BUT LOYAL TO HIS OWN

“It just blew up. Hammer and his men knew but they didn’t say a thing,” blurted the young captain as he looked past Secretary Tromp, his gaze compelled toward the milky noonday sky. It was not the sky of Friesland and that bothered Captain Stilchey almost as much as his near-death in the ambush an hour before. “He’s insane! They all are.”

“Others have said so,” the councillor stated with the heavy ambiguity of an oracle replying to an ill-phrased question. Tromp’s height was short of two meters by less than a hand’s-breadth, and he was broad in proportion. That size and the generally dull look on his face caused some visitors looking for Friesland’s highest civil servant to believe they had surprised a retired policeman of some sort sitting at the desk of the Secretary to the Council of State.

Tromp did not always disabuse them.

Now his great left hand expanded over the grizzled fringe of hair remaining at the base of his skull. “Tell me about the ambush,” he directed.

“He didn’t make any trouble about coming to you here at the port,” Stilchey said, for a moment watching his fingers writhe together rather than look at his superior. He glanced up. “Have you met Hammer?”

“No, I kept in the background when plans for the Auxiliary Regiment were drafted. I’ve seen his picture, of course.”

“Not the same,” the captain replied, beginning to talk very quickly. “He’s not big but he, he moves, he’s alive and it’s like every time he speaks he’s training a gun on you, waiting for you to slip. But he came along, no trouble—only he said we’d go with a platoon of combat cars instead of flying back, he wanted to check road security between Southport and the firebase where we were. I said sure, a couple hours wasn’t crucial. . . .”

Tromp nodded. “Well done,” he said. “Hammer’s cooperation is very important if this . . . business is to be concluded smoothly. And”—here the councillor’s face hardened without any noticeable shift of muscles—”the last thing we wanted was for the good colonel to become concerned while he was still with his troops. He is not a stupid man.”

Gratification played about the edges of Stilchey’s mouth, but the conversation had cycled the captain’s mind back closer to the blast of cyan fire. His stomach began to spin. “There were six vehicles in the patrol, all but the second one open combat cars. That was a command car, same chassis and ground-effect curtain, but enclosed, you see? Better commo gear and an air-conditioned passenger compartment. I started toward it but Hammer said, no, I was to get in the next one with him and Joachim.”

Stilchey coughed, halted. “That Joachim’s here with him now; he calls him his aide. The bastard’s queer, he tried to make me when I flew out. . . .”

Puzzlement. “Colonel Hammer is homosexual, Captain? Or his aide, or. . . ?”

“No, Via! Him, not the—I don’t know. Via, maybe him, too. The bastard scares me, he really does.”

To statesmen patience is a tool; it is a palpable thing that can grind necessary information out of a young man whose aristocratic lineage and sparkling uniform have suddenly ceased to armor him against the universe. “The ambush, Captain,” Tromp pressed stolidly.

With a visible effort, Stilchey regained the thread of his narrative.

“Joachim drove. Hammer and I were in the back along with a noncom from Curwin—Worzer, his name was. He and Joachim threw dice for who had to drive. The road was supposed to be clear but Hammer made me put on body armor. I thought it was cop, you know—make the staffer get hot and dusty.

“Via,” he swore again, but softly this time. “I was at the left-side powergun but I wasn’t paying much attention; nothing really to pay attention to. Hammer was on the radio a lot, but my helmet only had intercom so I didn’t know what he was saying. The road was stabilized earth, just a gray line through hectares of those funny blue plants you see all over here, the ones with the fat leaves.”

“Bluebrights,” the older man said dryly. “Melpomone’s only export; as you would know from the briefing cubes you were issued in transit, I should think.”

“Would the Lord I’d never heard of this damned place!” Stilchey blazed back. His family controlled Karob Trading; no civil servant—not even Tromp, the Gray Eminence behind the Congress of the Republic—could cow him. But he was a soldier, too, and after a moment he continued: “Bluebrights in rows, waist high and ugly, and beyond that nothing but the soil blowing away as we passed.

“We were half an hour out from the firebase, maybe half the way to here. The ground was dimpled with frost heaves. A little copse was in sight ahead of us, trees ten, fifteen meters high. Hammer had the forward gun, and on the intercom he said, ‘Want to double the bet, Blacky?’ Then they armed their guns—I didn’t know why—and Worzer said, ‘I still think they’ll be in the draw two kays south, but I won’t take any more of your money.’ They were laughing and I thought they were going to just . . . clear the guns, you know?”

The captain closed his eyes. He remembered how they had stared at him, two bulging circles and the hollow of his screaming mouth below them, reflected on the polished floorplate of the combat car. “The command car blew up just as we entered the trees. There was a flash like the sun and it ate the back half of the car, armor and all. The front flipped over and over into the trees, and the air stank with metal. Joachim laid us sideways to follow the part the mine had left, cutting in right behind when it hit a tree and stopped. The driver raised his head out of the hatch and maybe he could have got clear himself . . . but Hammer jumped off our deck to his and jerked him out, yanked him up in his armor as small as he is. Then they were back in our car. They were firing, everybody was firing, and we turned right, into the trees, into the guns.”

“There were Mel troops in the grove, then?” Tromp asked.

“Must have been,” Stilchey replied. He looked straight at the older man and said, very simply, “I was behind the bulkhead. Maybe if I’d known what to expect . . . The other driver was at my gun, they didn’t need me.” Stilchey swallowed once, continued: “Some shots hit on my side. They didn’t come through, but they made the whole car ring. The empties kept spattering me, and the car was bouncing, jumping downed trees. Everything seemed to be on fire. We cleared the grove into another field of bluebrights. Shells from the firebase were already landing in the trees; the place was targeted. And Worzer pulled off his helmet and he spat and said, ‘Cold meat, Colonel, you couldn’t a called it better.’ Via!”

“Well, it does sound like they reacted well to the ambush,” Tromp admitted, puzzled because nothing Stilchey had told him explained the captain’s fear and hatred of Hammer and his men.

“Nice extempore response, hey?” the aide suggested with bitter irony. “Only Hammer, seeing I didn’t know what Worzer meant, turned to me, and said, ‘We let the Mels get word that me and Secretary Tromp would take a convoy to Southport this morning. They still had fifty or so regulars here in Region 4 claiming to be an infantry battalion, and it looked like a good time to flush them for good and all.'”

Tromp said nothing. He spread his hands carefully on the citron-yellow of his desktop and seemed to be fixedly studying the contrast. Stilchey waited for a response. At last he said, “I don’t like being used for bait, Secretary. And what if you’d decided to go out to the firebase yourself? I was all right for a stand-in, but do you think Hammer would have cared if you were there in person? He won’t let anything stand in his way.”

“Colonel Hammer does seem to have some unconventional attitudes,” Tromp agreed. A bleak smile edged his voice as he continued: “But at that, it’s rather fortunate that he brought a platoon in with him. We can begin the demobilization of his vaunted Slammers with them.”

The dome of the Starport Lounge capped Southport’s hundred-meter hotel tower. Its vitril panels were seamless and of the same refractive index as the atmosphere. As a tactician, Hammer was fascinated with the view: it swept beyond the equipment-thronged spaceport and over the shimmering billows of bluebright, to the mountains of the Crescent almost twenty kilometers away. But tankers’ blood has in it a turtle component that is more comfortable on the ground than above it, and the little officer felt claws on his intestines as he looked out.

No similar discomfort seemed to be disturbing the other men in the room, all in the black and silver of the Guards of the Republic, though in name they were armor officers. “Had a bit of action today, Colonel?” said a cheerful, fit-looking major. Hammer did not remember him even though a year ago he had been Second in Command of the Guards.

“Umm, a skirmish,” Hammer said as he turned. The Guardsman held out to him one of the two thimble-sized crystals he carried. In the heart of each flickered an azure fire. “Why, thank you—” the major’s name was patterned in the silver highlights below his left lapel “—Mestern.”

“No doubt you have seen much worse with your mercenaries, eh, Colonel?” a voice called mockingly from across the room.

Karl August Raeder lounged in imperial state in the midst of a dozen admiring junior officers. He had been the executive officer of the Guards for the past year—ever since Hammer took command of the foreign regiment raised to smash the scattered units of the Army of Melpomone.

“Mercenaries, Karl?” Hammer repeated. A threat rasped through the surface mildness of his tone. “Yes, they cash their paychecks. There may be a few others in this room who do, hey?”

“Oh . . .” someone murmured in the sudden quiet, but there was no way to tell what he meant by it. Raeder did not move. The blood had drawn back to yellow his smooth tan, and where the cushions had borne his languid hands they now were dimpled cruelly. Two men in the lounge had reached officer status in the Guards without enormous family wealth behind them. Hammer was one, Raeder was the other.

He strained at a breath. In build, he and Hammer were not dissimilar: the latter brown-haired and somewhat shorter, a trifle more of the hourglass in his shoulders and waist; Raeder blond and trim, slender in a rapier sort of way and quite as deadly. His uniform of natural silk and leather was in odd contrast to Hammer’s khaki battledress, but there was nothing of fop or sloven in either man.

“Pardon,” the Guardsman said, “I would not have thought this a company in which one need explain patriotism; there are men who fight for their homelands, and then there are the dregs, the gutter-sweepings of a galaxy, who fight for the same reason they pimped and sold themselves before our government—let me finish, please!” (though only Hammer’s smile had moved) “—misguidedly, I submit, offered them more money to do what Friesland citizens could have done better!”

“My boys are better citizens than some born on Friesland who stayed there wiping their butts—”

“A soldier goes where he is ordered!” Raeder was standing.

“A soldier—”

Dead silence. Hammer’s sentence broke like an axed cord. He looked about the lounge at the twenty-odd men, most of them his ex-comrades and all, like Raeder, men who had thought him mad to post out of the Guards for the sake of a combat command. Hammer laughed. He inverted the stim cone on the inside of his wrist and said approvingly, “Quite a view from up here. If it weren’t such a good target, you could make it your operations center.” As if in the midst of a normal conversation, he faced back toward the exterior and added, “By the way, what sort of operations are you expecting? I would have said the fighting here was pretty well over, and I’d be surprised at the government sending the Guards in for garrison duty.”

The whispering that had begun when Hammer turned was stilled again. It was Raeder who cleared his throat and said in a tone between triumph and embarrassment, “Colonel Rijsdal may know. He . . . he has remained in his quarters since we landed.” Rijsdal had not had a sober day in the past three years since he had acceded to an enormous estate on Friesland. “No doubt we are to provide proper, ah, background for such official pronouncements as the Secretary will make to the populace.”

Hammer nodded absently as if he believed the black and silver of a parade regiment would over-awe the Mels more effectively than could his own scarred killers, the men who had rammed Frisian suzerainty down Mel throats After twelve regiments of regulars had tried and failed. But the Guards were impressively equipped . . . and all their gear had been landed.

Five hundred worlds had imported bluebright leaves, with most of the tonnage moving through Southport. The handful of Frisian vessels scattered on the field looked lost, but traffic would pick up now that danger was over. For the moment, hundreds of Guard vehicles gave it a specious life. In the broad wedge of his vision Hammer could see two rocket batteries positioned as neatly as chess pieces on the huge playing surface. The center of each cluster was an ammunition hauler, low and broad-chassied. Within their thin armor sheetings were the racks of 150mm shells; everything from armor-piercing rounds with a second stage to accelerate them before impact, to antipersonnel cases loaded with hundreds of separate bomblets. The haulers rested on the field; no attempt had been made to dig them in.

The six howitzers of each battery were sited about their munitions in a regular hexagon, each joined to its hauler by the narrow strip of a conveyor. In action the hogs could kick out shells at five-second intervals, so the basic load of twenty rounds carried by the howitzer itself needed instant replenishment from the hauler’s store. Their stubby gun-tubes gave them guidance and an initial boost, but most of the acceleration came beyond the muzzle. They looked grim and effective; still, it nagged Hammer to see that nobody had bothered to defilade them.

“A pretty sight,” said Mestern. Conversation in the lounge was back to a normal level.

Hammer squeezed the last of his stim cone into the veins of his wrist and let the cool shudder pass through him before saying, “The Republic buys the best, and that’s the only way to go when a battle’s hanging on it. Not that you don’t need good crews to man the gear.”

Mestern pointed beyond the howitzers, toward a wide-spaced ring of gun trucks. “Latest thing in arty defense,” he said. “Each of those cars mounts an eight-barrel powergun, only 30mm but they’re high-intensity. They’ve got curst near the range of a tank’s 200—thirty, forty kilometers if you’ve that long a sight line. With our radar hook-up and the satellite, we can just about detonate a shell as soon as it comes over the horizon.”

“Nice theory,” Hammer agreed. “I doubt you can swing the rig fast enough to catch the first salvo, but maybe placing them every ten degrees like that . . . where you’ve got the terrain to allow it. The Mels never had arty worth cop anyway, of course.”

He paused, not sure he wanted to comment further. The grounded tanks and combat cars of the regiment were in an even perimeter at the edge of the circular field. Their dull iridium armor was in evident contrast to the ocher soil on which they rested. “You really ought to have dug in,” Hammer said at last.

“Oh, the field’s been stabilized to two meters down,” the major protested innocently, “and I don’t think the Mels are much of a threat now.”

Hammer shook his head in irritation. “Lord!” he snorted. “The Mels aren’t any threat at all after this morning. But just on general principles, when you set up in a war zone—any war zone—you set up as if you were going to be hit. Via, you may as well park your cars on Friesland for all the good they’d do if it dropped in the pot.”

“The good colonel has been away from soldiers too long,” whipped Raeder savagely. “Major Mestern, would you care to enlighten him as to how operations can be conducted by a real regiment—even though a gutter militia would be incapable of doing so?”

“I don’t . . . think . . .” Mestern stuttered in embarrassment. His fingers twiddled an empty stim cone.

“Very well, then I will,” the blond XO snapped. Hammer was facing him again. This time the two men were within arm’s length. “The Regiment of Guards is using satellite reconnaissance, Colonel,” Raeder announced sneeringly. “The same system in operation when you were in charge here, but we are using it, you see.”

“We used it. We—”

“Pardon, Colonel, permit me to explain and there will be fewer needless questions.”

Hammer relaxed with a smile. There was a tiger’s certainty behind its humor. “No, your pardon. Continue.”

Hammer had killed two men in semi-legal duels fought on Friesland’s moon. Raeder chuckled, unconcerned with his rival’s sudden mildness. “So,” he continued, “no Mel force could approach without being instantly sighted.”

He stared at Hammer, who said nothing. If the Guardsman wanted to believe no produce truck could drop a Mel platoon into bunkers dug by a harvesting crew—spotting the activity was no problem, interpreting it, though—well, it didn’t matter now. But it proved again what Hammer had known since before he was landed, that a lack of common sense was what had so hamstrung the regular army that his Slammers had to be formed.

Of course, “common sense” meant to Hammer doing what was necessary to complete a task. And that sometimes created problems of its own.

“Our howitzers can shatter them ninety kilometers distant,” Raeder lectured on, “and our tanks can pierce all but the heaviest armor at line of sight, Colonel.” He gestured arrogantly toward the skyline behind Hammer. “Anything that can be seen can be destroyed.”

“Yeah, it’s always a mistake to underrate technology,” agreed the man in khaki.

“So,” Raeder said with a crisp nod. “It is possible to be quite efficient without being—” his eyes raked Hammers stained, worn coveralls “—shoddy. When we hold the review tomorrow, it will be interesting to consider your . . . force . . . beside the Guard.”

“Via, only two of my boys are in,” Hammer said, “though for slickness I’d bet Joachim against anybody you’ve got.” He looked disinterestedly at the drink dispenser. “We’ll all be back in the field, as soon as I see what Tromp wants. We’ve got a clean-up operation mounted in the Crescent.”

“There is a platoon present now,” the Guardsman snapped. “It will remain, as you will remain, until you receive other orders.”

Hammer walked away without answering. Bigger men silently moved aside, clearing a path to the dispenser. Raeder locked his lips, murder-tense; but a bustle at the central dropshaft caused him to spin around. His own aide, a fifteen-year-old scion of his wife’s house, had emerged when the column dilated. Rather than use the PA system built into the lounge before it was commandeered as an officer’s club, messages were relayed through aides waiting on the floor below. Raeder’s boy carried a small flag bearing the hollow rectangle of Raeder’s rank, his ticket to enter the lounge and to set him apart from the officers. The boy might well be noble, but as yet he did not have a commission. He was to be made to remember it.

He whispered with animation into Raeder’s ear, his own eyes open and fixed on the mercenary officer. Hammer ignored them both, talking idly as he blended another stim cone into his blood. The blond man’s face slowly took on an expression of ruddy, mottled fury.

“Hammer!”

“The next time you determine where my boys will be, Colonel Raeder, I recommend that you ask me about it.”

“You traitorous scum!” Raeder blazed, utterly beyond curbing his anger. “I closed the perimeter to everyone, everyone! And you bull your way through my guards, get them to pass—”

“Pass my men, Lieutenant Colonel!” Hammer blasted as if he were shouting orders through the howling fans of a tank. All the tension of the former confrontation shuddered in the air again. Hammer was as set and grim as one of his war-cars.

Raeder raised a clenched fist.

“Touch me and I’ll shoot you where you stand,” the mercenary said, and he had no need to raise his voice for emphasis. As if only Raeder and not the roomful of officers as well was listening, he said, “You give what orders you please, but I’ve still got an independent command. As of this moment. That platoon is blocking a pass in the Crescent, because that’s what I want it to do, not sit around trying to polish away bullet scars because some cop-head thinks that’s a better idea than fighting.”

His body still as a gravestone, Raeder spoke. “Now you’ve got a command,” he said thickly.

The wing of violence lifted from the lounge. Given time to consider, every man there knew that the battle was in other hands than Raeder’s now—and that it would be fought very soon.

The dropshaft hissed again.

Joachim Steuben’s dress was identical in design to his colonel’s, but was in every other particular far superior. The khaki was unstained, the waist-belt genuine leather, polished to a rich chestnut sheen, and the coveralls themselves tapered to follow the lines of his boyish-slim figure. Perhaps it was the very beauty of the face smoothly framing Joachim’s liquid eyes that made the aide look not foppish, but softly feminine.

There was a rich urbanity as well in his careful elegance. Newland, his home-world, was an old colony with an emphasis on civilized trappings worthy of Earth herself. Just as Joachim’s uniform was of a synthetic sleeker and less rugged than Hammer’s, his sidearm was hunched high on his right hip in a holster cut away to display the artistry of what it gripped. No weapon in the lounge, even that of Captain Ryssler—the Rysslers on whose land Friesland’s second starport had been built—matched that of the Newlander for gorgeous detail. The receiver of the standard service pistol, a 1cm powergun whose magazine held ten charged-plastic disks, had been gilded and carven by someone with a penchant for fleshy orchids. The stems and leaves had been filled with niello while the veins remained in a golden tracery. The petals themselves were formed from a breathtakingly purple alloy of uranium and gold. It was hard for anyone who glanced at it to realize that such a work of art was still, beneath its chasing, a lethal weapon.

“Colonel,” he reported, his clear tenor a jewel in the velvet silence, “Secretary Tromp will see you now.” Neither he nor Hammer showed the slightest concern as to whether the others in the lounge were listening. Hammer nodded, wiping his palms on his thighs.

Behind his back, Joachim winked at Colonel Raeder before turning. The Guardsman’s jaw dropped and something mewled from deep in his chest.

It may have been imagination that made Joachim’s hips seem to rotate a final purple highlight from his pistol as the dropshaft sphinctered shut.

When the Guards landed, all but the fifteenth story of the Southport Tower was taken over for officers’ billets. That central floor was empty save for Tromp, his staff, and the pair of scowling Guardsmen confronting the dropshaft as it opened.

“I’ll stay with you, sir,” Joachim said. The guards were in dress blacks but they carried full-sized shoulder weapons, 2cm powerguns inferior only in rate of fire to the tribarrels mounted on armored vehicles.

“Go on back to our quarters,” Hammer replied. He stepped off the platform. His aide showed no signs of closing the shaft in obedience. “Martyrs’ blood!” Hammer cursed. “Do as I say!” He wiped his palms again and added, more mildly, “That’s where I’ll need you, I think.”

“If you say so, sir.” The door sighed closed behind Hammer, leaving him with the guards.

“Follow the left corridor to the end—sir,” one of the big men directed grudgingly. The colonel nodded and walked off without comment. The two men were convinced their greatest worth lay in the fact that they were Guardsmen. To them it was an insult that another man would deliberately leave the Regiment, especially to take service with a band of foreign scum. Hammer could have used his glass-edged tongue on the pair as he had at the perimeter when he sent his platoon through, but there was no need. He was not the man to use any weapon for entertainment’s sake.

The unmarked wood-veneer door opened before he could knock. “Why, good afternoon, Captain,” the mercenary said, smiling into Stilchey’s haggardness. “Recovering all right from this morning?”

“Go on through,” the captain said. “He’s expecting you.”

Hammer closed the inner door behind him, making a soft echo to the thump of the hall panel. Tromp rose from behind his desk, a great gray bear confronting a panther.

“Colonel, be seated,” he rumbled. Hammer nodded cautiously and obeyed.

“We have a few problems which must be cleared up soon,” the big man said. He looked the soldier full in the face. “I’ll be frank. You already know why I’m here.”

“Our job’s done,” Hammer said without inflection. “It costs money to keep the Sl—the Auxiliary Regiment mobilized when it isn’t needed, so it’s time to bring my boys home according to contract, hey?”

The sky behind Tromp was a turgid mass, gray with harbingers of the first storm of autumn. It provided the only light in the room, but neither man moved to turn on the wall illuminators. “You were going to say ‘Slammers,’ weren’t you?” Tromp mused. “Interesting. I had wondered if the newscasters coined the nickname themselves or if they really picked up a usage here . . .”

“The boys started it . . . It seemed to catch on.”

“But I’m less interested in that than another word,” Tromp continued with the sudden weight of an anvil falling. ” ‘Home.’ And that’s the problem, Colonel. As you know.”

“The only thing I could tell you is what I tell recruits when they sign on,” Hammer said, his voice quiet but his forehead sweat-gemmed in the cool air. “By their contract, they became citizens of Friesland with all rights and privileges thereof . . . Great Dying Lord, sir, that’s what brought most of my boys here! Look, I don’t have to tell you what’s been happening everywhere the past ten years, twenty—there are thousands and thousands of soldiers, good soldiers, who wound up on one losing side or another. If everybody that fought alongside them had been as good, and maybe if they’d had the equipment Friesland could buy for them . . . I tell you, sir, there’s no one in the galaxy to match them. And what they fight for isn’t me, I don’t care what cop you’ve heard, it’s that chance at peace, at stability that their fathers had and their father’s fathers, but they lost somewhere when everything started to go wrong. They’d die for that chance!”

“But instead,” Tromp stated, “they killed for it.”

“Don’t give me any cop about morals!” the soldier snarled. “Whose idea was it that we needed control of bluebright shipments to be sure of getting metals from Taunus?”

“Morals?” replied Tromp with a snort. “Morals be hanged, Colonel. This isn’t a galaxy for men with morals, you don’t have to tell me that. Oh, they can moan about what went on here and they have—but nobody, not even the reporters, has been looking very hard. And they wouldn’t find many to listen if they had been. You and I are paid to get things done, Hammer, and there won’t be any blame except for failure.”

The soldier hunched his shoulders back against the chair. “Then it’s all right?” he asked in wonder. “After all I worried, all I planned, my boys can go back to Friesland with me?”

Tromp smiled. “Over my dead body,” he said pleasantly. The two men stared at each other without expression on either side.

“I’m missing something,” said Hammer flatly. “Fill me in.”

The civilian rotated a flat datavisor toward Hammer and touched the indexing tab with his thumb. A montage of horror flickered across the screen—smoke drifting sullenly from a dozen low-lying buildings; a mass grave, reopened and being inspected by a trio of Frisian generals; another village without evident damage but utterly empty of human life—

“Chakma,” Hammer said in sudden recognition. “Via, you ought to thank me for the way we handled that one. I’d half thought of using a nuke.”

“Gassing the village was better?” the councillor asked with mild amusement.

“It was quiet. No way you could have kept reporters from learning about a nuke,” Hammer explained.

“And the convoy runs you made with hostages on each car?” Tromp asked smilingly.

“The only hostages we used were people we knew—and they knew we knew”—Hammer’s finger slashed emphasis—”were related to Mel soldiers who hadn’t turned themselves in. We cut ambushes by a factor of ten, and we even had some busted when a Mel saw his wife or a kid riding the lead car. Look, I won’t pretend it didn’t happen, but I didn’t make any bones about what I planned when I put in for transfer. This is bloody late in the day to bring it up.”

“Right, you did your duty,” the big civilian agreed. “And I’m going to do mine by refusing to open Friesland to five thousand men with the training you gave them. Lord and Martyrs, Colonel, you tell me we’re going through a period when more governments are breaking up than aren’t—what would happen to our planet if we set your animals loose in the middle of it?”

“There’s twelve regiments of regulars here,” Hammer argued.

“And if they were worth the cop in their trousers, we wouldn’t have needed your auxiliaries,” retorted Tromp inflexibly. “Face facts.”

The colonel sagged. “OK,” he muttered, turning his face toward the sidewall, “I won’t pretend I didn’t expect it, what you just said. I owed it to the boys they . . . they believe when they ought to have better sense, and I owed them to try . . .” The soldier’s fingers beat a silent tattoo on the yielding material of his chair. He stood before speaking further. “There’s a way out of it, Secretary,” he said.

“I know there is.”

“No!” Hammer shouted, his voice denying the flat finality of Tromp’s as he spun to face the bigger man again. “No, there’s a better way, a way that’ll work. You didn’t want to hire one of the freelance regiments you could have had because they didn’t have the equipment to do the job fast. But it takes a government and a curst solvent one to equip an armored regiment—none of the privateers had that sort of capital.”

He paused for breath. “Partly true,” Tromp agreed. “Of course, we preferred to have a commander—” he smiled “—whose first loyalty was to Friesland.”

Hammer spoke on, choking with his effort to convince the patient, gray iceberg of a man across from him. “Friesland’s always made her money by trade. Let’s go into another business—let’s hire out the best equipped, best trained—by the Lord, best—regiment in the galaxy!”

“And the reason that won’t work, Colonel,” Tromp rumbled coolly, “is not that it would fail, but that it would succeed. It takes a very solvent government, as you noted, to afford the capital expense of maintaining a first-rate armored regiment. The Melpomonese, for instance, could never have fielded a regiment of their own. But if . . . the sort of unit you suggest was available, they could have hired it for a time, could they not?”

“A few months, sure,” Hammer admitted with an angry flick of his hands, “But—”

“Nine months, perhaps a year, Colonel,” the civilian went on inexorably. “It would have bankrupted them, but I think they would have paid for the same reason they resisted what was clearly overwhelming force. And not even Friesland could have economically taken Melpomone if the locals were stiffened by—by your Slammers, let us say.”

“Lord!” Hammer shouted, snapping erect, “Of course we wouldn’t take contracts against Friesland.”

“Men change, Colonel,” Tromp replied, rising to his own feet. “Men die. And even if they don’t, the very existence of a successful enterprise will free the capital for others to duplicate it. It won’t be a wild gamble anymore. And Friesland will not be the cause of that state of affairs while I am at her helm. If you’re the patriot we assumed you were when we gave you this command, you will order your men to come in by platoons and be disarmed.”

The smaller man’s face was sallow and his hands shook until he hooked them in his pistol belt. “But you can’t even let them go then, can you?” he whispered. “It might be all right on Friesland where there wouldn’t be any recruiting by outsiders. But if you just turn my boys loose, somebody else will snap them up, somebody else who reads balance sheets. Maybe trained personnel would be enough of an edge to pry loose equipment on the cuff. Life’s rough, sure, and there are plenty of people willing to gamble a lot to make a lot more. Then we’re where you didn’t want us, aren’t we? Except that the boys are going to have some notions of their own about Friesland. . . . What do you plan, Secretary? Blowing up the freighter with everybody aboard? Or will you just have the Guards shoot them down when they’ve been disarmed?”

Tromp turned away for the first time. Lightning was flashing from cloud peak to cloud peak, and the mass that lowered over the Crescent was already linked to the ground by a haze of rain. “They put us in charge of things because we see them as they are, Colonel,” Tromp said. The vitril sheet in front of him trembled to the distant thunder. “Friesland got very good value from you, because you didn’t avoid unpleasant decisions; you saw the best way and took it—be damned to appearances.

“I would not be where I am today if I were not the same sort of man. I don’t ask you to like this course of action—I don’t like it myself—but you’re a pragmatist, too, Hammer, you see that it’s the only way clear for our own people.”

“Secretary, anything short of having my boys killed, but—”

“Curse it, man!” Tromp shouted. “Haven’t you taken a look around you recently? Lives are cheap, Colonel, lives are very cheap! You’ve got to have loyalty to something more than just men.”

“No,” said the man in khaki with quiet certainty. Then, “May I be excused, sir?”

“Get out of here.”

Tromp was seated again, his own face a mirror of the storm, when Captain Stilchey slipped in the door through which Hammer had just exited. “Your lapel mike picked it all up,” the young officer said. He gloated conspiratorially. “The traitor.”

Tromp’s face forced itself into normal lines. “You did as I explained might be necessary?”

“Right. As soon as I heard the word ‘disarmed’ I ordered men to wait for Hammer in his quarters.” Stilchey’s gleeful expression expanded to a smile of real delight. “I added a . . . refinement, sir. There was the possibility that Hammer would—you know how he is, hard not to obey—tell the guards be cursed and leave them standing. So I took the liberty of suggesting to Colonel Raeder that he lead four men himself for the duty. I used your name, sir, but I rather think the colonel would have gone along with the idea anyway.”

The captain’s laughter hacked loudly through the suite before he realized that Tromp still sat in iron gloom, cradling his chin in his hands.

* * *

The room was a shifting bowl of reds and hot orange in which the khaki uniforms of Worzer and Steuben seemed misplaced. The only sound was a faint buzzing, the leakage of the bone-conduction speakers implanted in either man’s right mastoid. Hammer, like Tromp, had left his lapel mike keyed to his aides.

“Get us a drink, Joe,” Worzer asked. With the Slammers, you either did your job or you left, and nobody could fault Joachim’s effectiveness. Still, there was a good deal of ambivalence about the Newlander in a unit made up in large measure of ex-farmers whose religious training had been fundamental if not scholarly. Tense, black-bearded Worzer got along with him better than most, perhaps because it had been a Newland ship which many years before had lifted him from Curwin and the Security Police with their questions about a bombed tax office.

Joachim stood and stretched, his eyes vacant. The walls and floor gave him a satanic cruelty that would have struck as incongruous those who knew him slightly. Yawning, he touched the lighting control, a slight concavity in the wall. The flames dulled, faded to a muted pattern of grays. The room was appreciably darker.

“Wanted you to do that all the time,” Worzer grumbled. He seated himself on a bulging chair that faced the doorway.

“I liked it,” Joachim said neutrally. He started for the kitchen alcove, then paused. “You’d best take your pistol off, you know. They’ll be jumpy.”

“You’re the boss,” Worzer grunts. Alone now in the room, he unlatches his holstered weapon and tosses the rig to the floor in front of him. It is a fixed blackness against the grays that shift beneath it. Glass tinkles in the kitchen.

Men on every world have set up stills, generally as their first constructions. Even in a luxury hotel, Worzer’s habits are those of a lifetime. Hammer’s microphone no longer broadcasts voices.

The door valves open.

“Freeze!” orders the first man through. He is small and blond, his eyes as cold as the silver frosting his uniform. The glowing tab of a master door key is in his left hand, a pistol in his right. The Guardsmen fanning to each side of him swing heavy powerguns at waist level, the muzzles black screams in a glitter of iridium. Two more men stand beyond the door, facing either end of the hallway with their weapons ready.

“Move and you’re dead,” the officer hisses to Worzer. Then, to his tight-lipped subordinates, “Watch for the other one—the deviate.”

The kitchen door rotates to pass Joachim. His left hand holds a silver tray with a fruit-garnished drink on it. Reflections shimmer from the metal and the condensate on the glass. He smiles.

“You foul beast!” says the officer and his pistol turns toward the aide of its own seeming will. The enlisted men wait, uncertain.

“Me, Colonel Raeder?” Joachim’s voice lilts. He is raising the tray and it arcs away from his body in a gentle movement that catches Raeder’s eyes for the instant that the Newlander’s right hand dips and—a cyan flash from Joachim’s pistol links the two men. Raeder’s mouth is open but silent. His eyeballs are bulging outward against the pressure of exploding nerve tissue. There is a hole between them and it winks twice more in the flash of Joachim’s shots. Two spent cases hang in the air to the Newlander’s right; a third is jammed, smeared across his pistol’s ejection port. None of the Guardsmen have begun to fall, though a gout of blood pours from the neck of the right-hand man.

It is two-fifths of a second from the moment Joachim reached for his pistol. Worzer had been ready. He leaped as Steuben’s shots flickered across the room, twisting the shoulder weapon from a Guardsman who did not realize he was already dead. The stocky Curwinite hit the floor on his right side, searching the doorway with the powergun. In the hall, a guard shouted as he spun himself to face the shooting. Joachim’s jammed pistol had thudded on the floor but Worzer wasted no interest on what the aide might do—you didn’t worry about Joachim in a firefight, he took care of himself. The noncom had been squeezing even as he fell, and only a feather of trigger pressure was left to take up when the Guardsman’s glittering uniform sprouted above the sights.

Heated air thumped the walls of the room. The body ballooned under the cyan impact. The big-bore packed enough joules to vaporize much of a man’s abdomen at that range, and the Frisian hurtled back against the far wall. His tunic was afire and spilling coils of intestine.

The boots of the remaining Guardsman clattered on the tile as he bolted for the dropshaft. Joachim snaked his head and the pistol he had snatched from Raeder through the doorway. Worzer and the big gun plunged into the corridor low to cover the other end. The shaft entrance opened even before the Frisian’s outflung arm touched the summoning plate. Hammer, standing on the platform, shot him twice in the chest. The Guardsman pitched into the wall. As he did so, Joachim shot him again at the base of the skull. Joachim generally doubted other men’s kills, a practice that had saved his life in the past.

Hammer glanced down at the jellied skull of the last Guardsman and grimaced. “Didn’t anybody tell you about aiming at the body instead of getting fancy?” he asked Joachim. Neither man commented that the final shot had been aimed within a meter of Hammer.

The Newlander shrugged. “They should’ve been wearing body armor,” he said offhandedly. “Coppy fools.”

The colonel scooped up both the powerguns from the corridor and gestured his men back into the room. The air within stank of blood and hot plastic. Death had been too sudden to be prefaced with pain, but the faces of the Guardsmen all held slack amazement. Hammer shook his head. “With five thousand of you to choose from,” he said to Joachim, “didn’t they think I could find a decent bodyguard?”

The Newlander smiled. After his third quick shot, the expended disk had been too hot to spin out whole and had instead flowed across the mechanism when struck by the jet of ejection gas. Joachim was carefully chipping away at the cooled plastic with a stylus while the pistol he had taken from his first victim lay on the table beside him. Its muzzle had charred the veneer surface. “There isn’t enough gas in a handgun ejector to cool the chamber properly,” he said, pretending to ignore his colonel’s indirect praise.

“Via, you hurried ’cause you wanted all of them.” Worzer laughed. He thumbed a loaded round into the magazine of the shoulder gun he had appropriated. “What’s the matter—don’t you want the colonel to bother bringing me along the next time ’cause I scare away all your pretty friends?”

Hammer forced a smile at the interchange, but it was only a shimmer across lines of fear and anger. On one wall was a communicator, a flat, meter-broad screen whose surface was an optical pickup as well as a display. Hammer stepped in front of it and drew the curtain to blank the remainder of the room. His fingers flicked the controls, bringing Captain Stilchey into startled focus. Tromp’s aide blinked, but before he could speak the colonel said, “We’ve got three minutes, Stilchey, and there’s no time to cop around. Put me through.”

Stilchey’s mouth closed. Without comment he reached out and pressed his own control panel. With liquid abruptness his figure was replaced by the hulking power of Secretary Tromp, seated against the closing sky.

“Tell the Guard to ground arms, Secretary,” Hammer ordered in a voice trembling with adrenaline. “Tell them now and I’ll get on the horn to my boys—it’ll be close.”

“I’m sorry for the necessity of your arrest, Colonel,” the big man began, “but—”

“Idiot!” Hammer shouted at the pickup, and his arm slashed aside the drapes to bare the room. “I heard your terms—now listen to mine. I’ve arranged for a freighter to land tomorrow at 0700 and the whole regiment’s leaving on it. I’ll leave you an indenture for the fair value of the gear, and it’ll be paid off as soon as contracts start coming in. But the Lord help you, Tromp, if anybody tries to stop my boys.”

“Captain Stilchey,” Tromp ordered coolly, “sound general quarters. As for you, Colonel,” he continued without taking verbal notice of the carnage behind the small officer, “I assure you that the possibility you planned something like this was in my mind when I ordered the Guards landed with me.”

“Secretary, we planned what we’d do if we had to a month and a half ago. Don’t be so curst a fool to doubt my boys can execute orders without me to hold their hands. If I don’t radio in the next few seconds, you won’t have the Guards to send back. Lord and Martyrs, man, don’t you understand what you see back of me? This isn’t some coppy parade!”

“Sir,” came Stilchey’s thin voice from offscreen, “Fire Central reports all satellite signals are being jammed. The armored units in the Crescent began assembling thirty—Lord! Lord! Sir!

A huge scarlet dome swelled upward across the vitril behind Tromp. The window powdered harmlessly an instant later as the shock wave threw man and desk toward Hammer’s image. The entire hotel shuddered to the blast.

“They’re blowing up the artillery,” the captain bleated. “The ammunition—” His words were drowned in the twin detonations of the remaining batteries.

Hammer switched the communicator off. “Early,” he muttered. “Not that it mattered!” His face was set like that of a man who had told his disbelieving mechanic that something was wrong with the brakes, and who now feels the pedal sink to the firewall to prove him fatally correct. “Don’t go to sleep,” he grunted to his companions. “Tromp knows he’s lost, and I’m not sure how he’ll react.”

But only Worzer was in the room with him.

Though Tromp was uninjured, he rose only to his knees. He had seen Captain Stilchey when the jagged sheet of iridium buzz-sawed into the suite and through him. Scuttling like a stiff-legged bear, the civilian made his way to the private dropshaft built into the room. He pretended to ignore the warm greasiness of the floor, but by the time the platform began to sink his whole body was trembling.

Ground floor was a chaos of half-dressed officers who had been on the way to their units when fire raked the encampment. Tromp pushed through a trio of chattering captains in the branch corridor; the main lobby of bronze and off-planet stonework was packed and static, filled with men afraid to go out and uncertain where to hide. The councillor cursed. The door nearest him was ajar and he kicked it fully open. The furniture within was in sleep-mode, the self-cleaning sheets rumpled on the bed, but there was no one present. The vitril outer wall had pulverized; gouges in the interior suggested more than a shock wave had been responsible for the damage.

Seen through it, the starport had become a raving hell.

Four hundred meters from the hotel, one of the anti-artillery weapons was rippling sequential flame skyward from its eight barrels. High in a boiling thunderhead at its radar-chosen point of aim, man-made lightning flared magenta: high explosive caught in flight. Almost simultaneously a dart of cyan more intense than the sun lanced into the Guard vehicle. Metal heated too swiftly to melt and sublimed in a glowing ball that silhouetted the gun crew as it devoured them. Hammer’s tanks, bunkered in the Crescent, were using satellite-computed deflections to rake the open Guard positions. Twenty kilometers and the thin armor of the lighter vehicles were no defense against the 200mm powerguns.

Tromp stepped over the low sill and began to run. The field was wet and a new slash of rain pocked its gleam. Three shells popped high in the air. He ignored them, pounding across the field in a half-crouch. For a moment the whistling beginning to fill the sky as if from a thousand tiny mouths meant nothing to him either—then realization rammed a scream from his throat and he threw himself prone. The bomblets showering down from the shells went off on impact all across the field, orange flashes that each clipped the air with scores of fragments. Panic and Hammer’s tanks had silenced the Guard’s defensive weaponry. Now the rocket howitzers were free to rain in wilful death.

But the tanks, Tromp thought as he stumbled to his feet, they can’t knock out the tanks from twenty kilometers and they can’t capture the port while the Guard still has that punch. The surprise was over now. Lift fans keened from the perimeter as the great silvery forms of armored vehicles shifted from their targeted positions. The combatants were equal and a standoff meant disaster for the mercenaries.

Much of the blood staining Tromp’s clothing was his own, licked from his veins by shrapnel. Incoming shells were bursting at ten-second intervals. Munitions shortages would force a slowdown soon, but for the moment anyone who stood to run would be scythed down before his third step. Even flat on his belly Tromp was being stung by hot metal. His goal, the ten-place courier vessel that had brought him to Melpomone, was still hopelessly far off . The remains, however, of one of the Guard’s self-propelled howitzers lay like a cleat-kicked drink-can thirty meters distant. Painfully the councillor crawled into its shelter. Hammer’s punishing fire had not been directed at the guns themselves but at the haulers in the midst of each battery. After three shots, the secondary explosions had stripped the Guard of all its ill-sited artillery.

A line of rain rippled across the field, streaking dried blood from Tromp’s face and whipping the pooled water. He was not running away. There was one service yet that he could perform for Friesland, and he had to be home to accomplish it. After that—and he thought of it not as revenge but as a final duty—he would not care that reaction would assuredly make him the scapegoat for the catastrophe now exploding all around him. It was obvious that Hammer had ordered his men to disturb the spaceport as little as possible so that the mercenaries would not hinder their own embarkation. The lightly rattling shrapnel crumpled gun crews and the bewildered Guard infantry, but it would not harm the port facilities themselves or the ships docked there.

For the past several minutes no powerguns had lighted the field. The bunkered mercenaries had either completed their programs or ceased fire when a lack of secondary explosions informed them that the remaining Guard vehicles had left their targeted positions. The defenders had at first fired wild volleys at no better target than the mountain range itself, but a few minutes’ experience had taught them that the return blasts aimed at their muzzles were far more effective than their own could possibly be. Now there was a lull in the shelling as well.

Tromp eased a careful glance beyond the rim of his shelter, the buckled plenum chamber of the gun carriage. His ship was a horizontal needle three hundred meters distant. The vessel was unlighted, limned as a gray shadow by cloud-hopping lightning. The same flashes gleamed momentarily on the wet turtle-backs of a dozen tanks and combat cars in a nearby cluster, their fans idling. All the surviving Guard units must be clumped in similar hedgehogs across the port.

The big man tensed himself to run; then the night popped and crackled as a Guard tank began firing out into the storm. Tromp counted three shots before a cyan dazzle struck the engaged vehicle amidships and its own ammunition went off with an electric crash. The clustered vehicles were lit by a blue-green fire that expanded for three seconds, dissolving everything within twenty meters of its center. One of the remaining combat cars spun on howling fans, but it collapsed around another bolt before it could pull clear. There were Guardsmen on the ground now, running from their vehicles. Tromp’s eyes danced with afterimages of the exploding tank, and for the first time he understood why Stilchey had been so terrified by the destruction of the car he might have ridden in.

Half a dozen shots ripped from beyond the perimeter and several struck home together. All the Guard blowers were burning now, throwing capering shadows beyond the councillor’s shelter. Then, threading their way around the pools of slag, the steam and the dying fires, came a trio of tanks. Even without the scarlet wand wavering from each turret for identification, Tromp would have realized these were not the polished beauties of the Guard. The steel skirts of their plenum chambers were rusty and brushworn. One’s gouged turret still glowed where a heavy powergun had hit it glancingly; the muzzle of its own weapon glowed too, and the bubbling remains of the perimeter defense left no doubt whose bolts had been more accurately directed. The fighting had been brief, Hammer’s platoons meeting the disorganized Guardsmen with pointblank volleys. The victors’ hatches were open and as they swept in toward the central tower, Tromp could hear their radios crackling triumphant instructions. Other wands floated across the immense field, red foxfire in the rain.

The shooting had stopped. Now, before the combat cars and infantry followed up the penetrations their tanks had made, Tromp stood and ran to his ship. His career was ruined, of that he had no doubt. No amount of deceit would cover his role in the creation of the Slammers or his leadership in the attempted suppression. All that was left to Nicholas Tromp was the sapphire determination that the national power which he had worked four decades to build should not fall with him. They could still smash Hammer before he got started, using Friesland’s own fleet and the fleets of a dozen other worlds. The cost would leave even Friesland groaning, but they could blast the Slammers inexorably from space wherever they were landed. For the sake of his planet’s future, the excision had to be made, damn the cost.

And after Tromp fell in disgrace in the next week or two weeks at most, there would be no man left with the power to force the action or the foresight to see its necessity. Panting, he staggered through his vessel’s open lock. The interior, too, was unlighted. That was not surprising in view of the combat outside, but one of the three crewmen should have been waiting at the lock. “Where are you?” Tromp called angrily.

The lights went on. There was a body at the big Frisian’s feet. From the cockpit forward stretched another hairline of blood still fresh enough to ooze. “I’m here,” said a cultured voice from behind.

Tromp froze. Very slowly, he began to turn his head.

“People like you,” the voice continued, “with dreams too big for men to fit into, don’t see the same sort of world that the rest of us do. And sometimes a fellow who does one job well can see where his job has to be done, even though a better man has overlooked it. Anyhow, Secretary, there always was one thing you and I could agree on—lives are cheap.”

Surely Joachim’s wrists were too slim, Tromp thought, to raise his heavy pistol so swiftly.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям