STANDING DOWN

“Look, I’m not about to wear a goon suit like that, even to my wedding,” Colonel Hammer said, loudly enough to be heard through the chatter. There were a dozen officers making last-minute uniform adjustments in the crowded office and several civilians besides. “Joachim, where’s Major Pritchard? I want him in the car with us, and it’s curst near jump-off now.”

Joachim Steuben was settled nonchalantly on the corner of a desk, unconcerned about the state of his dress because he knew it was perfect—as always. He shrugged. “Pritchard hasn’t called in,” the Newlander said. His fine features brightened in a smile. “But go ahead, Alois, put the armor on.”

“Yes indeed, sir,” said the young civilian. He was holding the set of back and breast armor carefully by the edges so as not to smear its bright chrome. Rococo whorls and figures decorated the plastron, but despite its ornateness, the metal/ceramic sandwich beneath the brightwork was quite functional. “Really, the image you’ll project to the spectators will be ideal, quite ideal. And there couldn’t be a better time for it, either.”

Lieutenant Colonel Miezierk frowned, wrinkling his forehead to the middle of his bald skull. He said, “Yes Colonel. After all, Mr. van Meter’s firm studied the matter very carefully and I think—” Joachim snickered; Miezierk’s scalp reddened but he went on “—that you ought to follow his advice here.”

“Lord!” Hammer said, but he thrust his hands through the armholes and let Miezierk lock the clamshell back.

Someone tapped on the door. A lieutenant was leaning over the front desk, combing his hair in the screen of the display console. He cursed and straightened so that the door could open to admit Captain Fallman. The Intelligence captain was duty officer for the afternoon, harried by the inevitable series of last-minute emergencies. “Colonel,” he said, “there’s a Mr. Wang here to see you.”

“Lord curse it, Fallman, can wait till tomorrow! Hammer blazed, “He can wait till Hell freezes over. Miezierk, get this bloody can off me, it’s driving the stylus in my pocket clear through my rib cage.”

“‘Sir, we can take the stylus—” Miezierk began.

“Sir, he’s from the Bonding Authority,” Fallman was saying. “It’s about President Theismann’s—death.”

Hammer swore, brushing the startled Miezierk’s hands away. The room grew very silent. “Joachim, what’s in the office next door?” Hammer asked.

“Dust, three walls, and some stains from the Iron Guards who decided to make a stand there,” the Newlander replied.

“Bring him next door, Captain, I’ll talk to him there,” Hammer said. He met his bodyguard’s eyes. “Come along too, Joachim.”

At the door the colonel paused, looking back at his still-faced officers. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything’s going to work out fine.”

The closing door cut off the babble of nervous speculation from within.

A moment after Hammer and his aide had entered the side office, Captain Fallman ushered in a heavy Oriental. Joachim bowed to the civilian and closed the door, leaving the duty officer alone in the hallway.

An automatic weapon had punched through the outer wall of the office, starting fires which the grenade thrown in a moment later had snuffed. There was still a scorched-plastic afterstench mingling with that of month-dead meat. Joachim had been serious about the Iron Guards.

“I’m Hammer,” the colonel said, smiling but not offering the Authority representative his hand for fear it might be refused.

“Wang An-wei,” said the Oriental, nodding curtly. He held a flat briefcase. It seemed to be more an article of dress than a tool he intended to use this morning. “I was sent here as Site Officer when Councillor Theismann—”

“President Theismann, he preferred,” interjected Hammer. He seated himself in feigned relaxation on a blast-warped chair.

Wang’s answering smile was brief and as sharp as the lightning. “He was never awarded the title by a quorum of the Council,” the Terran said. “As you no doubt are aware, Site Officers are expected to be precise. If I may continue?”

Hammer nodded. Steuben snickered. His left thumb was hooked in the belt which tucked his tailored blouse in at the waist, but his right hand dangled loose at his side.

“When Councillor Theismann hired you to make him dictator,” Wang continued coolly. “Naturally I have been investigating the death of your late employer. There have been—and I’m sure you’re aware of this—accusations that you murdered Councillor Theismann yourself in order to replace him as head of the successful coup.”

The Site Officer looked at the men in turn. The two Slammers looked back.

“I started with the autopsy data. In addition, I have interrogated the Councillor’s guards, both his personal contingent and the platoon of—White Mice—on security detail here at Government House.” Wang stared at Hammer. “I assume you were informed of this?”

Hammer nodded curtly. “I signed off before they’d let you mind-probe my men.”

“I used mechanical interrogation on all troops below officer rank involved,” Wang agreed, “as your bond agreement specifies the Site officer may require.” When Hammer made no reply, he continued: “The evidence is uncontroverted that Councillor Theismann, accompanied by you, Colonel—” Hammer nodded again “—stepped out onto his balcony and was struck in the forehead by a pistol bolt.”

Wang paused again. The room was very tense. “The pistol must have been fired from at least a kilometer away. Because of the distance and the fact that fighting was going on at several points within the city, I have reported to my superiors that it was a stray shot, and that the Councillor’s death was accidental.”

Joachim’s fingers ceased toying with the butt of the powergun holstered high on his right hip. “We were clearing some of van Vorn’s people out of the Hotel Zant,” he said. “Pistol and submachine gun work. There might have been a stray shot from that. It’d be very difficult to brain a man that far away with a pistol, wouldn’t it?”

“Impossible, of course,” Wang said. His gaze flicked to Steuben’s ornate pistol, flicked up to the bodyguard’s eyes. For the first time the Oriental looked startled. He looked away from Steuben very quickly and said, “Since the investigation has cleared you, and your employment has ended for the time, I’ll be returning to Earth now. I wish you good fortune, and I hope we may do business again in the near future.”

Hammer laughed, clapping the civilian on the shoulder with his left hand while their right hands shook. “That’s all over, Mr. Wang. The Slammers’re out of the merc business for good, now. But I appreciate your wishes.”

Wang turned to the door, smiling by reflex. He looked at Joachim’s face again: the Cupid grin and unlined cheeks; the hair which, though naturally graying, still fell across the Newlander’s forehead in an attractive pageboy; and the eyes. Wang was shivering as he stepped into the hall.

Danny Pritchard stood outside the door watching the Site officer leave. He was dressed in civilian clothing.

Spaceport buses did not serve the cargo ships for the man or two they might bring, so Rob Jenne hiked toward the barrier on foot. At first he noticed only that the short man marching toward the terminal from the other recently landed freighter was also missing an arm. Then the other’s crisp stride rang a bell in Jenne’s mind. He shouted, “Top! Sergeant Horthy! What the hell’re you doing here?”

Horthy turned with the wary quickness of a man uncertain as to any caller’s interest. At Jenne’s grin he broke into a smile himself. The two men dropped their bags and shook hands awkwardly, Jenne’s left in Horthy’s right. “Same thing you’re doing, trooper,” Horthy said. The Magyar’s goatee was white against his swarthy skin, but his grip was as firm as it had been when Rob Jenne was Horthy’s right wing gunner. “Comin’ here to help the colonel put some backbone in this place. You don’t know how glad I was when the call came, snake.”

“Don’t I though?” Jenne murmured. Side by side, talking simultaneously, the two veterans walked toward the spaceport barrier. There was already a line waiting at the customs kiosk. Jenne knew very well what his old sergeant meant. Seven years of retirement had been hard on the younger man, too. He hadn’t lacked money—his pension put him well above the norm for the Burlage quarrymen to whom he had returned—but he was useless. To himself, to Burlage, to the entire human galaxy. Jenne had shouted for joy when Colonel Hammer summoned all pensioned Slammers who wanted to come. The Old Man needed supervisors and administrators, now. It didn’t matter anymore that gaseous iridium had burned off Jenne’s right arm, right eye, and his gonads; it was enough that Hammer knew where his loyalties lay.

A gray bus with wire-mesh windows and SECURITY stencilled on its side pulled up to the barrier. The faces and clothing of the prisoners within were as drab as the air-cushion vehicle’s exterior. A guard wearing the blue of the civil police stepped out and walked to the barrier. His submachine gun was slung carelessly under his right arm.

Horthy nudged his companion. “It’s a load a’ politicals for the Borgo Mines,” he muttered. “Bet they’re bein’ hauled out on the ship that brought me in. And I’ll bet that bus’ll be heading back to wherever the colonel is, just as quick as it unloads. Let’s see if that cop’ll offer us a ride, snake.”

As he spoke, the Magyar veteran stepped to the waist-high barrier. The customs official bustled over from his kiosk and shouted in Horthy’s face. Horthy ignored him. The official unsnapped the flap of his pistol holster. Other travellers waiting for entry scattered, more afraid of losing their lives than their places in line. Jenne, his good eye flashing across the tension, knowing as well as any man alive that his muscles were nothing to the blast of a powergun, cursed and closed the Magyar’s rear.

A second bus, civilian in stripes of white and bright orange, pulled up behind the prison vehicle. The policeman turned and waved angrily. The bus hissed and settled to the pavement despite him. The policeman fumbled with his submachine gun.

A shot from the bus cut him down.

A man with a pistol swung to the loading step of the striped vehicle. He roared, “Just hold it, everybody. We got a load of hostages here. Either we get out of here with our friends or nobody gets out!”

The customs official had paused, staring with his mouth open and his fingers brushing the butt of the gun whose existence he had forgotten. Horthy, behind him, drew the pistol and fired. The rebel doubled over, his jacket afire over his sternum. Someone aboard the civilian bus screamed. Another gun fired. Horthy was prone, his pistol punching out windows in answer to the burst that had sawed the customs official in half.

Rob rolled over the barrier, coming up with the guard’s automatic weapon.

The striped bus was moving, dragging the fallen gunman’s torso on the concrete. The ex-tanker’s mind raced in the old channels. The fans of the bus were not armored like those of a military vehicle. Rob aimed low. A powergun bolt sprayed lime dust over his head and shoulders. His own burst ripped across the plenum chamber. The driving fans disintegrated, flaying the air with steel like a bursting shell. The bus rolled over on its left side. Metal and humans screamed together. A gray-suited prisoner jumped from the door of the government bus. Horthy shot her in the face.

The ruptured fuel cell of the overturned vehicle ignited. The explosion slapped the area with a pillow of warm air. The screaming took a minute to die. Then there was just the rush of wind feeding the fire, and the nearing wail of sirens.

Jenne’s cheek and shoulder-stub were oozing where the concrete had ground against them. He rose to his knees, keeping his eye and the submachine gun trailed on the gray bus. No one else was trying to get out of it. The police could sort through whatever had happened inside in their own good time.

Horthy stood, heat rippling from the barrel of the weapon he had appropriated. He glanced at the mangled customs official as if he would rather have spit on the body. “Oh, yes,” the veteran said. “They need us here, trooper. They need people to teach ’em the facts of life.”

“Pritchard, where the Hell have you been?” Hammer demanded, pretending that he did not understand the implications of his subordinate’s business suit.

“I need to talk to you, Colonel,” the brown-haired major said.

Hammer stood aside. “Then come on in. Joachim, we’ll join the group next door in a moment. Wait for us there, if you will.”

Pritchard took a step forward. He hesitated when he realized that Joachim was not moving. The Newlander had been as relaxed as a sunning adder during the interview with Wang An-wei. Now he was white and tense. “Colonel, he’s a traitor to you,” Joachim said. “He’s going to walk out.” His voice was quiet but not soft.

“Joachim, I told you—”

“You don’t talk to traitors, Colonel. What you do to traitors—” The Newlander’s hand was dipping to his gun butt. Hammer grappled with him. He was not as fast as his aide, but he knew Joachim’s mind even better than the gunman did himself. The extra fraction of a second saved Pritchard’s life.

The two men stood, locked like wrestlers or lovers. Pritchard did not move, knowing that emphasizing his presence would be the worst possible course under the circumstances. Hammer said, “Joachim, are you willing to shoot me?”

The bodyguard winced, a tic that momentarily disfigured his face. “Alois! You know I wouldn’t . . .”

“Then do as I say. Or you’ll have to shoot me. To keep me from shooting you.”

Hammer stepped away from his aide. Joachim lurched through the doorway, bumping Pritchard as he passed because his eyes had filled with tears.

Pritchard swung the door shut behind him. “I told you last week I was going to resign from the Slammers, sir.”

Hammer nodded. “And I told you, you weren’t.”

Pritchard looked around at the dust and rubble of the room, the bloodstains. “I’ve decided there’s been enough killing, Colonel. For me. We’re going somewhere else.”

“Danny, the killings over!”

The taller man gave a short snap of his head. He said, “No, it’ll never be over—not any place you are.” He spread his hands, then clenched them. He was staring at his knuckles because he would not look at his commander. “Right now we’re chasing van Vorn’s guards like rabbits, shooting ’em down or sticking ’em behind wire where they’re not a curse a’ good to you or themselves or this planet.”

He faced Hammer, the outrage bubbling out at a human being, not the colonel he had served for all his adult life. “And the ones we kill—doesn’t every one a’ them have a wife or a brother or a nephew? And they’ll put a knife in a Slammer some night and be shot the same way because of it!”

“All right,” said Hammer calmly. “What else?”

“How about the Social Unity Party, then?” Pritchard blazed. “Maybe the one chance to get this place a work force that works instead of the robots the Great Houses’ve been trying to make them. And does anybody listen? Hell, no! The Council tinkers with the franchise to make sure they don’t get a majority of the Estates-General; van Vorn outlaws the party and makes their leaders terrorists instead of politicians. And you, you ship them off-planet to rot in state-owned mines on Kobold!”

“All right,” Hammer repeated. He sat down again, his stillness as compelling as that of the shattered room around him. “What would you do?”

Pritchard’s eyes narrowed. He stretched his left hand out to the wall, not leaning on it but touching its firmness, its chill. “What do you care?” he asked quietly. “I didn’t say the Slammers couldn’t keep you in power here the rest of your life. I just don’t want to be a part of it, is all.”

Without warning, Hammer stood and slammed his fist into the wall. He turned back to his aide. His bleeding knuckles had flecked the panel more brightly than the remains of the Iron Guards. “Is that what you think?” he demanded. “That I’m a bandit who’s found himself a bolt hole? That for the past thirty years I’ve fought wars because that’s the best way to make bodies?”

“Sir, I . . .” But Pritchard had nothing more to say or need to say it.

Hammer rubbed his knuckles. He grinned wryly at his subordinate, but the grin slipped away. “It’s my own fault,” he said. “I don’t tell people much. That’s how it’s got to be when you’re running a tank regiment, but . . . that’s not where we are now.

“Danny, this is my home.” Hammer began to reach out to the taller man but stopped. He said, “You’ve been out there. You’ve seen how every world claws at every other one, claws its own guts, too. The whole system’s about to slag down, and there’s nothing to stop it if we don’t.”

“You don’t create order by ramming it down peoples’ throats on a bayonet! It doesn’t work that way.”

“Then show me a way that does work!” Hammer cried, gripping his subordinate’s right hand with his own. “Are things going to get better because you’re sitting on your butt in some farmhouse, living off the money you made killing? Danny I need you. My son will need you.”

Pritchard touched his tongue to his lips. “What is it you’re asking me to do?” he said.

“Do you have a way to handle the Unionists?” Hammer shot back at him. “And the Iron Guards?”

“Maybe,” Pritchard said with a frown. “Amnesty won’t be enough—they won’t believe it’s real, for one thing. But a promise of authority . . . administrative posts in education, labor, maybe even security—that’d bring out a few of the Unionists because they couldn’t afford not to take the chance. Most of the rest of them might follow when they saw you really were paying off.”

The brown-haired man’s enthusiasm was building without the hostility that had marked it before. “The Guards, that’ll be harder because they’re rigid, most of them. But if you can find some way to convince them there’s nothing to gain by staying out, and—Hell, there’ll be counter-protests, but work the ones who turn over their guns into the civil police. Not in big dollops, but scattered all over the planet. They’ll feel more secure that way, and you can keep an eye on them easier anyhow.”

Hammer nodded. “All right, bring me a preliminary assessment of both proposals by, say, 0800 Tuesday. No, make that noon, you’re going to waste the rest of today watching a wedding from the front row. You’ll have the backing you’ll need, but these are your projects—I’ve got too much blood on my hands to run them.” His eyes held Pritchard’s. “Or don’t you have the guts to try?”

The taller man hesitated, then squeezed Hammer’s hand in return. “I rode your lead tank,” he said. “I ran your lead company. If you need me now, you’ve got me.” His face clouded. “Only, Colonel—”

Hammer tightened. “Spit it out.”

“I’m not ashamed of anything. But I swore to Margritte I’d never wear another uniform or carry another gun. And I won’t.”

Hammer cleared his throat. “Right now I don’t need a major as much as I do a conscience,” he said. He cleared his throat again. “Now let’s go. We’ve got a wedding to get to.”

Cosimo Barracks was a fortress in the midst of estates which had belonged for three hundred years to the family of the late President van Vorn. The Slammers had bypassed Cosimo in the blitzkrieg which replaced van Vorn with Theismann, their employer. But now, a month after van Vorn had poisoned himself in Government House and three weeks after someone else had burst Theismann’s skull with a powergun, the fortress still refused to surrender. Sally Schilling, leading a “battalion” made up of S Company and six hundred local recruits, was on hand to do something about the situation.

A burst of automatic fire combed the rim of the dugout, splashing Captain Schilling with molten granite. “Via!” she snapped to the frightened recruit. “Keep your coppy head down and don’t draw fire.”

The sergeant who shared the dugout with Schilling and the recruit shook his own head in disgust. In her mind, Schilling seconded the opinion. To police a planet, Hammer needed more men than the five thousand he had brought with him. He wanted to give the new troops at least a taste of combat in the mopping-up operations. Schilling could understand that desire, but it was a pain in the ass trying to do her own job and act as baby-sitter besides.

She looked again through the eyepiece of her periscope. The machine gun had ceased firing, though cyan flickers across the perimeter showed someone else was catching it. The Iron Guards were political bullies rather than combat soldiers, but their fortress here was as tough as anything the Slammers had faced in their history. The fiber-optic periscope showed Cosimo Barracks only as a rolling knob. The grass covering the rock was streaked yellow in fans pointing back to hidden gunports. The ports themselves were easy enough targets, but the weapons within were on disappearing carriages and popped up only long enough to fire. The rest of the fortress, with an estimated five hundred Iron Guards plus enough food, water, and ammunition to last a century, was deep underground.

Schilling glanced down at her console. On it Cosimo Barracks showed as a red knot of tunnels drawn from plans found in Government House. “Sigma Battalion,” she said, “check off.” Points of green light winked on the screen, an emerald necklace ringing the fortress. Each point was a squad guarding nearly one hundred meters of front. That was adequate; the infantry was on hand primarily to prevent a breakout.

“Fire Central,” Schilling said, “prepare Fire Order Tango-Niner.”

“Ready,” squawked the helmet.

“Ma’am,” said the recruit, “w-why don’t the tanks attack instead of us?”

“Shut it off, boy!” the sergeant snapped.

“No, Webbert, we’re supposed to be teaching them,” Schilling said. She gestured toward the knob. The recruit automatically raised his head. Webbert shoved him back down before another burst could decapitate him. The captain sighed. “Mines’re as thick up there as flies on a fresh turd,” she said, “and they’ve got more guns in that hill than the light stuff they’ve been using on us.

Besides, we aren’t going to attack.”

The recruit nodded with his mouth and eyes both wide open. He began to rub the stock of his unfamiliar powergun.

“Fire Central, execute Tango-Niner,” Schilling ordered.

“On the way.”

Nothing happened. After a long half-minute, the recruit burst out, “What went wrong? Dear Lord, will they make us charge—”

“Boy!” the sergeant shouted, his own knuckles tight on his weapon.

“Webbert!”

The sergeant cursed and turned away.

Schilling said, “The hogs’re a long way away. It takes time, that’s all. Everything takes time.”

“Shot,” said the helmet. Five seconds to impact. The sky overhead began to howl. The recruit was trembling, his own throat working as if to scream along with the shells.

The explosions were almost anticlimactic. They were only a rumbling through the bedrock, more noticed by one’s feet than one’s ears. Schilling, at the periscope, caught the spurts of earth as the first penetrator rounds struck. The detonations seconds later were lost in the shriek of further shells landing on the same points. Each tube’s first shell ripped sod to the granite. The second salvo struck gravel; the third, sand. By the tenth salvo, the charges were bursting in the guts of Cosimo Barracks, thirty meters down. A magazine went off there, piercing earth and sky in a cyan blast that made the sun pale.

“Not an oyster born yet but a starfish can drill a hole through it,” muttered Webbert. He had been a fisherman long years before when he saw one of Hammer’s recruiting brochures.

“Sigma One, this is Sigma Eight-Six,” said the helmet. “Our sensors indicate all three fortress elevators are rising.”

With the words, circuits of meadow gaped. “Sigma Battalion,” Schilling said as she rose and aimed over the lip of the dugout, “time to earn our pay. And remember—no prisoners!”

Because of the way the ground pitched, it was hard for the captain to keep her submachine gun trained on the rising elevator car. But there were eight hundred guns firing simultaneously at the three elevator heads. The bolts converged like suns burning into the heart of the hillside.

“They were sending up their families!” the recruit suddenly screamed. “The children!”

Sally Schilling slid a fresh gas cylinder in place in the butt of her weapon, then reached for another magazine as well. “They had three months to turn in their guns,” she said. “Half the ones down there were troops we beat at Maritschoon and paroled. So this was the second time, and I’m not going to have my ass blown away because I gave somebody three chances to do it. As for the families, well . . . there’s a couple thousand more of van Vorn’s folks mooching around in the Kronburg, and they won’t know it was an accident: when word of this gets around, the ones that’re still out are going to think again.”

The fortress guns had fallen silent as the elevator cars rose. Now a few weapons opened up again, but in long, suicidal bursts which flailed the world until the Slammers’ fire silenced them forever.

President van Vorn’s Iron Guards had planned to use the garage beneath Government House for a last stand; which in a manner of speaking was what they did. The political soldiers had naively failed to consider gas. The Slammers introduced KD7 into the forced ventilation system, then spent three days neutralizing the toxin before they could safely enter the garage and remove the bloated corpses. Now the concrete walls, unmarred by shots or grenade fragments, echoed to the fans of two dozen combat cars readying for the parade.

“There’s three layers a’ gold foil,” the bald maintenance chief was saying as he rapped the limousine’s myrmillon bubble. “That’ll diffuse most of a two see-emma bolt, but the folks, they’ll still be able to see you, you see?”

“What I don’t see is my wife,” Hammer snapped to the stiff-faced noble acting as the Council’s liaison with their new overlord. “She’s agreed, I’ve agreed. If you think that the Great Houses can back out of this now—”

“Colonel,” interrupted Pritchard, pointing at the closed car which was just entering the garage. The armored doors to the mews slammed shut behind the vehicle, cutting off the wash of sunlight which had paled the glow strips by comparison. The car hissed slowly between armored vehicles and support pillars, coming to a halt beside Hammer and his aides. Two men got out, dressed in the height of conservative fashion. The colors of Great Houses slashed their collar flares. A moment later, a pair of women stepped out between them.

One of them was sixty, as tall and heavy as either of the men. Her black garments were as harsh as the glare she turned on Hammer when he nodded to her.

The other woman was short enough to be petite. It was hard to tell, however, because she wore a dress of misty, layered fabric which gave the impression of spiderweb but hid even the outline of her body. The celagauze veil hanging from her cap-brim blurred her face similarly. Before any of those around her could interfere, she had reached up and removed the cap.

“Anneke!” cried the woman in black. One of the escorting nobles shifted. Danny Pritchard motioned him back, using his left hand by reflex.

Anneke sailed the cap into the intake of a revving combat car. Shreds of white fabric softened the floor of the garage. “What, Aunt Ruth?” she asked. Her voice was clearly audible over the fans and the engines. “That’s the idea, isn’t it? Prove to the citizens that the Great Houses are still in charge because the colonel is marrying one of us? But then they’ve got to see who I am, don’t they?”

Hammer stepped forward. “Lady Brederode,” he said, repeating his nod. The older woman looked away as if Hammer were a spot of offal on the pavement. “Lady Tromp.”

Anneke Tromp extended her right hand. She had fine bones and skin as soft as the lining of a jewelry box. The fingernails looked metallic.

The colonel knelt to kiss her hand, the gesture stiffened by his armor. “Well, Lady Tromp,” he said, “are you ready?”

The woman smiled. Hammer became the commander again. He waved dismissingly toward his bride’s aunt and escort. “I’ve made provisions for your seating at the church,” he said, “but you’ll not be needed for the procession. Lady Tromp will ride in my vehicle. We’ll be accompanied by majors—that is, by Major Steuben and Mr. Pritchard.”

Anneke nodded graciously to the aides flanking Hammer. Unexpectedly, Joachim giggled. His eyes were red. “Your family and I go back a long way, Lady,” he said. “Did you know that I shot your father on Melpomone? Between the eyes, so that he could see it coming.”

The colonel’s face changed, but he grinned as he turned. He threw an arm around his bodyguard’s shoulders. “Joachim,” he said, “let’s talk in the car for a moment.” Steuben looked away, blazing hatred at everyone else in the room, but he followed his commander into the soundproofed compartment.

As the car door thudded shut, Anneke Tromp stepped idly to Pritchard’s side. She was still smiling. Without looking at the limousine’s bubble, she said, “That’s a very jealous man, Mr. Pritchard. And jealous not only of me, I should think.”

Danny shrugged. “Joachim’s been with the colonel a long time,” he said. “He’s not an . . . evil . . . man. Just loyal.”

“A razor blade in a melon isn’t evil, Mr. Pritchard,” the woman said, gesturing as though they were discussing the markings of the nearest combat car. “It’s just too dangerous to be permitted to exist.”

Pritchard swallowed. Part of his duties involved checking the roster of veterans returning to the colors. He was remembering a big man with an engaging grin—as good a tank commander as had ever served under Pritchard, and the lightest touch he knew on the trigger of an automatic weapon. “We’ll see,” Danny said without looking at the woman.

“When I was a little girl,” she murmured, “my father ruled Friesland. I want to live to see my son rule.”

The car door opened and both men got out. “Joachim has decided to ride up front with the driver instead of with us in back,” Hammer said with a false smile. He held the door. “Shall we?”

Pritchard sat on a jump seat across from Hammer and Lady Tromp. The armored bubble was cloudy, like the sky on the morning of a snowstorm. Hammer touched a plate on the console. “Six-two,” he said. “Move ’em out.”

Fans revved. The garage door lifted and began passing combat cars out into the mews. Hammer’s driver slid the limousine into the line of cars waiting to exit. More armored vehicles edged in behind them. They accelerated up the ramp and into the Frisian sunlight. The whole west quarter of Government House had burned in the fighting, darkening the vitril panels there.

Pritchard leaned forward. “You don’t really think that you can turn Friesland around, much less the galaxy?” he asked.

Hammer shrugged. “If I don’t, they’ll at least say that I died trying.”

The limousine glided through the archway into Independence Boulevard. Tank companies were already closing either end of the block, eight tanks abreast. The panzers had been painted dazzlingly silver for the celebration. The combat cars aligned themselves in four ranks between the double caps of bigger vehicles, leaving the limousine to tremble alone in the midst of the waves of heavy armor. Hammer’s breastplate was a sun-blazed eye in the center of all.

On the front bench beside the driver, Joachim was trying nervously to scan the thousands of civilians. He knew that despite the armored bubble, the right man could kill Hammer as easily as he himself had murdered Councillor Theismann. He wished he could kill every soul in the crowd.

Pritchard checked the time, then radioed a command. The procession began to slip forward toward the throngs lining the remaining three kilometers of the boulevard, all the way to the Church of the First Landfall.

“I’ve been a long time coming back to Friesland,” said Hammer softly. He was not really speaking to his companions. “But now I’m back. And I’m going to put this place in order.”

Anneke Tromp touched him. Her glittering fingernails lay like knife blades across the back of his hand. “We’re going to put it in order,” she said.

“We’ll see,” said Danny Pritchard.

“Hammer!” shouted the crowd.

“Hammer!”

“Hammer!”

“Hammer!”

M2A4F TANK

1

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