neither is anybody else. And I haven’t got any friends on the far end of the muzzle.”

Her voice was very soft as she said, “Perhaps if I keep trying . . .”

Danny smiled. “Well, I don’t mind,” he lied, looking at the structure. “What is this place, anyhow?”

Close up, it had unsuspected detail. The sides were a hedge of glassy rods curving together to a series of peaks ten meters high. No finger-slim member was quite the thickness or color of any other, although the delicacy was subliminal in impact. In ground plan it was a complex oval thirty meters by ten, pierced by scores of doorways which were not closed off but were foggy to look at.

“What do you think of it?” the girl asked.

“Well, it’s . . .” Danny temporized. A fragment of the briefing cubes returned to him. “It’s one of the alien, the Gedel, artifacts, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” the girl agreed. “Seven hundred thousand years old, as far as we can judge. Only a world in stasis, like Thrush, would have let it survive the way it has. The walls are far tougher than they look, but seven hundred millennia of earthquakes and volcanoes . . .”

Danny stepped out of the skimmer and let his hand run across the building’s cool surface. “Yeah, if they’d picked some place with a hotter core there wouldn’t be much left but sand by now, would there?”

“Pick it? Thrush was their home,” Sonna’s voice rang smoothly behind him. “The Gedel chilled it themselves to make it suitable, to leave a signpost for the next races following the Way. We can’t even imagine how they did it, but there’s no question but that Thrush was normally tectonic up until the last million years or so.”

“Via!” Danny breathed, turning his shocked face toward the girl. “No wonder those coppy fanatics wanted to control this place. Why, if they could figure out just a few of the Gedel tricks they’d . . . Lord, they wouldn’t stop with Thrush, that’s for sure.”

“You still don’t understand,” the girl said. She took Danny by the hand and drew him toward the nearest of the misty doorways. “The Densonites have well, quirks that make them hard for the rest of us on Thrush to understand. But they would no more pervert Gedel wisdom to warfare than you would, oh, spit on your colonel. Come here.”

She stepped into the fuzziness and disappeared. The tanker had no choice but to follow or break her grip; though, oddly, she was no longer clinging to him on the other side of the barrier. She was not even beside him in the large room. He was alone at the first of a line of tableaux, staring at a group of horribly inhuman creatures at play. Their sharp-edged faces, scale-dusted but more avian than reptile, stared enraptured at one of their number who hung in the air. The acrobat’s bare, claw-tipped legs pointed 180 degrees apart, straight toward ground and sky. Pritchard bunked and moved on. The next scene was only a dazzle of sunlight in a glade whose foliage was redder than that of Thrush or Dunstan. There was something else, something wrong or strange about the tableau. Danny felt it, but his eyes could not explain.

Step by step, cautiously, Pritchard worked his way down the line of exhibits. Each was different, centered on a group of the alien bipeds or a ruddy, seemingly empty landscape that hinted unintelligibly. At first, Danny had noticed the eerie silence inside the hall. As he approached the far end he realized he was conscious of music of some sort, very crisp and distant. He laid his bare palm on the floor and found, as he had feared, that it did not vibrate in the least. He ran the last twenty steps to plunge out into the sunlight. Sonna still gripped his hand, and they stood outside the doorway they had entered.

The girl released him. “Isn’t it incredible?” she asked, her expression bright. “And every one of the doorways leads to a different corridor—recreation there, agriculture in another, history—everything. A whole planet in that little building.”

“That’s what the Gedel looked like, huh?” Danny said. He shook his head to clear the strangeness from it.

“The Gedel? Oh, no,” the girl replied, surprised again at his ignorance. “These were the folk we call the Hampers. No way to pronounce their own language, a man named Hamper found this site is all. But their homeworld was Kalinga IV, almost three days transit from Thrush. The shrine is here, we think, in the same relation to Starhome as Kalinga was to Thrush.

“You still don’t understand,” she concluded aloud, watching Danny’s expression. She sat on the edge of the flyer, crossing her hands on the lap of her sunsuit. In the glitter thrown by the structure the fabric patterned oddly across her lithe torso. “The Gedel association—it wasn’t an empire, couldn’t have been. But to merge, a group ultimately needs a center, physical and intellectual. And Thrush and the Gedel were that for twenty races.

“And they achieved genuine unity, not just within one race but among all of them, each as strange to the others as any one of them would have been to man, to us. The . . . power that gave them, over themselves as well as the universe, was incredible. This—even Starhome itself—is such a tiny part of what could be achieved by perfect peace and empathy.”

Danny looked at the crystal dome and shivered at what it had done to him. “Look,” he said, “peace is just great if the universe cooperates. I don’t mean just my line of work, but it doesn’t happen that way in the real world. There’s no peace spending your life beating wheat out of Dunstan, not like I’d call peace. And what’s happened to the Gedel and their buddies for the last half million years or so if things were so great?”

“We can’t even imagine what happened to them,” Sonna explained gently, “but it wasn’t the disaster you imagine. When they reached what they wanted, they set up this, Starhome, the other eighteen shrines as . . . monuments. And then they went away, all together. But they’re not wholly gone, even from here, you know. Didn’t you feel them in the background inside, laughing with you?”

“I . . .” Danny attempted. He moved, less toward the skimmer than away from the massive crystal behind him. “Yeah, there was something. That’s what you’re fighting for?”

You couldn’t see the laager from where the skimmer rested, but Danny could imagine the silvery glitter of tanks and combat cars between the sky and the raw yellow grass. Her eyes fixed on the same stretch of horizon, the girl said, “Someday men will be able to walk through Starhome and understand. You can’t live on Thrush without feeling the impact of the Gedel. That impact has . . . warped, perhaps, the Densonites. They have some beliefs about the Gedel that most of us don’t agree with. And they’re actually willing to use force to prevent the artifacts from being defiled by anyone who doesn’t believe as they do.”

“Well, you people do a better job of using force,” Danny said. His mind braced itself on its memory of the Regiment’s prickly hedgehog.

“Oh, not us!” the girl gasped.

Suddenly angry, the tanker gestured toward the unseen firebase. “Not you? The Densonites don’t pay us. And if force isn’t what happened to those silly bastards today when our counter-battery hit them, I’d like to know what is.”

She looked at him in a way that, despite her previous curiosity, was new to him. “There’s much that I’ll have to discuss with the other Advisors,” she said after a long pause. “And I don’t know that it will stop with us, we’ll have to put out the call to everyone, the Densonites as well if they will come.” Her eyes caught Danny’s squarely again. “We acted with little time for deliberation when the Densonites hired Colonel Foster and turned all the other pilgrims out of the Star Plain. And we acted in an area beyond our practice—thank the Lord! The key to understanding the Gedel and joining them, Lord willing and the Way being short, is Starhome. And nothing that blocks any man, all men, from Starhome can be . . . tolerated. But with what we’ve learned since . . . well, we have other things to take into account.”

She broke off, tossed her stunning hair. In the flat evening sunlight her garment had paled to translucence. The late rays licked her body red and orange. “But now I’d better get you back to your colonel.” She slipped into the skimmer.

Danny boarded without hesitation. After the Gedel building, the transparent skimmer felt almost comfortable. “Back to my tank,” he corrected lightly. “Colonel may not care where I am, but he damn well cares if Two Star is combat ready.” The sudden rush of air cut off thought of further conversation, and though Sonna smiled as she landed Danny beside his blower, there was a blankness in her expression that indicated her thoughts were far away.

Hell with her, Danny thought. His last night in the Rec Center on Emporion seemed a long time in the past.

At three in the morning the Regiment was almost two hundred kilometers from the camp they had abandoned at midnight. There had been no warning, only the low hoot of the siren followed by the colonel’s voice rasping from every man’s lapel speaker, “Mount up and move, boys. Order seven, and your guides are set.” It might have loomed before another outfit as a sudden catastrophe. After docking one trip with the Slammers, though, a greenie learned that everything not secured to his blower had better be secured to him. Colonel Hammer thought an armored regiment’s firepower was less of an asset than its mobility. He used the latter to the full with ten preset orders of march and in-motion recharging for the infantry skimmers, juicing from the tanks and combat cars.

Four pongoes were jumpered to Two Star when Foster’s outpost sprang its ambush.

The lead combat car, half a kay ahead, bloomed in a huge white ball that flooded the photon amplifiers of Danny’s goggles. The buzzbomb’s hollow detonation followed a moment later while the tanker, cursing, simultaneously switched to infrared and swung his turret left at max advance. He ignored the head of the column, where the heated-air thump of powerguns merged with the crackle of mines blasted to either side by the combat cars; that was somebody else’s responsibility. He ignored the two infantrymen wired to his tank’s port side as well. If they knew their business, they’d drop the jumpers and flit for Two Star’s blind side as swiftly as Danny could spin his heavy turret. If not, well, you don’t have time for niceness when somebody’s firing shaped charges at you.

“Damp that ground-sender!” Central snapped to the lead elements. Too quickly to be a response to the command, the grass trembled under the impact of a delay-fused rocket punching down toward the computed location of the enemy’s subsurface signaling. The Regiment must have rolled directly over an outpost, either through horrendously bad luck or because Foster had sewn his vedettes very thickly.

The firing stopped. The column had never slowed and Michael, first of the heavy companies behind the screen of combat cars, fanned the grass fires set by the hoses. Pritchard scanned the area of the firefight as Two Star rumbled through it in turn. The antipersonnel charges had dimpled the ground with shrapnel, easily identifiable among the glassy scars left by the powerguns. In the center of a great vitrified blotch lay a left arm and a few scraps of gray coverall. Nearby was the plastic hilt of a buzzbomb launcher. The other vedette had presumably stayed on the commo in his covered foxhole until the penetrator had scattered it and him over the landscape. If there had been a third bunker, it escaped notice by Two Star’s echo sounders.

“Move it out, up front,” Central demanded. “This cuts our margin.”

The burned-out combat car swept back into obscurity as Kowie put on speed. The frontal surfaces had collapsed inward from the heat, leaving the driver and blower chief as husks of carbon. There was no sign of the wing gunners. Perhaps they had been far enough back and clear of the spurt of directed radiance to escape. The ammo canister of the port tribarrel had flash-ignited, though, and it was more likely that the men were wasted on the floor of the vehicle.

Another hundred and fifty kays to go, and now Foster and the Densonites knew they were coming.

There were no further ambushes to break the lightless monotony of gently rolling grassland. Pritchard took occasional sips of water and ate half a tube of protein ration. He started to fling the tube aside, then thought of the metal detectors on following units. He dropped it between his feet instead.

The metal-pale sun was thrusting the Regiment’s shadow in long fingers up the final hillside when Central spoke again. You could tell it was the colonel himself sending. “Everybody freeze but Beta-First, Beta-First proceed in column up the rise and in. Keep your intervals, boys, and don’t try to bite off too much. Last data we got was Foster had his antiaircraft company with infantry support holding the target. Maybe they pulled out when we knocked on the door tonight, maybe they got reinforced. So take it easy—and don’t bust up anything you don’t have to.”

Pritchard dropped his seat back inside the turret. There was nothing to be seen from the hatch but the monochrome sunrise and armored vehicles grounded on the yellow background. Inside, the three vision blocks gave greater variety. One was the constant 360 degrees display, better than normal eyesight according to the designers because the blower chief could see all around the tank without turning his head. Danny didn’t care for it. Images were squeezed a good deal horizontally. Shapes weren’t quite what you expected, so you didn’t react quite as fast; and that was a good recipe for a dead trooper. The screen above the three-sixty was variable in light sensitivity and in magnification, useful for special illumination and first-shot hits.

The bottom screen was the remote rig; Pritchard dialed it for the forward receptors of Beta-First-Three. It was strange to watch the images of the two leading combat cars trembling as they crested the hill, yet feel Two Star as stable as 170 tonnes can be when grounded.

“Nothing moving,” the platoon leader reported unnecessarily. Central had remote circuits, too, as well as the satellite net to depend on.

The screen lurched as the blower Danny was slaved to boosted its fans to level the downgrade. Dust plumed from the leading cars, weaving across a sky that was almost fully light. At an unheard command, the platoon turned up the wick in unison and let the cars hurtle straight toward the target’s central corridor. It must have helped, because Foster’s gunners caught only one car when they loosed the first blast through their camoufl age.

The second car blurred in a mist of vaporized armor plate. Incredibly, the right wing gunner shot back. The deadly flame-lash of his hose was pale against the richer color of the hostile fire. Foster had sited his calliopes, massive 3cm guns whose nine fixed barrels fired extra-length charges. Danny had never seen a combat car turned into Swiss cheese faster than the one now spiked on the muzzles of a pair of the heavy guns.

Gray-suited figures were darting from cover as if the cars’ automatics were harmless for being outclassed. The damaged blower nosed into the ground. Its driver leaped out, running for the lead car which had spun on its axis and was hosing blue-green fire in three directions. One of Foster’s troops raised upright, loosing a buzzbomb at the wreckage of the grounded car. The left side of the vehicle flapped like a batwing as it sailed across Danny’s field of view. The concussion knocked down the running man. He rose to his knees, jumped for a handhold as the lead car accelerated past him. As he swung himself aboard, two buzzbombs hit the blower simultaneously. It bloomed with joined skullcaps of pearl and bone.

Pritchard was swearing softly. He had switched to a stern pickup already, and the tumbled wreckage in it was bouncing, fading swiftly. Shots twinkled briefly as the four escaping blowers dropped over the ridge.

“In column ahead,” said the colonel grimly, “Hotel, Kitchen, Michael. Button up and hose ’em out, you know the drill.”

And then something went wrong. “Are you insane?” the radio marveled, and Danny recognized that voice, too. “I forbid you!”

“You can’t. Somebody get her out of here.”

“Your contract is over, finished, do you hear? Heavenly Way, we’ll all become Densonites if we must. This horror must end!”

“Not yet. You don’t see—”

“I’ve seen too—” The shouted words cut off .

“So we let Foster give us a bloody nose and back off? That’s what you want? But it’s bigger than what you want now, sister, it’s the whole Regiment. It’s never bidding another contract without somebody saying, ‘Hey, they got sandbagged on Thrush, didn’t they?’ And nobody remembering that Foster figured the civvies would chill us—and he was right. Don’t you see? They killed my boys, and now they’re going to pay the bill.

“Tank Section, execute! Dig ’em out, panzers!”

Danny palmed the panic bar, dropping the seat and locking the hatch over it. The rushing-air snarl of the fans was deadened by the armor, but a hot bearing somewhere filled the compartment with its high keening. Two Star hurdled the ridge. Its whole horizon flared with crystal dancing and scattering in sunlight and the reflected glory of automatic weapons firing from its shelter. Starhome was immensely larger than Danny had expected.

A boulevard twenty meters wide divided two ranks of glassy buildings, any one of which, towers and pavilions, stood larger than the shrine Danny had seen the previous day. At a kilometer’s distance it was a coruscating unity of parts as similar as the strands of a silken rope. Danny rapped up the magnification and saw the details spring out; rods woven into columns that streaked skyward a hundred meters; translucent sheets formed of myriads of pinhead beads, each one glowing a color as different from the rest as one star is from the remainder of those seen on a moonless night; a spiral column, free-standing and the thickness of a woman’s wrist, that pulsed slowly through the spectrum as it climbed almost out of sight. All the structures seemed to front on the central corridor, with the buildings on either side welded together by tracery mazes, porticoes, arcades—a thousand different plates and poles of glass.

A dashed cyan line joined the base of an upswept web of color to the tank. Two Star’s hull thudded to the shock of vaporizing metal. The stabilizer locked the blower’s pitching out of Danny’s sight picture. He swung the glowing orange bead onto the source of fire and kicked the pedal. The air rang like a carillon as the whole glassy facade sagged, then avalanched into the street. There was a shock of heat in the closed battle compartment as the breech flicked open and belched out the spent case. The plastic hissed on the floor, outgassing horribly while the air conditioning strained to clear the chamber. Danny ignored the stench, nudged his sights onto the onrushing splendor of the second structure on the right of the corridor. The breech of the big powergun slapped again and again, recharging instantly as the tanker worked the foot trip.

Blue-green lightning scattered between the walls as if the full power of each bolt was flashing the length of the corridor. Two Star bellowed in on the wake of its fire, and crystal flurried under the fans. Kowie leveled their stroke slightly, cutting speed by a fraction but lifting the tank higher above the abrasive litter. The draft hurled glittering shards across the corridor, arcs of cold fire in the light of Two Star’s gun and those of the blowers following. Men in gray were running from their hiding places to avoid the sliding crystal masses, the iridescent rain that pattered on the upper surfaces of the tanks but smashed jaggedly through the infantry’s body armor.

Danny set his left thumb to rotate the turret counterclockwise, held the gun-switch down with his foot. The remaining sixteen rounds of his basic load blasted down the right half of Starhome, spread by the blower’s forward motion and the turret swing. The compartment was gray with fumes. Danny slammed the hatch open and leaned out. His hands went to the 2cm as naturally as a calf turns to milk. The wind was cold on his face. Kowie slewed the blower left to avoid the glassy wave that slashed into the corridor from one of the blasted structures. The scintillance halted, then ground a little further as something gave way inside the pile.

A soldier in gray stepped from an untouched archway to the left. The buzzbomb on his shoulder was the size of a landing vessel as it swung directly at Danny. The tribarrel seemed to traverse with glacial slowness. It was too slow. Danny saw the brief flash as the rocket leaped from the shoulder of the other mercenary. It whirred over Two Star and the sergeant, exploded cataclysmically against a spike of Starhome still rising on the other side.

The infantryman tossed the launcher tube aside. He froze, his arms spread wide, and shouted, “Exchange!”

“Exchange yourself, mother!” Danny screamed back white-faced. He triggered his hose. The gray torso exploded. The body fell backward in a mist of blood, chest and body armor torn open by four hits that shriveled bones and turned fluids to steam.

“Hard left and goose it, Kowie,” the sergeant demanded. He slapped the panic bar again. As the hatch clanged shut over his head, Danny caught a momentary glimpse of the vision blocks, three soldiers with powerguns leaping out of the same towering structure from which the rocketeer had come. Their faces were blankly incredulous as they saw the huge blower swinging toward them at full power. The walls flexed briefly under the impact of the tank’s frontal slope, but the filigree was eggshell thin. The structure disintegrated, lurching toward the corridor while Two Star plowed forward within it. A thousand images kaleidoscoped in Danny’s skull, sparkling within the wind-chime dissonance of the falling tower.

The fans screamed as part of the structure’s mass collapsed onto Two Star. Kowie rocked the tank, raising it like a submarine through a sea of ravaged glass. The gentle, green-furred humanoids faded from Danny’s mind. He threw the hatch open. Kowie gunned the fans, reversing the blower in a polychrome shower. Several tanks had moved ahead of Two Star, nearing the far end of the corridor. Gray-uniformed soldiers straggled from the remaining structures, hands empty, eyes fixed on the ground. There was very little firing. Kowie edged into the column and followed the third tank into the laager forming on the other side of Starhome. Pritchard was drained. His throat was dry, but he knew from past experience that he would vomit if he swallowed even a mouthful of water before his muscles stopped trembling. The blower rested with its skirts on the ground, its fans purring gently as they idled to a halt.

Kowie climbed out of the driver’s hatch, moving stiffly. He had a powergun in his hand, a pistol he always carried for moral support. Two Star’s bow compartment was frequently nearer the enemy than anything else in Hammer’s Slammers.

Several towers still stood in the wreckage of Starhome. The nearest one wavered from orange to red and back in the full blaze of sunlight. Danny watched it in the iridium mirror of his tank’s deck, the outline muted by the hatch-work of crystal etching on the metal.

Kowie shot off-hand. Danny looked up in irritation. The driver shot again, his light charge having no discernible effect on the structure.

“Shut it off,” Danny croaked. “These’re shrines.”

The ground where Starhome had stood blazed like the floor of Hell.

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