LIBERTY PORT

Commandant Horace Jolober had just lowered the saddle of his mobile chair, putting himself at the height of the Facilities Inspection Committee seated across the table, when the alarm hooted and Vicki cried from the window in the next room, “Tanks! In the street!”

The three Placidan bureaucrats flashed Jolober looks of anger and fear, but he had no time for them now even though they were his superiors. The stump of his left leg keyed the throttle of his chair. As the fans spun up, Jolober leaned and guided his miniature air-cushion vehicle out of the room faster than another man could have walked.

Faster than a man with legs could walk.

Vicki opened the door from the bedroom as Jolober swept past her toward the inside stairs. Her face was as calm as that of the statue which it resembled in its perfection, but Jolober knew that only the strongest emotion would have made her disobey his orders to stay in his private apartments while the inspection team was here. She was afraid that he was about to be killed.

A burst of gunfire in the street suggested she just might be correct.

“Chief,” called Jolober’s mastoid implant in what he thought was the voice of Karnes, his executive officer. “I’m at the gate and the new arrivals, they’re Hammer’s, just came right through the wire! There’s half a dozen tanks and they’re shooting in the air!”

Could’ve been worse. Might yet be.

He slid onto the staircase, his stump boosting fan speed with reflexive skill. The stair treads were too narrow for Jolober’s mobile chair to form an air cushion between the surface and the lip of its plenum chamber. Instead he balanced on thrust alone while the fans beneath him squealed, ramming the air hard enough to let him slope down above the staircase with the grace of a stooping hawk. The hardware was built to handle the stress, but only flawless control kept the port commandant from upending and crashing down the treads in a fashion as dangerous as it would be humiliating.

Jolober was a powerful man who’d been tall besides until a tribarrel blew off both his legs above the knee. In his uniform of white cloth and lavish gold, he was dazzlingly obvious in any light. As he gunned his vehicle out into the street, the most intense light source was the rope of cyan bolts ripping skyward from the cupola of the leading tank.

The buildings on either side of the street enticed customers with displays to rival the sun, but the operators—each of them a gambler, brothel keeper, and saloon owner all in one—had their own warning systems. The lights were going out, leaving the plastic facades cold.

Lightless, the buildings faded to the appearance of the high concrete fortresses they were in fact. Repeated arches made the entrance of the China Doll, directly across the street from the commandant’s offices, look spacious. The door itself was so narrow that only two men could pass it at a time, and no one could slip unnoticed past the array of sensors and guards that made sure none of those entering were armed.

Normally the facilities here at Paradise Port were open all day. Now an armored panel clanged down across the narrow door of the China Doll, its echoes merging with similar tocsins from the other buildings.

Much good that would do if the tanks opened up with their 20cm main guns. Even a tribarrel could blast holes in thumb-thick steel as easily as one had vaporized Jolober’s knees and calves. . . .

He slid into the street, directly into the path of the lead tank. He would have liked to glance up toward the bedroom window for what he knew might be his last glimpse of Vicki, but he was afraid that he couldn’t do that and still have the guts to do his duty.

For a long time after he lost his legs, the only thing which had kept Horace Jolober from suicide was the certainty that he had always done his duty. Not even Vicki could be allowed to take that from him.

The tanks were advancing at no more than a slow walk though their huge size gave them the appearance of speed. They were buttoned up—hatches down, crews hidden behind the curved surfaces of iridium armor that might just possibly turn a bolt from a gun as big as the one each tank carried in its turret.

Lesser weapons had left scars on the iridium. Where light powerguns had licked the armor—and even a tribarreled automatic was light in comparison to a tank—the metal cooled again in a slope around the point where a little had been vaporized. High-velocity bullets made smaller, deeper craters plated with material from the projectile itself.

The turret of the leading tank bore a long gouge that began in a pattern of deep, radial scars. A shoulder-fired rocket had hit at a slight angle. The jet of white-hot gas spurting from the shaped-charge warhead had burned deep enough into even the refractory iridium that it would have penetrated the turret had it struck squarely.

If either the driver or the blower captain were riding with their heads out of the hatch when the missile detonated, shrapnel from the casing had decapitated them.

Jolober wondered if the present driver even saw him, a lone man in a street that should have been cleared by the threat of 170 tonnes of armor howling down the middle of it.

An air-cushion jeep carrying a pintle-mounted needle stunner and two men in Port Patrol uniforms was driving alongside the lead tank, bucking and pitching in the current roaring from beneath the steel skirts of the tank’s plenum chamber. While the driver fought to hold the light vehicle steady, the other patrolman bellowed through the jeep’s loudspeakers. He might have been on the other side of the planet for all his chance of being heard over the sound of air sucked through intakes atop the tank’s hull and then pumped beneath the skirts forcefully enough to balance the huge weight of steel and iridium.

Jolober grounded his mobile chair. He crooked his left ring finger so that the surgically redirected nerve impulse keyed the microphone implanted at the base of his jaw. “Gentlemen,” he said, knowing that the base unit in the Port Office was relaying his words on the Slammers’ general frequency. “You are violating the regulations which govern Paradise Port. Stop before somebody gets hurt.”

The bow of the lead tank was ten meters away—and one meter less every second.

To the very end he thought they were going to hit him—by inadvertence, now, because the tank’s steel skirt lifted in a desperate attempt to stop but the vehicle’s mass overwhelmed the braking effect of its fans. Jolober knew that if he raised his chair from the pavement, the blast of air from the tank would knock him over and roll him along the concrete like a trashcan in a windstorm—bruised but safe.

He would rather die than lose his dignity that way in front of Vicki.

The tank’s bow slewed to the left, toward the China Doll. The skirt on that side touched the pavement with the sound of steel screaming and a fountain of sparks that sprayed across and over the building’s high plastic facade.

The tank did not hit the China Doll, and it stopped short of Horace Jolober by less than the radius of its bow’s curve.

The driver grounded his huge vehicle properly and cut the power to his fans. Dust scraped from the pavement, choking and chalky, swirled around Jolober and threw him into a paroxysm of coughing. He hadn’t realized that he’d been holding his breath—until the danger passed and instinct filled his lungs.

The jeep pulled up beside Jolober, its fans kicking up still more dust, and the two patrolmen shouted words of concern and congratulation to their commandant. More men were appearing, patrolmen and others who had ducked into the narrow alleys between buildings when the tanks filled the street.

“Stecher,” said Jolober to the sergeant in the patrol vehicle, “go back there—” he gestured toward the remainder of the column, hidden behind the armored bulk of the lead tank “—and help ’em get turned around. Get ’em back to the Refit Area where they belong,”

“Sir, should I get the names?” Stecher asked.

The port commandant shook his head with certainty. “None of this happened,” he told his subordinates. “I’ll take care of it.”

The jeep spun nimbly while Stecher spoke into his commo helmet, relaying Jolober’s orders to the rest of the squad on street duty.

Metal rang again as the tank’s two hatch covers slid open. Jolober was too close to the hull to see the crewmen so he kicked his fans to life and backed a few meters.

The mobile chair had been built to his design. Its only control was the throttle with a linkage which at high-thrust settings automatically transformed the plenum chamber to a nozzle. Steering and balance were matters of how the rider shifted his body weight. Jolober prided himself that he was just as nimble as he had been before.

—Before he fell back into the trench on Primavera, half-wrapped in the white flag he’d waved to the oncoming tanks. The only conscious memory he retained of that moment was the sight of his right leg still balanced on the trench lip above him, silhouetted against the crisscrossing cyan bolts from the powerguns.

But Horace Jolober was just as much a man as he’d ever been. The way he got around proved it. And Vicki.

The driver staring out the bow hatch at him was a woman with thin features and just enough hair to show beneath her helmet. She looked scared, aware of what had just happened and aware also of just how bad it could’ve been.

Jolober could appreciate how she felt.

The man who lifted himself from the turret hatch was under thirty, angry, and—though Jolober couldn’t remember the Slammers’ collar pips precisely—a junior officer of some sort rather than a sergeant.

The dust had mostly settled by now, but vortices still spun above the muzzles of the tribarrel which the fellow had been firing skyward. “What’re you doing, you bloody fool?” he shouted. “D’ye want to die?”

Not anymore, thought Horace Jolober as he stared upward at the tanker. One of the port patrolmen had responded to the anger in the Slammer’s voice by raising his needle stunner, but there was no need for that.

Jolober keyed his mike so that he didn’t have to shout with the inevitable emotional loading. In a flat, certain voice, he said, “If you’ll step down here, Lieutenant, we can discuss the situation like officers—which I am, and you will continue to be unless you insist on pushing things.”

The tanker grimaced, then nodded his head and lifted himself the rest of the way out of the turret. “Right,” he said. “Right. I . . .” His voice trailed off, but he wasn’t going to say anything the port commandant hadn’t heard before.

When you screw up real bad, you can either be afraid or you can flare out in anger and blame somebody else. Not because you don’t know better, but because it’s the only way to control your fear. It isn’t pretty, but there’s no pretty way to screw up bad.

The tanker dropped to the ground in front of Jolober and gave a sloppy salute. That was lack of practice, not deliberate insult, and his voice and eyes were firm as he said, “Sir. Acting Captain Tad Hoffritz reporting.”

“Horace Jolober,” the port commandant said. He raised his saddle to put his head at what used to be normal standing height, a few centimeters taller than Hoffritz. The Slammer’s rank made it pretty clear why the disturbance had occurred. “Your boys?” Jolober asked, thumbing toward the tanks sheepishly reversing down the street under the guidance of white-uniformed patrolmen.

“Past three days they have been,” Hoffritz agreed. His mouth scrunched again in an angry grimace and he said, “Look, I’m real sorry. I know how dumb that was. I just . . .”

Again, there wasn’t anything new to say.

The tank’s driver vaulted from her hatch with a suddenness which drew both men’s attention. “Corp’ral Days,” she said with a salute even more perfunctory than Hoffritz’s had been. “Look, sir, I was drivin’ and if there’s a problem, it’s my problem.”

“Daisy—” began Captain Hoffritz.

“There’s no problem, Corporal,” Jolober said firmly. “Go back to your vehicle. We’ll need to move it in a minute or two.”

Another helmeted man had popped his head from the turret—surprisingly, because this was a line tank, not a command vehicle with room for several soldiers in the fighting compartment. The driver looked at her captain, then met the worried eyes of the trooper still in the turret. She backed a pace but stayed within earshot.

“Six tanks out of seventeen,” Jolober said calmly. Things were calm enough now that he was able to follow the crosstalk of his patrolmen, their voices stuttering at low level through the miniature speaker on his epaulet. “You’ve been seeing some action, then.”

“Too bloody right,” muttered Corporal Days.

Hoffritz rubbed the back of his neck, lowering his eyes, and said, “Well, running . . . There’s four back at Refit deadlined we brought in on transporters, but—”

He looked squarely at Jolober. “But sure we had a tough time. That’s why I’m CO and Chester’s up there—” he nodded toward the man in the turret “—trying to work company commo without a proper command tank. And I guess I figured—”

Hoffritz might have stopped there, but the port commandant nodded him on.

“—I figured maybe it wouldn’t hurt to wake up a few rear-echelon types when we came back here for refit. Sorry, sir.”

“There’s three other units, including a regiment of the Division L??g??re, on stand-down here at Paradise Port already, Captain,” Jolober said. He nodded toward the soldiers in mottled fatigues who were beginning to reappear on the street. “Not rear-echelon troops, from what I’ve heard. And they need some relaxation just as badly as your men do.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoffritz agreed, blank-faced. “It was real dumb. I’ll sign the report as soon as you make it out.”

Jolober shrugged. “There won’t be a report, Captain. Repairs to the gate’ll go on your regiment’s damage account and be deducted from Placida’s payment next month.” He smiled. “Along with any chairs or glasses you break in the casinos. Now, get your vehicle into the Refit Area where it belongs. And come back and have a good time in Paradise Port. That’s what we’re here for.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Hoffritz, and relief dropped his age by at least five years. He clasped Jolober’s hand and, still holding it, asked, “You’ve seen service, too, haven’t you, sir?”

“Fourteen years with Hampton’s Legion,” Jolober agreed, pleased that Hoffritz had managed not to stare at the stumps before asking the question.

“Hey, good outfit,” the younger man said with enthusiasm. “We were with Hampton on Primavera, back, oh, three years ago?”

“Yes, I know,” Jolober said. His face was still smiling, and the subject wasn’t an emotional one anymore. He felt no emotion at all . . . “One of your tanks shot—” his left hand gestured delicately at where his thighs ended “—these off on Primavera.”

“Lord,” Corporal Days said distinctly.

Captain Hoffritz looked as if he had been hit with a brick. Then his face regained its animation. “No, sir,” he said. “You’re mistaken. On Primavera, we were both working for the Federalists. Hampton was our infantry support.”

Not the way General Hampton would have described the chain of command, thought Jolober. His smile became real again. He still felt pride in his old unit—and he could laugh at those outdated feelings in himself.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said aloud. “There’d been an error in transmitting map coordinates. When a company of these—” he nodded toward the great iridium monster, feeling sweat break out on his forehead and arms as he did so “—attacked my battalion, I jumped up to stop the shooting.”

Jolober’s smile paled to a frosty shadow of itself. “I was successful,” he went on softly, “but not quite as soon as I would’ve liked.”

“Oh, Lord and Martyrs,” whispered Hoffritz. His face looked like that of a battle casualty.

“Tad, that was—” Corporal Days began.

“Shut it off, Daisy!” shouted the Slammers’ commo man from the turret. Days’ face blanked and she nodded.

“Sir, I—” Hoffritz said.

Jolober shook his head to silence the younger man. “In a war,” he said, “a lot of people get in the way of rounds. I’m luckier than some. I’m still around to tell about it.”

He spoke in the calm, pleasant voice he always used in explaining the—matter—to others. For the length of time he was speaking, he could generally convince even himself.

Clapping Hoffritz on the shoulder—the physical contact brought Jolober back to present reality, reminding him that the tanker was a young man and not a demon hidden behind armor and a tribarrel—the commandant said, “Go on, move your hardware and then see what Paradise Port can show you in the way of a good time.”

“Oh, that I know already,” said Hoffritz with a wicked, man-to-man smile of his own. “When we stood down here three months back, I met a girl named Beth. I’ll bet she still remembers me, and the Lord knows I remember her.”

“Girl?” Jolober repeated. The whole situation had so disoriented him that he let his surprise show.

“Well, you know,” said the tanker. “A Doll, I guess. But believe me, Beth’s woman enough for me.”

“Or for anyone,” the commandant agreed. “I know just what you mean.”

Stecher had returned with the jeep. The street was emptied of all armor except Hoffritz’s tank, and that was an object of curiosity rather than concern for the men spilling out the doors of the reopened brothels. Jolober waved toward the patrol vehicle and said, “My men’ll guide you out of here, Captain Hoffritz. Enjoy your stay.”

The tank driver was already scrambling back into her hatch. She had lowered her helmet shield, so the glimpse Jolober got of her face was an unexpected, light-reflecting bubble.

Maybe Corporal Days had a problem with where the conversation had gone when the two officers started talking like two men. That was a pity, for her and probably for Captain Hoffritz as well. A tank was too small a container to hold emotional trouble among its crew.

But Horace Jolober had his own problems to occupy him as he slid toward his office at a walking pace. He had his meeting with the Facilities Inspection Committee, which wasn’t going to go more smoothly because of the interruption.

A plump figure sauntering in the other direction tipped his beret to Jolober as they passed. “Ike,” acknowledged the port commandant in a voice as neutral as a gun barrel that doesn’t care in the least at whom it’s pointed.

Red Ike could pass for human, until the rosy cast of his skin drew attention to the fact that his hands had only three fingers and a thumb. Jolober was surprised to see that Ike was walking across the street toward his own brothel, the China Doll, instead of being inside the building already. That could have meant anything, but the probability was that Red Ike had a tunnel to one of the buildings across the street to serve as a bolthole.

And since all the real problems at Paradise Port were a result of the alien who called himself Red Ike, Jolober could easily imagine why the fellow would want to have a bolthole.

Jolober had gone down the steps in a smooth undulation. He mounted them in a series of hops, covering two treads between pauses like a weary cricket climbing out of a well.

The chair’s powerpack had more than enough charge left to swoop him up to the conference room. It was the man himself who lacked the mental energy now to balance himself on the column of driven air. He felt drained—the tribarrel, the tank . . . the memories of Primavera. If he’d decided to, sure, but . . .

But maybe he was getting old.

The Facilities Inspection Committee—staff members, actually, for three of the most powerful senators in the Placidan legislature—waited for Jolober with doubtful looks. Higgey and Wayne leaned against the conference room window, watching Hoffritz’s tank reverse sedately in the street. The woman, Rodall, stood by the stairhead watching the port commandant’s return.

“Why don’t you have an elevator put in?” she asked. “Or at least a ramp?” Between phrases, Rodall’s full features relaxed to the pout that was her normal expression.

Jolober paused beside her, noticing the whisper of air from beneath his plenum chamber was causing her to twist her feet away as if she had stepped into slime. “There aren’t elevators everywhere, Mistress,” he said. “Most places, there isn’t even enough smooth surface to depend on ground effect alone to get you more than forty meters.”

He smiled and gestured toward the conference room’s window. Visible beyond the China Doll and the other buildings across the street was the reddish-brown expanse of the surrounding landscape: ropes of lava on which only lichen could grow, where a man had to hop and scramble from one ridge to another.

The Placidan government had located Paradise Port in a volcanic wasteland in order to isolate the mercenaries letting off steam between battles with Armstrong, the other power on the planet’s sole continent. To a cripple in a chair which depended on wheels or unaided ground effect, the twisting lava would be as sure a barrier as sheer walls.

Jolober didn’t say that so long as he could go anywhere other men went, he could pretend he was still a man. If the Placidan civilian could have understood that, she wouldn’t have asked why he didn’t have ramps put in.

“Well, what was that?” demanded Higgey—thin, intense, and already half bald in his early thirties. “Was anyone killed?”

“Nothing serious, Master Higgey,” Jolober said as he slid back to the table and lowered himself to his “seated” height. “And no, no one was killed or even injured.”

Thank the Lord for his mercy.

“It looked serious, Commandant,” said the third committee member—Wayne, half again Jolober’s age and a retired colonel of the Placidan regular army. “I’m surprised you permit things like that to happen.”

Higgey and Rodall were seating themselves. Jolober gestured toward the third chair on the curve of the round table opposite him and said, “Colonel, your, ah—opposite numbers in Armstrong tried to stop those tanks last week with a battalion of armored infantry. They got their butts kicked until they didn’t have butts anymore.”

Wayne wasn’t sitting down. His face flushed and his short, white mustache bristled sharply against his upper lip.

Jolober shrugged and went on in a more conciliatory tone, “Look, sir, units aren’t rotated back here unless they’ve had a hell of a rough time in the line. I’ve got fifty-six patrolmen with stunners to keep order . . . which we do, well enough for the people using Paradise Port. We aren’t here to start a major battle of our own. Placida needs these mercenaries and needs them in fighting trim.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” said the retired officer with his lips pressed together, but at last he sat down.

The direction of sunrise is also a matter of opinion, Jolober thought. It’s about as likely to change as Placida is to survive without the mercenaries who had undertaken the war her regular army was losing.

“I requested this meeting—” requested it with the senators themselves, but he hadn’t expected them to agree “—in order to discuss just that, the fighting trim of the troops who undergo rest and refit here. So that Placida gets the most value for her, ah, payment.”

The committee staff would do, if Jolober could get them to understand. Paradise Port was, after all, a wasteland with a village populated by soldiers who had spent all the recent past killing and watching their friends die. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d pick for a senatorial junket.

Higgey leaned forward, clasping his hands on the tabletop, and said, “Commandant, I’m sure that those—” he waggled a finger disdainfully toward the window “—men out there would be in better physical condition after a week of milk and religious lectures than they will after the regime they choose for themselves. There are elements—”

Wayne nodded in stern agreement, his eyes on Mistress Rodall, whose set face refused to acknowledge either of her fellows while the subject was being discussed.

“—in the electorate and government who would like to try that method, but fortunately reality has kept the idea from being attempted.”

Higgey paused, pleased with his forceful delivery and the way his eyes dominated those of the much bigger man across the table. “If you’ve suddenly got religion, Commandant Jolober,” he concluded, “I suggest you resign your current position and join the ministry.”

Jolober suppressed his smile. Higgey reminded him of a lap dog, too nervous to remain either still or silent, and too small to be other than ridiculous in its posturing. “My initial message was unclear, madam, gentlemen,” he explained, looking around the table. “I’m not suggesting that Placida close the brothels that are part of the recreational facilities here.”

His pause was not for effect, but because his mouth had suddenly gone very dry. But it was his duty to—

“I’m recommending that the Dolls be withdrawn from Paradise Port and that the facilities be staffed with human, ah, females.”

Colonel Wayne stiffened and paled.

Wayne’s anger was now mirrored in the expression on Rodall’s face. “Whores,” she said. “So that those—soldiers—can disgrace and dehumanize real women for their fun.”

“And kill them, one assumes,” added Higgey with a touch of amusement. “I checked the records, Commandant. There’ve been seventeen Dolls killed during the months Paradise Port’s been in operation. As it is, that’s a simple damage assessment, but if they’d been human prostitutes—each one would have meant a manslaughter charge or even murder. People don’t cease to have rights when they choose to sell their bodies, you know.”

“When they’re forced to sell their bodies, you mean,” snapped Rodall. She glared at Higgey, who didn’t mean anything of the sort.

“Scarcely to the benefit of your precious mercenaries,” said Wayne in a distant voice. “Quite apart from the political difficulties it would cause for any senator who recommended the change.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Higgey, whose natural caution had tightened his visage again, “I thought you were going to use the record of violence here at Paradise Port as a reason for closing the facility. Though I’ll admit that I couldn’t imagine anybody selfless enough to do away with his own job.”

No, you couldn’t, you little weasel, thought Horace Jolober. But politicians have different responsibilities than soldiers, and politicians’ flunkies have yet another set of needs and duties.

And none of them are saints. Surely no soldier who does his job is a saint.

“Master Higgey, you’ve precisely located the problem,” Jolober said with a nod of approval. “The violence isn’t a result of the soldiers, it’s because of the Dolls. It isn’t accidental, it’s planned. And it’s time to stop it.”

“It’s time for us to leave, you mean,” said Higgey as he shoved his chair back. “Resigning still appears to be your best course, Commandant. Though I don’t suppose the ministry is the right choice for a new career, after all.”

“Master Higgey,” Jolober said in the voice he would have used in an argument with a fellow officer, “I know very well that no one is irreplaceable—but you know that I am doing as good a job here as anybody you could hire to run Paradise Port. I’m asking you to listen for a few minutes to a proposal that will make the troops you pay incrementally better able to fight for you.”

“We’ve come this far,” said Rodall.

“There are no listening devices in my quarters,” Jolober explained, unasked. “I doubt that any real-time commo link out of Paradise Port is free of interception.”

He didn’t add that time he spent away from his duties was more of a risk to Placida than pulling these three out of their offices and expensive lunches could be. The tanks roaring down the street should have proved that even to the committee staffers.

Jolober paused, pressing his fingertips to his eyebrows in a habitual trick to help him marshal his thoughts while the others stared at him. “Mistress, masters,” he said calmly after a moment, “the intention was that Paradise Port and similar facilities be staffed by independent contractors from off-planet.”

“Which is where they’ll return as soon as the war’s over,” agreed Colonel Wayne with satisfaction. “Or as soon as they put a toe wrong, any one of them.”

“The war’s bad enough as it is,” said Rodall. “Building up Placida’s stock of that sort of person would make peace hideous as well.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” said the port commandant. There were a lot of “that sort of person” in Placida just now, including all the mercenaries in the line—and Horace Jolober back here. “But what you have in Paradise Port isn’t a group of entrepreneurs, it’s a corporation—a monarchy, almost—subservient to an alien called Red Ike.”

“Nonsense,” said Wayne.

“We don’t permit that,” said Rodall.

“Red Ike owns a single unit here,” said Higgey. “The China Doll. Which is all he can own by law, to prevent just the sort of situation you’re describing.”

“Red Ike provides all the Dolls,” Jolober stated flatly. “Whoever owns them on paper, they’re his. And everything here is his because he controls the Dolls.”

“Well . . .” said Rodall. She was beginning to blush.

“There’s no actual proof,” Colonel Wayne said, shifting his eyes toward a corner of walls and ceiling. “Though I suppose the physical traits are indicative . . .”

“The government has decided it isn’t in the best interests of Placida to pierce the corporate veil in this instance,” said Higgey in a thin voice. “The androids in question are shipped here from a variety of off-planet suppliers.”

The balding Placidan paused and added, with a tone of absolute finality, “If the question were mine to decide—which it isn’t—I would recommend searching for a new port commandant rather than trying to prove the falsity of a state of affairs beneficial to us, to Placida.”

“I think that really must be the final word on the subject, Commandant Jolober,” Rodall agreed.

Jolober thought she sounded regretful, but the emotion was too faint for him to be sure. The three Placidans were getting up, and he had failed.

He’d failed even before the staff members arrived, because it was now quite obvious that they’d decided their course of action before the meeting. They—and their elected superiors—would rather have dismissed Jolober’s arguments.

But if the arguments proved to be well founded, they would dismiss the port commandant, if necessary to end the discussion.

“I suppose I should be flattered,” Jolober said as hydraulics lifted him in the saddle and pressure of his stump on the throttle let him rotate his chair away from the table. “That you came all this way to silence me instead of refusing me a meeting.”

“You might recall,” said Higgey, pausing at the doorway. His look was meant to be threatening, but the port commandant’s bulk and dour anger cooled the Placidan’s face as soon as their eyes met. “That is, we’re in the middle of a war, and the definition of treason can be a little loose in such times. While you’re not technically a Placidan citizen, Commandant, you—would be well advised to avoid activities which oppose the conduct of war as the government has determined to conduct it.”

He stepped out of the conference room. Rodall had left ahead of him.

“Don’t take it too hard, young man,” said Colonel Wayne when he and Jolober were alone. “You mercenaries, you can do a lot of things the quick and easy way. It’s different when you represent a government and need to consider political implications.”

“I’d never understood there were negative implications, Colonel,” Jolober said with the slow, careful enunciation which proved he was controlling himself rigidly, “in treating your employees fairly. Even the mercenary soldiers whom you employ.”

Wayne’s jaw lifted. “I beg your pardon, Commandant,” he snapped. “I don’t see anyone holding guns to the heads of poor innocents, forcing them to whore and gamble.”

He strode to the door, his back parade-ground straight. At the door he turned precisely and delivered the broadside he had held to that point. “Besides, Commandant—if the Dolls are as dangerous to health and welfare as you say, why are you living with one yourself?”

Wayne didn’t expect an answer, but what he saw in Horace Jolober’s eyes suggested that his words might bring a physical reaction that he hadn’t counted on. He skipped into the hall with a startled sound, banging the door behind him.

The door connecting the conference room to the port commandant’s personal suite opened softly. Jolober did not look around.

Vicki put her long, slim arms around him from behind. Jolober spun, then cut power to his fans and settled his chair firmly onto the floor. He and Vicki clung to one another, legless man and Doll whose ruddy skin and beauty marked her as inhuman.

They were both crying.

Someone from Jolober’s staff would poke his head into the conference room shortly to ask if the meeting was over and if the commandant wanted non-emergency calls routed through again.

The meeting was certainly over . . . but Horace Jolober had an emergency of his own. He swallowed, keyed his implant, and said brusquely, “I’m out of action till I tell you different. Unless it’s another Class A flap.”

The kid at the commo desk stuttered a “Yessir” that was a syllable longer than Jolober wanted to hear. Vicki straightened, wearing a bright smile beneath the tear streaks, but the big human gathered her to his chest again and brought up the power of his fans.

Together, like a man carrying a moderate-sized woman, the couple slid around the conference table to the door of the private suite. The chair’s drive units were overbuilt because men are overbuilt, capable of putting out huge bursts of hysterical strength.

Drive fans and powerpacks don’t have hormones, so Jolober had specified—and paid for—components that would handle double the hundred kilos of his own mass, the hundred kilos left after the tribarrel had chewed him. The only problem with carrying Vicki to bed was one of balance, and the Doll remained still in his arms.

Perfectly still, as she was perfect in all the things she did.

“I’m not trying to get rid of you, darling,” Jolober said as he grounded his chair.

“It’s all right,” Vicki whispered. “I’ll go now if you like. It’s all right.”

She placed her fingertips on Jolober’s shoulders and lifted herself by those fulcrums off his lap and onto the bed, her toes curled beneath her buttocks. A human gymnast could have done as well—but no better.

“What I want,” Jolober said forcefully as he lifted himself out of the saddle, using the chair’s handgrips, “is to do my job. And when I’ve done it, I’ll buy you from Red Ike for whatever price he chooses to ask.”

He swung himself to the bed. His arms had always been long—and strong. Now he knew that he must look like a gorilla when he got on or off his chair . . . and when the third woman he was with after the amputation giggled at him, he began to consider suicide as an alternative to sex.

Then he took the job on Placida and met Vicki.

Her tears had dried, so both of them could pretend they hadn’t poured out moments before. She smiled shyly and touched the high collar of her dress, drawing her fingertip down a centimeter and opening the garment by that amount.

Vicki wasn’t Jolober’s ideal of beauty—wasn’t what he’d thought his ideal was, at any rate. Big blondes, he would have said. A woman as tall as he was, with hair the color of bleached straw hanging to the middle of her back.

Vicki scarcely came up to the top of Jolober’s breastbone when he was standing—at standing height in his chair—and her hair was a black fluff that was as short as a soldier would cut it to fit comfortably under a helmet. She looked buxom, but her breasts were fairly flat against her broad, powerfully muscled chest.

Jolober put his index finger against hers on the collar and slid down the touch-sensitive strip that opened the fabric. Vicki’s body was without blemish or pubic hair. She was so firm that nothing sagged or flattened when her dress and the supports of memory plastic woven into it dropped away.

She shrugged her arms out of the straps and let the garment spill as a pool of sparkling shadow on the counterpane as she reached toward her lover.

Jolober, lying on his side, touched the collar of his uniform jacket.

“No need,” Vicki said blocking his hand with one of hers and opening his trouser fly with the other. “Come,” she added, rolling onto her back and drawing him toward her.

“But the—” Jolober murmured in surprise, leaning forward in obedience to her touch and demand. The metallic braid and medals on his stiff-fronted tunic had sharp corners to prod the Doll beneath him whether he wished or not.

“Come,” she repeated. “This time.”

Horace Jolober wasn’t introspective enough to understand why his mistress wanted the rough punishment of his uniform. He simply obeyed.

Vicki toyed with his garments after they had finished and lay on the bed, their arms crossing. She had a trick of folding back her lower legs so that they vanished whenever she sat or reclined in the port commandant’s presence.

Her fingers tweaked the back of Jolober’s waistband and emerged with the hidden knife, the only weapon he carried.

“I’m at your mercy,” he said, smiling. He mimed as much of a hands-up posture as he could with his right elbow supporting his torso on the mattress. “Have your way with me.”

In Vicki’s hand, the knife was a harmless cylinder of plastic—a weapon only to the extent that the butt of the short tube could harden a punch. The knife was of memory plastic whose normal state was a harmless block. No one who took it away from Jolober in a struggle would find it of any use as a weapon.

Only when squeezed after being cued by the pore pattern of Horace Jolober’s right hand would it—

The plastic cylinder shrank in Vicki’s hand, sprouting a double-edged 15cm blade.

“Via!” swore Jolober. Reflex betrayed him into thinking that he had legs. He jerked upright and started to topple off the bed because the weight of his calves and feet wasn’t there to balance the motion.

Vicki caught him with both arms and drew him to her. The blade collapsed into the handle when she dropped it, so that it bounced as a harmless cylinder on the counterpane between them.

“My love, I’m sorry,” the Doll blurted fearfully. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, no,” Jolober said, settled now on his thighs and buttocks so that he could hug Vicki fiercely. His eyes peered secretively over her shoulders, searching for the knife that had startled him so badly. “I was surprised that it . . . How did you get the blade to open, dearest? It’s fine, it’s nothing you did wrong, but I didn’t expect that, is all.”

They swung apart. The mattress was a firm one, but still a bad surface for this kind of conversation. The bedclothes rumpled beneath Jolober’s heavy body and almost concealed the knife in a fold of cloth. He found it, raised it with his fingertips, and handed it to Vicki. “Please do that again,” he said calmly. “Extend the blade.”

Sweat was evaporating from the base of Jolober’s spine, where the impermeable knife usually covered the skin.

Vicki took the weapon. She was so doubtful that her face showed no expression at all. Her fingers, short but perfectly formed, gripped the baton as if it were a knife hilt—and it became one. The blade formed with avalanche swiftness, darkly translucent and patterned with veins of stress. The plastic would not take a wire edge, but it could carve a roast or, with Jolober’s strength behind it, ram twenty millimeters deep into hardwood.

“Like this?” Vicki said softly. “Just squeeze it and . . .?”

Jolober put his hand over the Doll’s and lifted the knife away between thumb and forefinger. When she loosed the hilt, the knife collapsed again into a short baton.

He squeezed—extended the blade—released it again—and slipped the knife back into its concealed sheath.

“You see, darling,” Jolober said, “the plastic’s been keyed to my body. Nobody else should be able to get the blade to form.”

“I’d never use it against you,” Vicki said. Her face was calm, and there was no defensiveness in her simple response.

Jolober smiled. “Of course, dearest; but there was a manufacturing flaw or you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Vicki leaned over and kissed the port commandant’s lips, then bent liquidly and kissed him again. “I told you,” she said as she straightened with a grin. “I’m a part of you.”

“And believe me,” said Jolober, rolling onto his back to cinch up his short-legged trousers. “You’re not a part of me I intend to lose.”

He rocked upright and gripped the handles of his chair.

Vicki slipped off the bed and braced the little vehicle with a hand on the saddle and the edge of one foot on the skirt. The help wasn’t necessary—the chair’s weight anchored it satisfactorily, so long as Jolober mounted swiftly and smoothly. But it was helpful, and it was the sort of personal attention that was as important as sex in convincing Horace Jolober that someone really cared—could care—for him.

“You’ll do your duty, though,” Vicki said. “And I wouldn’t want you not to.”

Jolober laughed as he settled himself and switched on his fans. He felt enormous relief now that he had proved beyond doubt—he was sure of that—how much he loved Vicki. He’d calmed her down, and that meant he was calm again, too.

“Sure I’ll do my job,” he said as he smiled at the Doll. “That doesn’t mean you and me’ll have a problem. Wait and see.”

Vicki smiled also, but she shook her head in what Jolober thought was amused resignation. Her hairless body was too perfect to be flesh, and the skin’s red pigment gave the Doll the look of a statue in blushing marble.

“Via, but you’re lovely,” Jolober murmured as the realization struck him anew.

“Come back soon,” she said easily.

“Soon as I can,” the commandant agreed as he lifted his chair and turned toward the door. “But like you say, I’ve got a job to do.”

If the government of Placida wouldn’t give him the support he needed, by the Lord! he’d work through the mercenaries themselves.

Though his belly went cold and his stumps tingled as he realized he would again be approaching the tanks which had crippled him.

The street had the sharp edge which invariably marked it immediately after a unit rotated to Paradise Port out of combat. The troops weren’t looking for sex or intoxicants—though most of them would have claimed they were.

They were looking for life. Paradise Port offered them things they thought equaled life, and the contrast between reality and hope led to anger and black despair. Only after a few days of stunning themselves with the offered pleasures did the soldiers on leave recognize another contrast: Paradise Port might not be all they’d hoped, but it was a lot better than the muck and ravening hell of combat.

Jolober slid down the street at a walking pace. Some of the soldiers on the pavement with him offered ragged salutes to the commandant’s glittering uniform. He returned them sharply, a habit he had ingrained in himself After he took charge here.

Mercenary units didn’t put much emphasis on saluting and similar rear-echelon forms of discipline. An officer with the reputation of being a tight-assed martinet in bivouac was likely to get hit from behind the next time he led his troops into combat.

There were regular armies on most planets—Colonel Wayne was an example—to whom actual fighting was an aberration. Economics or a simple desire for action led many planetary soldiers into mercenary units . . . where the old habits of saluting and snapping to attention surfaced when the men were drunk and depressed.

Hampton’s Legion hadn’t been any more interested in saluting than the Slammers were. Jolober had sharpened his technique here because it helped a few of the men he served feel more at home—when they were very far from home.

A patrol jeep passed, idling slowly through the pedestrians. Sergeant Stecher waved, somewhat uncertainly.

Jolober waved back, smiling toward his subordinate but angry at himself. He keyed his implant and said “Central, I’m back in business now, but I’m headed for the Refit Area to see Captain van Zuyle. Let anything wait that can till I’m back.”

He should have cleared with his switchboard as soon as he’d . . . calmed Vicki down. Here there’d been a crisis, and as soon as it was over he’d disappeared. Must’ve made his patrolmen very cursed nervous, and it was sheer sloppiness that he’d let the situation go on beyond what it had to. It was his job to make things simple for the people in Paradise Port, both his staff and the port’s clientele.

Maybe even for the owners of the brothel: but it was going to have to be simple on Horace Jolober’s terms.

At the gate, a tank was helping the crew repairing damage. The men wore khaki coveralls—Slammers rushed from the Refit Area as soon as van Zuyle, the officer in charge there, heard what had happened. The faster you hid the evidence of a problem, the easier it was to claim the problem had never existed.

And it was to everybody’s advantage that problems never exist.

Paradise Port was surrounded with a high barrier of woven plastic to keep soldiers who were drunk out of their minds from crawling into the volcanic wasteland and hurting themselves. The fence was tougher than it looked—it looked as insubstantial as moonbeams—but it had never been intended to stop vehicles.

The gate to the bivouac areas outside Paradise Port had a sturdy framework and hung between posts of solid steel. The lead tank had been wide enough to snap both gateposts off at the ground. The gate, framework, and webbing, was strewn in fragments for a hundred meters along the course it had been dragged between the pavement and the tank’s skirt.

As Jolober approached, he felt his self-image shrink by comparison to surroundings which included a 170-tonne fighting vehicle. The tank was backed against one edge of the gateway.

With a huge clang! the vehicle set another steel post, blasting it home with the apparatus used in combat to punch explosive charges into deep bunkers. The ram vaporized osmium wire with a jolt of high voltage, transmitting the shock waves to the piston head through a column of fluid. It banged home the replacement post without difficulty, even though the “ground” was a sheet of volcanic rock.

The pavement rippled beneath Jolober, and the undamped harmonics of the quivering post were a scream that could be heard for kilometers. Jolober pretended it didn’t affect him as he moved past the tank. He was praying that the driver was watching his side screens—or listening to a ground guide—as the tank trembled away from the task it had completed.

One of the Slammers’ noncoms gestured reassuringly toward Jolober. His lips moved as he talked into his commo helmet. The port commandant could hear nothing over the howl of the drive fans and prolonged grace notes from the vibrating post, but the tank halted where it was until he had moved past it.

A glance over his shoulder showed Jolober the tank backing into position to set the other post. It looked like a great tortoise, ancient and implacable, maneuvering to lay a clutch of eggs.

Paradise Port was for pleasure only. The barracks housing the soldiers and the sheds to store and repair their equipment were located outside the fenced perimeter. The buildings were prefabs extruded from a dun plastic less colorful than the ruddy lava fields on which they were set.

The bivouac site occupied by Hammer’s line companies in rotation was unusual in that the large leveled area contained only four barracks buildings and a pair of broad repair sheds. Parked vehicles filled the remainder of the space.

At the entrance to the bivouac area waited a guard shack. The soldier who stepped from it wore body armor over her khakis. Her submachine gun was slung, but her tone was businesslike as she said, “Commandant Jolober? Captain van Zuyle’s on his way to meet you right now.”

Hold right here till you’re invited in, Jolober translated mentally with a frown.

But he couldn’t blame the Slammers’ officer for wanting to assert his authority here over that of Horace Jolober, whose writ ran only to the perimeter of Paradise Port. Van Zuyle just wanted to prove that his troopers would be punished only with his assent—or by agreement reached with authorities higher than the port commandant.

There was a flagpole attached to a gable of one of the barracks. A tall officer strode from the door at that end and hopped into the driver’s seat of the jeep parked there. Another khaki-clad soldier stuck her head out the door and called something, but the officer pretended not to hear. He spun his vehicle in an angry circle, rubbing its low-side skirts, and gunned it toward the entrance.

Jolober had met van Zuyle only once. The most memorable thing about the Slammers’ officer was his anger—caused by fate, but directed at whatever was nearest to hand. He’d been heading a company of combat cars when the blower ahead of his took a direct hit.

If van Zuyle’d had his face shield down—but he hadn’t, because the shield made him, made most troopers, feel as though they’d stuck their head in a bucket. That dissociation, mental rather than sensory, could get you killed in combat.

The shield would have darkened instantly to block the sleet of actinics from the exploding combat car. Without its protection . . . well, the surgeons could rebuild his face, with only a slight stiffness to betray the injuries. Van Zuyle could even see—by daylight or under strong illumination.

There just wasn’t any way he’d ever be fit to lead a line unit again—and he was very angry about it.

Commandant Horace Jolober could understand how van Zuyle felt—better, perhaps, than anyone else on the planet could. It didn’t make his own job easier, though.

“A pleasure to see you again, Commandant,” van Zuyle lied brusquely as he skidded the jeep to a halt, passenger seat beside Jolober. “If you—”

Jolober smiled grimly as the Slammers’ officer saw—and remembered—that the port commandant was legless and couldn’t seat himself in a jeep on his air-cushion chair.

“No problem,” said Jolober, gripping the jeep’s side and the seat back. He lifted himself aboard the larger vehicle with an athletic twist that settled him facing front.

Of course, the maneuver was easier than it would have been if his legs were there to get in the way.

“Ah, your—” van Zuyle said, pointing toward the chair. Close up, Jolober could see a line of demarcation in his scalp. The implanted hair at the front had aged less than the gray-speckled portion which hadn’t been replaced.

“No problem, Captain,” Jolober repeated. He anchored his left arm around the driver’s seat, gripped one of his chair’s handles with the right hand, and jerked the chair into the bench seat in the rear of the open vehicle.

The jeep lurched: the air-cushion chair weighed almost as much as Jolober did without it, and he was a big man. “You learn tricks when you have to,” he said evenly as he met the eyes of the Slammers’ officer.

And your arms get very strong when they do a lot of the work your legs used to—but he didn’t say that.

“My office?” van Zuyle asked sharply.

“Is that as busy as it looks?” Jolober replied, nodding toward the door where a soldier still waited impatiently for van Zuyle to return.

“Commandant, I’ve had a tank company come in shot to hell,” van Zuyle said in a voice that built toward fury. “Three vehicles are combat lossed and have to be stripped—and the other vehicles need more than routine maintenance—and half the personnel are on medic’s release. Or dead. I’m trying to run a refit area with what’s left, my staff of twenty-three, and the trainee replacements Central sent over who haven’t ridden in a panzer, much less pulled maintenance on one. And you ask if I’ve got time to waste on you?”

“No, Captain, I didn’t ask that,” Jolober said with the threatening lack of emotion which came naturally to a man who had all his life been bigger and stronger than most of those around him. “Find a spot where we won’t be disturbed, and we’ll park there.”

When the Slammers’ officer frowned, Jolober added, “I’m not here about Captain Hoffritz, Captain.”

“Yeah,” sighed van Zuyle as he lifted the jeep and steered it sedately toward a niche formed between the iridium carcasses of a pair of tanks. “We’re repairing things right now—” he thumbed in the direction of the gate “—and any other costs’ll go on the damage chit; but I guess I owe you an apology besides.”

“Life’s a dangerous place,” Jolober said easily. Van Zuyle wasn’t stupid. He’d modified his behavior as soon as he was reminded of the incident an hour before—and the leverage it gave the port commandant if he wanted to push it.

Van Zuyle halted them in the gray shade that brought sweat to Jolober’s forehead. The tanks smelled of hot metal because some of their vaporized armor had settled back onto the hulls as fine dust. Slight breezes shifted it to the nostrils of the men nearby, a memory of the blasts in which it had formed.

Plastics had burned also, leaving varied pungencies which could not conceal the odor of cooked human flesh.

The other smells of destruction were unpleasant. That last brought Jolober memories of his legs exploding in brilliant coruscance. His body tingled and sweated, and his mouth said to the Slammers’ officer, “Your men are being cheated and misused every time they come to Paradise Port, Captain. For political reasons, my superiors won’t let me make the necessary changes. If the mercenary units serviced by Paradise Port unite and demand the changes, the government will be forced into the proper decision.”

“Seems to me,” said van Zuyle with his perfectly curved eyebrows narrowing, “that somebody could claim you were acting against your employers just now.”

“Placida hired me to run a liberty port,” said Jolober evenly. He was being accused of the worst crime a mercenary could commit: conduct that would allow his employers to forfeit his unit’s bond and brand them forever as unemployable contract-breakers.

Jolober no longer was a mercenary in that sense; but he understood van Zuyle’s idiom, and it was in that idiom that he continued: “Placida wants and needs the troops she hires to be sent back into action in the best shape possible. Her survival depends on it. If I let Red Ike run this place to his benefit and not to Placida’s, then I’m not doing my job.”

“All right,” said van Zuyle. “What’s Ike got on?”

A truck, swaying with its load of cheering troopers, pulled past on its way to the gate of Paradise Port. The man in the passenger’s seat of the cab was Tad Hoffritz, his face a knife-edge of expectation.

“Sure, they need refit as bad as the hardware does,” muttered van Zuyle as he watched the soldiers on leave with longing eyes. “Three days straight leave, half days after that when they’ve pulled their duty. But Via! I could use ’em here, especially with the tanks that’re such a bitch if you’re not used to crawling around in ’em.”

His face hardened again. “Go on,” he said, angry that Jolober knew how much he wanted to be one of the men on that truck instead of having to run a rear-echelon installation.

“Red Ike owns the Dolls like so many shots of liquor,” Jolober said. He never wanted a combat job again—the thought terrified him, the noise and flash and the smell of his body burning. “He’s using them to strip your men, everybody’s men, in the shortest possible time,” he continued in a voice out of a universe distant from his mind. “The games are honest—that’s my job—but the men play when they’re stoned, and they play with a Doll on their arm begging them to go on until they’ve got nothing left. How many of those boys—” he gestured to where the truck, now long past, had been “—are going to last three days?”

“We give ’em advances when they’re tapped out,” said van Zuyle with a different kind of frown. “Enough to last their half days—if they’re getting their jobs done here. Works out pretty good.

“As a matter of fact,” he went on, “the whole business works out pretty good. I never saw a soldier’s dive without shills and B-girls. Don’t guess you ever did either, Commandant. Maybe they’re better at it, the Dolls, but all that means is that I get my labor force back quicker—and Hammer gets his tanks back in line with that much fewer problems.”

“The Dolls—” Jolober began.

“The Dolls are clean,” shouted van Zuyle in a voice like edged steel. “They give full value for what you pay ’em. And I’ve never had a Doll knife one of my guys—which is a curst sight better’n anyplace I been staffed with human whores!”

“No,” said Jolober, his strength a bulwark against the Slammer’s anger. “But you’ve had your men knife or strangle Dolls, haven’t you? All the units here’ve had incidents of that sort. Do you think it’s chance?”

Van Zuyle blinked. “I think it’s a cost of doing business,” he said, speaking mildly because the question had surprised him.

“No,” Jolober retorted. “It’s a major profit center for Red Ike. The Dolls don’t just drop soldiers when they’ve stripped them. They humiliate the men, taunt them . . . and when one of these kids breaks and chokes the life out of the bitch who’s goading him, Red Ike pockets the damage assessment. And it comes out of money Placida would otherwise have paid Hammer’s Slammers.”

The Slammers’ officer began to laugh. It was Jolober’s turn to blink in surprise.

“Sure,” van Zuyle said, “androids like that cost a lot more’n gateposts or a few meters of fencing, you bet.”

“He’s the only source,” said Jolober tautly. “Nobody knows where the Dolls come from—or where Ike does.”

“Then nobody can argue the price isn’t fair, can they?” van Zuyle gibed. “And you know what, Commandant? Take a look at this tank right here.”

He pointed to one of the vehicles beside them. It was a command tank, probably the one in which Hoffritz’s predecessor had ridden before it was hit by powerguns heavy enough to pierce its armor.

The first round, centered on the hull’s broadside, had put the unit out of action and killed everyone aboard. The jet of energy had ignited everything flammable within the fighting compartment in an explosion which blew the hatches open. The enemy had hit the iridium carcass at least three times more, cratering the turret and holing the engine compartment.

“We couldn’t replace this for the cost of twenty Dolls,” van Zuyle continued. “And we’re going to have to, you know, because she’s a total loss. All I can do is strip her for salvage . . . and clean up as best I can for the crew, so we can say we had something to bury.”

His too-pale, too-angry eyes glared at Jolober. “Don’t talk to me about the cost of Dolls, Commandant. They’re cheap at the price. I’ll drive you back to the gate.”

“You may not care about the dollar cost,” said Jolober in a voice that thundered over the jeep’s drive fans. “But what about the men you’re sending back into the line thinking they’ve killed somebody they loved—or that they should’ve killed her?’

“Commandant, that’s one I can’t quantify,” the Slammers’ officer said. The fans’ keeping lowered as the blades bit the air at a steeper angle and began to thrust the vehicle out of the bivouac area. “First time a trooper kills a human here, that I can quantify: we lose him. If there’s a bigger problem and the Bonding Authority decides to call it mutiny, then we lost a lot more than that.

“And I tell you, buddy,” van Zuyle added with a one-armed gesture toward the wrecked vehicles now behind them. “We’ve lost too fucking much already on this contract.”

The jeep howled past the guard at the bivouac entrance. Wind noise formed a deliberate damper on Jolober’s attempts to continue the discussion. “Will you forward my request to speak to Colonel Hammer?” he shouted. “I can’t get through to him myself.”

The tank had left the gate area. Men in khaki, watched by Jolober’s staff in white uniforms, had almost completed their task of restringing the perimeter fence. Van Zuyle throttled back, permitting the jeep to glide to a graceful halt three meters short of the workmen.

“The colonel’s busy, Commandant,” he said flatly. “And from now on, I hope you’ll remember that I am, too.”

Jolober lifted his chair from the back seat. “I’m going to win this, Captain,” he said. “I’m going to do my job whether or not I get any support.”

The smile he gave van Zuyle rekindled the respect in the tanker’s pale eyes.

There were elements of four other mercenary units bivouacked outside Paradise Port at the moment. Jolober could have visited them in turn—to be received with more or less civility, and certainly no more support than the Slammers’ officer had offered.

A demand for change by the mercenaries in Placidan service had to be just that: a demand by all the mercenaries. Hammer’s Slammers were the highest-paid troops here, and by that standard—any other criterion would start a brawl—the premier unit. If the Slammers refused Jolober, none of the others would back him.

The trouble with reform is that in the short run, it causes more problems than continuing along the bad old ways. Troops in a combat zone, who know that each next instant may be their last, are more to be forgiven for short-term thinking than, say, politicians; but the pattern is part of the human condition.

Besides, nobody but Horace Jolober seemed to think there was anything to reform.

Jolober moved in a walking dream while his mind shuttled through causes and options. His data were interspersed with memories of Vicki smiling up at him from the bed and of his own severed leg toppling in blue-green silhouette. He shook his head gently to clear the images and found himself on the street outside the Port offices.

His stump throttled back the fans reflexively; but when Jolober’s conscious mind made its decision, he turned away from the office building and headed for the garish facade of the China Doll across the way.

Rainbow pastels lifted slowly over the front of the building, the gradation so subtle that close up it was impossible to tell where one band ended and the next began. At random intervals of from thirty seconds to a minute, the gentle hues were replaced by glaring, supersaturated colors separated by dazzling blue-white lines.

None of the brothels in Paradise Port were sedately decorated, but the China Doll stood out against the competition.

As Jolober approached, a soldier was leaving and three more—one a woman—were in the queue to enter. A conveyor carried those wishing to exit, separated from one another by solid panels. The panels withdrew sideways into the wall as each client reached the street—but there was always another panel in place behind to prevent anyone from bolting into the building without being searched at the proper entrance.

All of the buildings in Paradise Port were designed the same way, with security as unobtrusive as it could be while remaining uncompromised. The entryways were three-meter funnels narrowing in a series of gaudy corbelled arches. Attendants—humans everywhere but in the China Doll—waited at the narrow end. They smiled as the customers passed—but anyone whom the detection devices in the archway said was armed was stopped right there.

The first two soldiers ahead of Jolober went through without incident. The third was a short man wearing lieutenant’s pips and the uniform of Division L??g??re. His broad shoulders and chest narrowed to his waist as abruptly as those of a bulldog, and it was with a bulldog’s fierce intransigence that he braced himself against the two attendants who had confronted him.

“I am Lieutenant Alexis Condorcet!” he announced as though he were saying “major general.” “What do you mean by hindering me?”

The attendants in the China Doll were Droids, figures with smoothly masculine features and the same blushing complexion which set Red Ike and the Dolls apart from the humans with whom they mingled.

They were not male—Jolober had seen the total sexlessness of an android whose tights had ripped as he quelled a brawl. Their bodies and voices were indistinguishable from one to another, and there could be no doubt that they were androids, artificial constructions whose existence proved that the Dolls could be artificial, too.

Though in his heart, Horace Jolober had never been willing to believe the Dolls were not truly alive. Not since Red Ike had introduced him to Vicki.

“Could you check the right-hand pocket of your blouse, Lieutenant Condorcet?” one of the Droids said.

“I’m not carrying a weapon!” Condorcet snapped. His hand hesitated, but it dived into the indicated pocket when an attendant started to reach toward it.

Jolober was ready to react, either by grabbing Condorcet’s wrist from behind or by knocking him down with the chair. He didn’t have time for any emotion, not even fear.

It was the same set of instincts that had thrown him to his feet for the last time, to wave off the attacking tanks.

Condorcet’s hand came out with a roll of coins between two fingers. In a voice that slipped between injured and minatory, he said, “Can’t a man bring money into the Doll, then? Will you have me take my business elsewhere, then?”

“Your money’s very welcome, sir,” said the attendant who was reaching forward. His thumb and three fingers shifted in a sleight of hand; they reappeared holding a gold-striped China Doll chip worth easily twice the value of the rolled coins. “But let us hold these till you return. We’ll be glad to give them back then without exchange.”

The motion which left Condorcet holding the chip and transferred the roll to the attendant was also magically smooth.

The close-coupled soldier tensed for a moment as if he’d make an issue of it; but the Droids were as strong as they were polished, and there was no percentage in being humiliated.

“We’ll see about that,” said Condorcet loudly. He strutted past the attendants who parted for him like water before the blunt prow of a barge.

“Good afternoon, Port Commandant Jolober,” said one of the Droids as they both bowed. “A pleasure to serve you again.”

“A pleasure to feel wanted,” said Jolober with an ironic nod of his own. He glided into the main hall of the China Doll.

The room’s high ceiling was suffused with clear light which mimicked daytime outside. The hall buzzed with excited sounds even when the floor carried only a handful of customers. Jolober hadn’t decided whether the space was designed to give multiple echo effects or if instead Red Ike augmented the hum with concealed sonic transponders.

Whatever it was, the technique made the blood of even the port commandant quicken when he stepped into the China Doll.

There were a score of gaming stations in the main hall, but they provided an almost infinite variety of ways to lose money. A roulette station could be collapsed into a skat table in less than a minute if a squad of drunken Frieslanders demanded it. The displaced roulette players could be accommodated at the next station over, where until then a Droid had been dealing desultory hands of fan-tan.

Whatever the game was, it was fair. Every hand, every throw, every pot was recorded and processed in the office of the port commandant. None of the facility owners doubted that a skewed result would be noticed at once by the computers, or that a result skewed in favor of the house would mean that Horace Jolober would weld their doors shut and ship all their staff off-planet.

Besides, they knew as Jolober did that honest games would get them most of the available money anyhow, so long as the Dolls were there to caress the winners to greater risks.

At the end of Paradise Port farthest from the gate were two establishments which specialized in the left overs. They were staffed by human males, and their atmosphere was as brightly efficient as men could make it.

But no one whose psyche allowed a choice picked a human companion over a Doll.

The main hall was busy with drab uniforms, Droids neatly garbed in blue and white, and the stunningly gorgeous outfits of the Dolls. There was a regular movement of Dolls and uniforms toward the door on a room-width landing three steps up at the back of the hall. Generally the rooms beyond were occupied by couples, but much larger gatherings were possible if a soldier had money and the perceived need.

The curved doors of the elevator beside the front entrance opened even as Jolober turned to look at them. Red Ike stepped out with a smile and a Doll on either arm.

“Always a pleasure to see you, Commandant,” Red Ike said in a tone as sincere as the Dolls were human. “Shana,” he added to the red-haired Doll. “Susan—” he nodded toward the blond. “Meet Commandant Jolober, the man who keeps us all safe.”

The redhead giggled and slipped from Ike’s arm to Jolober’s. The slim blond gave him a smile that would have been demure except for the fabric of her tank top. It acted as a polarizing filter, so that when she swayed her bare torso flashed toward the port commandant.

“But come on upstairs, Commandant,” Red Ike continued, stepping backwards into the elevator and motioning Jolober to follow him. “Unless your business is here—or in back?” He cocked an almost-human eyebrow toward the door in the rear while his face waited with a look of amused tolerance.

“We can go upstairs,” said Jolober grimly. “It won’t take long.” His air cushion slid him forward. Spilling air tickled Shana’s feet as she pranced along beside him; she giggled again.

There must be men who found that sort of girlish idiocy erotic or Red Ike wouldn’t keep the Doll in his stock.

The elevator shaft was opaque and looked it from outside the car. The car’s interior was a visiscreen fed by receptors on the shaft’s exterior. On one side of the slowly rising car, Jolober could watch the games in the main hall as clearly as if he were hanging in the air. On the other, they lifted above the street with a perfect view of its traffic and the port offices even though a concrete wall and the shaft’s iridium armor blocked the view in fact.

The elevator switch was a small plate which hung in the “air” that was really the side of the car. Red Ike had toggled it up. Down would have taken the car—probably much faster—to the tunnel beneath the street, the escape route which Jolober had suspected even before the smiling alien had used it this afternoon.

But there was a second unobtrusive control beside the first. The blond Doll leaned past Jolober with a smile and touched it.

The view of the street disappeared. Those in the car had a crystalline view of the activities in back of the China Doll as if no walls or ceilings separated the bedrooms. Jolober met—or thought he met—the eyes of Tad Hoffritz, straining upward beneath a black-haired Doll.

“Via!” Jolober swore and slapped the toggle hard enough to feel the solidity of the elevator car.

“Susan, Susan,” Red Ike chided with a grin. “She will have her little joke, you see, Commandant.”

The blond made a moue, then winked at Jolober.

Above the main hall was Red Ike’s office, furnished in minimalist luxury. Jolober found nothing attractive in the sight of chair seats and a broad onyx desktop hanging in the air, but the decor did show off the view. Like the elevator, the office walls and ceiling were covered by pass-through visiscreens.

The russet wasteland, blotched but not relieved by patterns of lichen, looked even more dismal from twenty meters up than it did from Jolober’s living quarters.

Though the view appeared to be panorama, there was no sign of where the owner himself lived. The back of the office was an interior wall, and the vista over the worms and pillows of lava was transmitted through not only the wall but the complex of rooms that was Red Ike’s home.

On the roof beside the elevator tower was an aircar sheltered behind the concrete coping. Like the owners of all the other facilities comprising Paradise Port, Red Ike wanted the option of getting out fast, even if the elevator to his tunnel bolthole was blocked.

Horace Jolober had fantasies in which he watched the stocky humanoid scramble into his vehicle and accelerate away, vanishing forever as a fleck against the milky sky.

“I’ve been meaning to call on you for some time, Commandant,” Red Ike said as he walked with quick little steps to his desk. “I thought perhaps you might like a replacement for Vicki. As you know, any little way in which I can make your task easier . . .?”

Shana giggled. Susan smiled slowly and, turning at a precisely calculated angle, bared breasts that were much fuller than they appeared beneath her loose garment.

Jolober felt momentary desire, then fierce anger in reaction. His hands clenched on the chair handles, restraining his violent urge to hurl both Dolls into the invisible walls.

Red Ike sat behind the desktop. The thin shell of his chair rocked on invisible gimbals, tilting him to a comfortable angle that was not quite disrespectful of his visitor

“Commandant,” he said with none of the earlier hinted mockery, “you and I really ought to cooperate, you know. We need each other, and Placida needs us both.”

“And the soldiers we’re here for?” Jolober asked softly. “Do they need you, Ike?”

The Dolls had become as still as painted statues.

“You’re an honorable man, Commandant,” said the alien. “It disturbs you that the men don’t find what they need in Paradise Port.”

The chair eased more nearly upright. The intensity of Red Ike’s stare reminded Jolober that he’d never seen the alien blink.

“But men like that—all of them now, and most of them for as long as they live . . . all they really need, Commandant, is a chance to die. I don’t offer them that, it isn’t my place. But I sell them everything they pay for, because I too am honorable.”

“You don’t know what honor is!” Jolober shouted, horrified at the thought—the nagging possibility—that what Red Ike said was true.

“I know what it is to keep my word, Commandant Jolober,” the alien said as he rose from behind his desk with quiet dignity. “I promise you that if you cooperate with me, Paradise Port will continue to run to the full satisfaction of your employers.

“And I also promise,” Red Ike went on unblinkingly, “that if you continue your mad vendetta, it will be the worse for you.”

“Leave here,” Jolober said. His mind achieved not calm, but a dynamic balance in which he understood everything—so long as he focused only on the result, not the reasons. “Leave Placida, leave human space, Ike. You push too hard. So far you’ve been lucky—it’s only me pushing back, and I play by the official rules.”

He leaned forward in his saddle, no longer angry. The desktop between them was a flawless black mirror. “But the mercs out there, they play by their own rules, and they’re not going to like it when they figure out the game you’re running on them. Get out while you can.”

“Ladies,” Red Ike said. “Please escort the commandant to the main hall. He no longer has any business here.”

Jolober spent the next six hours on the street, visiting each of the establishments of Paradise Port. He drank little and spoke less, exchanging salutes when soldiers offered them and, with the same formality, the greetings of owners.

He didn’t say much to Vicki later that night, when he returned by the alley staircase which led directly to his living quarters.

But he held her very close.

The sky was dark when Jolober snapped awake, though his bedroom window was painted by all the enticing colors of the facades across the street. He was fully alert and already into the short-legged trousers laid on the mobile chair beside the bed when Vicki stirred and asked, “Horace? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t—” Jolober began, and then the alarms sounded: the radio implanted in his mastoid, and the siren on the roof of the China Doll.

“Go ahead,” he said to Central, thrusting his arms into the uniform tunic.

Vicki thumbed up the room lights but Jolober didn’t need that, not to find the sleeves of a white garment with this much sky-glow. He’d stripped a jammed tribarrel once in pitch darkness, knowing that he and a dozen of his men were dead if he screwed up—and absolutely confident of the stream of cyan fire that ripped moments later from his gun muzzles.

“Somebody shot his way into the China Doll,” said the voice. “He’s holed up in the back.”

The bone-conduction speaker hid the identity of the man on the other end of the radio link, but it wasn’t the switchboard’s artificial intelligence. Somebody on the street was cutting through directly, probably Stecher.

“Droids?” Jolober asked as he mounted his chair and powered up, breaking the charging circuit in which the vehicle rested overnight.

“Chief,” said the mastoid, “we got a man down. Looks bad, and we can’t get medics to him because the gun’s covering the hallway. D’ye want me to—”

“Wait!” Jolober said as he bulled through the side door under power. Unlocking the main entrance—the entrance to the office of the port commandant—would take seconds that he knew he didn’t have. “Hold what you got, I’m on the way.”

The voice speaking through Jolober’s jawbone was clearly audible despite wind noise and the scream of his chair as he leaped down the alley staircase in a single curving arc. “Ah, Chief? We’re likely to have a, a crowd control problem if this don’t get handled real quick.”

“I’m on the way,” Jolober repeated. He shot onto the street, still on direct thrust because ground effect wouldn’t move him as fast as he needed to go.

The entrance of the China Doll was cordoned off, if four port patrolmen could be called a cordon. There were over a hundred soldiers in the street and more every moment that the siren—couldn’t somebody cut it? Jolober didn’t have time—continued to blare.

That wasn’t what Stecher had meant by a “crowd control problem.” The difficulty was in the way soldiers in the Division L??g??re’s mottled uniforms were shouting—not so much as onlookers as a lynch mob.

Jolober dropped his chair onto its skirts—he needed the greater stability of ground effect. “Lemme through!” he snarled to the mass of uniformed backs which parted in a chorus of yelps when Jolober goosed his throttle. The skirt of his plenum chamber caught the soldiers just above the boot heels and toppled them to either side as the chair powered through.

One trooper spun with a raised fist and a curse in French. Jolober caught the man’s wrist and flung him down almost absently. The men at the door relaxed visibly when their commandant appeared at their side.

Behind him, Jolober could hear off-duty patrolmen scrambling into the street from their barracks under the port offices. That would help, but—

“You, Major!” Jolober shouted, pointing at a Division L??g??re officer in the front of the crowd. The man was almost of a size with the commandant; fury had darkened his face several shades beyond swarthiness. “I’m deputizing you to keep order here until I’ve taken care of the problem inside.”

He spun his chair again and drove through the doorway. The major was shouting to his back, “But the bastard’s shot my—”

Two Droids were more or less where Jolober had expected them, one crumpled in the doorway and the other stretched full length a meter inside. The Droids were tough as well as strong. The second one had managed to grasp the man who shot him and be pulled a pace or two before another burst into the back of the Droid’s skull had ended matters.

Stecher hadn’t said the shooter had a submachine gun. That made the situation a little worse than it might have been, but it was so bad already that the increment was negligible.

Droids waited impassively at all the gaming stations, ready to do their jobs as soon as customers returned. They hadn’t fled the way human croupiers would have—but neither did their programming say anything about dealing with armed intruders.

The Dolls had disappeared. It was the first time Jolober had been in the main hall when it was empty of their charming, enticing babble.

Stecher and two troopers in Slammers’ khaki, and a pair of technicians with a portable medicomp stood on opposite sides of the archway leading into the back of the China Doll. A second patrolman was huddled behind the three room-wide steps leading up from the main hall.

Man down, Jolober thought, his guts ice.

The patrolman heard the chair and glanced back. “Duck!” he screamed as Sergeant Stecher cried, “Watch—”

Jolober throttled up, bouncing to the left as a three-shot burst snapped from the archway. It missed him by little enough that his hair rose in response to the ionized track.

There was a man down, in the corridor leading back from the archway. There was another man firing from a room at the corridor’s opposite end, and he’d just proved his willingness to add the port commandant to the night’s bag.

Jolober’s chair leaped the steps to the broad landing where Stecher crouched, but it was his massive arms that braked his momentum against the wall. His tunic flapped and he noticed for the first time that he hadn’t sealed it before he left his quarters. “Report,” he said bluntly to his sergeant while running his thumb up the uniform’s seam to close it.

“Their officer’s in there,” Stecher said, bobbing his chin to indicate the two Slammers kneeling beside him. The male trooper was holding the female and trying to comfort her as she blubbered.

To Jolober’s surprise, he recognized both of them—the commo tech and the driver of the tank which’d nearly run him down that afternoon.

“He nutted, shot his way in to find a Doll,” Stecher said quickly. His eyes flicked from the commandant to the archway, but he didn’t shift far enough to look down the corridor. Congealed notches in the arch’s plastic sheath indicated that he’d been lucky once already.

“Found her, found the guy she was with, and put a burst into him as he tried to get away.” Stecher thumbed toward the body invisible behind the shielding wall. “Guy from the L??g??re, an El-Tee named Condorcet.”

“The bitch made him do it!” said the tank driver in a scream strangled by her own laced fingers.

“She’s sedated,” said the commo tech who held her.

In the perfect tones of Central’s artificial intelligence, Jolober’s implant said, “Major de Vigny of the Division L??g??re requests to see you. He is offering threats.”

Letting de Vigny through would either take the pressure off the team outside or be the crack that made the dam fail. From the way Central put it, the dam wasn’t going to hold much longer anyhow.

“Tell the cordon to pass him. But tell him keep his head down or he’s that much more t’clean up t’morrow,” Jolober replied with his mike keyed, making the best decision he could when none of ’em looked good.

“Tried knock-out gas but he’s got filters,” said Stecher. “Fast, too.” He tapped the scarred jamb. “All the skin absorptives’re lethal, and I don’t guess we’d get cleared t’ use ’em anyhow?”

“Not while I’m in the chain of command,” Jolober agreed grimly.

“She was with this pongo from the L??g??re,” the driver was saying through her laced fingers. “Tad, he wanted her so much, so fucking much, like she was human or something . . .”

“The, ah, you know. Beth, the one he was planning to see,” said the commo tech rapidly as he stroked the back of the driver—Corporal Days—Daisy . . . “He tried to, you know, buy ‘er from the Frog, but he wouldn’t play. She got ’em, Beth did, to put all their leave allowance on a coin flip. She’d take all the money and go with the winner.”

“The bitch,” Daisy wailed. “The bitch the bitch the bitch . . .”

The L??g??re didn’t promote amateurs to battalion command. The powerful major that Jolober had seen outside rolled through the doorway, sized up the situation, and sprinted to the landing out of the shooter’s line of sight.

Line of fire.

“Hoffritz, can you hear me?” Jolober called. “I’m the port commandant, remember?”

A single bolt from the submachine gun spattered plastic from the jamb and filled the air with fresher stenches.

The man sprawling in the corridor moaned.

“I’ve ordered up an assault team,” said Major de Vigny with flat assurance as he stood up beside Jolober. “It was unexpected, but they should be here in a few minutes.”

Everyone else in the room was crouching. There wasn’t any need so long as you weren’t in front of the corridor, but it was the instinctive response to knowing somebody was trying to shoot you.

“Cancel the order,” said Jolober, locking eyes with the other officer.

“You aren’t in charge when one of my men—” began the major, his face flushing almost black.

“The gate closes when the alarm goes off!” Jolober said in a voice that could have been heard over a tank’s fans. “And I’ve ordered the air defense batteries,” he lied, “to fire on anybody trying to crash through now. If you want to lead a mutiny against your employers, Major, now’s the time to do it.”

The two big men glared at one another without blinking. Then de Vigny said, “Blue Six to Blue Three,” keying his epaulet mike with the code words. “Hold Team Alpha until further orders. Repeat, hold Alpha. Out.”

“Hold Alpha,” repeated the speaker woven into the epaulet’s fabric.

“If Condorcet dies,” de Vigny added calmly to the port commandant, “I will kill you myself, sir.”

“Do you have cratering charges warehoused here?” Jolober asked with no emotion save the slight lilt of interrogation.

“What?” said de Vigny. “Yes, yes.”

Jolober crooked his left ring finger so that Central would hear and relay his next words. “Tell the gate to pass two men from the L??g??re with a jeep and a cratering charge. Give them a patrol guide, and download the prints of the China Doll into his commo link so they can place the charge on the wall outside the room at the T of the back corridor.”

De Vigny nodded crisply to indicate that he too understood the order. He began relaying it into his epaulet while Stecher drew and reholstered his needle stunner and Corporal Days mumbled.

“Has she tried?” Jolober asked, waving to the driver and praying that he wouldn’t have to . . .

“He shot at ‘er,” the commo tech said, nodding sadly. “That’s when she really lost it and medics had to calm her down.”

No surprises there. Certainly no good ones.

“Captain Hoffritz, it’s the port commandant again,” Jolober called.

A bolt spat down the axis of the corridor.

“That’s right, you bastard, shoot!” Jolober roared. “You blew my legs off on Primavera. Now finish the job and prove you’re a fuck-up who’s only good for killing his friends. Come on, I’ll make it easy. I’ll come out and let you take your time!”

“Chief—” said Stecher.

Jolober slid away from the shelter of the wall.

The corridor was the stem of a T, ten meters long. Halfway between Jolober and the cross-corridor at the other end, capping the T, lay the wounded man. Lieutenant Condorcet was a tough little man to still be alive with the back of his tunic smoldering around the holes punched in him by three powergun bolts. The roll of coins he’d carried to add weight to his fist wouldn’t have helped; but then, nothing much helped when the other guy had the only gun in the equation.

Like now.

The door of the room facing the corridor and Horace Jolober was ajar. Beyond the opening was darkness and a bubble of dull red: the iridium muzzle of Hoffritz’s submachine gun, glowing with the heat of the destruction it had spit at others.

De Vigny cursed; Stecher was pleading or even calling an order. All Jolober could hear was the roar of the tank bearing down on him, so loud that the slapping bolts streaming toward him from its cupola were inaudible.

Jolober’s chair slid him down the hall. His arms were twitching in physical memory of the time they’d waved a scrap of white cloth to halt the oncoming armor.

The door facing him opened. Tad Hoffritz’s face was as hard and yellow as fresh bone. He leaned over the sight of his submachine gun. Jolober slowed, because if he kept on at a walking pace he would collide with Condorcet, and if he curved around the wounded man it might look as if he were dodging what couldn’t be dodged.

He didn’t want to look like a fool and a coward when he died.

Hoffritz threw down the weapon.

Jolober bounced to him, wrapping the Slammers’ officer in both arms like a son. Stecher was shouting, “Medics!” but the team with the medicomp had been in motion as soon as the powergun hit the floor. Behind all the battle was Major de Vigny’s voice, remembering to stop the crew with the charge that might otherwise be set—and fired even though the need was over.

“I loved her,” Hoffritz said to Jolober’s big shoulder, begging someone to understand what he didn’t understand himself. “I, I’d been drinking and I came back . . .”

With a submachine gun that shouldn’t have made it into Paradise Port . . . but the detection loops hadn’t been replaced in the hours since the tanks ripped them away; and anyhow, Hoffritz was an officer, a company commander.

He was also a young man having a bad time with what he thought was a woman. Older, calmer fellows than Hoffritz had killed because of that.

Jolober carried Hoffritz with him into the room where he’d been holed up. “Lights,” the commandant ordered, and the room brightened.

Condorcet wasn’t dead, not yet; but Beth, the Doll behind the trouble, surely was.

The couch was large and round. Though drumhead-thin, its structure could be varied to any degree of firmness the paying half of the couple desired. Beth lay in the center of it in a tangle of long black hair. Her tongue protruded from a blood-darkened face, and the prints of the grip that had strangled her were livid on her throat.

“She told me she loved him,” Hoffritz mumbled. The commandant’s embrace supported him, but it also kept Hoffritz from doing something silly, like trying to run.

“After what I’d done,” the boy was saying, “she tells me she doesn’t love me after all. She says I’m no good to her in bed, that I never gave her any pleasure at all. . . .”

“Just trying to maximize the claim for damages, son,” Jolober said grimly. “It didn’t mean anything real, just more dollars in Red Ike’s pocket.”

But Red Ike hadn’t counted on Hoffritz shooting another merc. Too bad for Condorcet, too bad for the kid who shot him—

And just what Jolober needed to finish Red Ike on Placida.

“Let’s go,” Jolober said, guiding Hoffritz out of the room stinking of death and the emotions that led to death. “We’ll get you to a medic.”

And a cell.

Condorcet had been removed from the corridor, leaving behind only a slime of vomit. Thank the Lord he’d fallen face down.

Stecher and his partner took the unresisting Hoffritz and wrapped him in motion restraints. The prisoner could walk and move normally, so long as he did it slowly. At a sudden movement, the gossamer webs would clamp him as tightly as a fly in a spiderweb.

The main hall was crowded, but the incipient violence facing the cordon outside had melted away. Judging from Major de Vigny’s brusque, bellowed orders, the victim was in the hands of his medics and being shifted to the medicomp in Division L??g??re’s bivouac area.

That was probably the best choice. Paradise Port had excellent medical facilities, but medics in combat units got to know their jobs and their diagnostic/healing computers better than anybody in the rear echelons.

“Commandant Jolober,” said van Zuyle, the Slammers’ bivouac commander, “I’m worried about my man here. Can I—”

“He’s not your man anymore, Captain,” Jolober said with the weary chill of an avalanche starting to topple. “He’s mine and the Placidan courts’—until I tell you different. We’ll get him sedated and keep him from hurting himself, no problem.”

Van Zuyle’s face wore the expression of a man whipping himself to find a deity who doesn’t respond. “Sir,” he said, “I’m sorry if I—”

“You did the job they paid you t’do,” Jolober said, shrugging away from the other man. He hadn’t felt so weary since he’d awakened in the Legion’s main hospital on Primavera: alive and utterly unwilling to believe that he could be after what happened.

“Outa the man’s way,” snarled one of the patrolmen, trying to wave a path through the crowd with her white-sleeved arms. “Let the commandant by!”

She yelped a curse at the big man who brushed through her gestures. “A moment, little one,” he said—de Vigny, the L??g??re major.

“You kept the lid on good,” Jolober said while part of his dazed mind wondered whose voice he was hearing. “Tomorrow I’ll want to talk to you about what happened and how to prevent a repeat.”

Anger darkened de Vigny’s face. “I heard what happened,” he said. “Condorcet was not the only human victim, it would seem.”

“We’ll talk,” Jolober said. His chair was driving him toward the door, pushing aside anyone who didn’t get out of the way. He didn’t see them any more than he saw the air.

The street was a carnival of uniformed soldiers who suddenly had something to focus on that wasn’t a memory of death—or a way to forget. There were dark undercurrents to the chatter, but the crowd was no longer a mob.

Jolober’s uniform drew eyes, but the port commandant was too aloof and forbidding to be asked for details of what had really happened in the China Doll. In the center of the street, though—

“Good evening, Commandant,” said Red Ike, strolling back toward the establishment he owned. “Without your courage, tonight’s incident would have been even more unfortunate.”

Human faces changed in the play of light washing them from the brothel fronts. Red Ike’s did not. Colors overlay his features, but the lines did not modify as one shadow or highlight replaced another.

“It couldn’t be more unfortunate for you, Ike,” Jolober said to the bland alien while uniforms milled around them. “They’ll pay you money, the mercs will. But they won’t have you killing their men.”

“I understand that the injured party is expected to pull through,” Red Ike said emotionlessly. Jolober had the feeling that the alien’s eyes were focused on his soul.

“I’m glad Condorcet’ll live,” Jolober said, too tired for triumph or subtlety. “But you’re dead on Placida, Ike. It’s just a matter of how long it takes me to wrap it up.”

He broke past Red Ike, gliding toward the port offices and the light glowing from his room on the upper floor.

Red Ike didn’t turn around, but Jolober thought he could feel the alien watching him nonetheless.

Even so, all Jolober cared about now was bed and a chance to reassure Vicki that everything was all right.

The alley between the office building and the Blue Parrot next door wasn’t directly illuminated, but enough light spilled from the street to show Jolober the stairs.

He didn’t see the two men waiting there until a third had closed the mouth of the alley behind him. Indonesian music began to blare from the China Doll.

Music on the exterior’s a violation, thought the part of Jolober’s mind that ran Paradise Port, but reflexes from his years as a combat officer noted the man behind him held a metal bar and that knives gleamed in the hands of the two by the stairs.

It made a hell of a fast trip back from the nightmare memories that had ruled Jolober’s brain since he wakened.

Jolober’s left stump urged the throttle as his torso shifted toward the alley mouth. The electronics reacted instantly but the mechanical links took a moment. Fans spun up, plenum chamber collapsed into a nozzle—

The attackers moved in on Jolober like the three wedges of a drill chuck. His chair launched him into the one with the club, a meter off the ground and rising with a hundred and eighty kilos of mass behind the impact.

At the last instant the attacker tried to duck away instead of swinging at Jolober, but he misjudged the speed of his intended victim. The center of the chair’s frame, between the skirt and the saddle, batted the attacker’s head toward the wall, dragging the fellow’s body with it.

Jolober had a clear path to the street. The pair of knifemen thought he was headed that way and sprinted in a desperate attempt to catch a victim who moved faster than unaided humans could run.

They were in midstride, thinking of failure rather than defense, when Jolober pogoed at the alley mouth and came back at them like a cannonball.

But bigger and heavier.

One attacker stabbed at Jolober’s chest and skidded the point off the battery compartment instead when the chair hopped. The frame slammed knife and man into the concrete wall from which they ricochetted to the ground, separate and equally motionless.

The third man ran away.

“Get ’em, boys!” Jolober bellowed as if he were launching his battalion instead of just himself in pursuit. The running man glanced over his shoulder and collided with the metal staircase. The noise was loud and unpleasant, even in comparison to the oriental music blaring from the China Doll.

Jolober bounced, cut his fan speed, and flared his output nozzle into a plenum chamber again. The chair twitched, then settled into ground effect.

Jolober’s mind told him that he was seeing with a clarity and richness of color he couldn’t have equalled by daylight, but he knew that if he really focused on an object it would blur into shadow. It was just his brain’s way of letting him know that he was still alive.

Alive like he hadn’t been in years.

Crooking his ring finger Jolober said, “I need a pickup on three men in the alley between us and the Blue Parrot.”

“Three men in the alley between HQ and the Blue Parrot,” the artificial intelligence paraphrased.

“They’ll need a medic.” One might need burial. “And I want them sweated under a psycomp—who sent ’em after me, the works.”

Light flooded the alley as a team of patrolmen arrived. The point man extended a surface-luminescent area light powered from a backpack. The shadows thrown by the meter-diameter convexity were soft, but the illumination was the blaze of noon compared to that of moments before.

“Chief!” bellowed Stecher. “You all right? Chief!” He wasn’t part of the team Central vectored to the alley, but word of mouth had brought him to the scene of the incident.

Jolober throttled up, clamped his skirts, and boosted himself to the fourth step where everyone could see him. The man who’d run into the stairs moaned as the side-draft spat grit from the treads into his face.

“No problem,” Jolober said. No problem they wouldn’t be able to cure in a week or two. “I doubt these three know any more than that they got a call from outside Port to, ah, handle me . . . but get what they have, maybe we can cross-reference with some outgoing traffic.”

From the China Doll; or just maybe from the Blue Parrot, where Ike fled when the shooting started. But probably not. Three thugs, nondescripts from off-planet who could’ve been working for any establishment in Paradise Port except the China Doll.

“Sir—” came Stecher’s voice.

“It’ll keep, Sergeant,” Jolober interrupted. “Just now I’ve got a heavy date with a bed.”

Vicki greeted him with a smile so bright that both of them could pretend there were no tears beneath it. The air was steamy with the bath she’d drawn for him.

He used to prefer showers, back when he’d had feet on which to stand. He could remember dancing on Quitly’s Planet as the afternoon monsoon battered the gun carriages his platoon was guarding and washed the soap from his body.

But he didn’t have Vicki then, either.

“Yeah,” he said, hugging the Doll. “Good idea, a bath.”

Instead of heading for the bathroom, he slid his chair to the cabinet within arm’s reach of the bed and cut his fans. Bending over, he unlatched the battery compartment—the knifepoint hadn’t even penetrated the casing—and removed the powerpack.

“I can—” Vicki offered hesitantly.

“S’okay, dearest,” Jolober replied as he slid a fresh pack from the cabinet into place. His stump touched the throttle, spinning the fans to prove that he had good contact, then lifted the original pack into the cabinet and its charging harness.

“Just gave ’em a workout tonight and don’t want t’ be down on power tomorrow,” he explained as he straightened. Vicki could have handled the weight of the batteries, he realized, though his mind kept telling him it was ludicrous to imagine the little woman shifting thirty-kilo packages with ease.

But she wasn’t a woman.

“I worry when it’s so dangerous,” she said as she walked with him to the bathroom, their arms around one another’s waist.

“Look, for Paradise Port, it was dangerous,” Jolober said in a light appearance of candor as he handed Vicki his garments. “Compared to downtown in any capital city I’ve seen, it was pretty mild.”

He lowered himself into the water, using the bars laid over the tub like a horizontal ladder. Vicki began to knead the great muscles of his shoulders, and Lord! but it felt good to relax after so long . . .

“I’d miss you,” she said.

“Not unless I went away,” Jolober answered, leaning forward so that her fingers could work down his spine while the water lapped at them. “Which isn’t going to happen any time soon.”

He paused. The water’s warmth unlocked more than his body. “Look,” he said quietly, his chin touching the surface of the bath and his eyes still closed. “Red Ike’s had it. He knows it, I know it. But I’m in a position to make things either easy or hard, and he knows that, too. We’ll come to terms, he and I. And you’re the—”

“Urgent from the gate,” said Jolober’s mastoid implant.

He crooked his finger, raising his head. “Put him through,” he said.

Her through. “Sir,” said Feldman’s attenuated voice, “a courier’s just landed with two men. They say they’ve got an oral message from Colonel Hammer, and they want me to alert you that they’re coming. Over.”

“I’ll open the front door,” Jolober said, lifting himself abruptly from the water, careful not to miskey the implant while his hands performed other tasks.

He wouldn’t rouse the human staff. No need and if the message came by courier, it wasn’t intended for other ears.

“Ah, sir,” Feldman added unexpectedly. “One of them insists on keeping his sidearms. Over.”

“Then he can insist on staying outside my perimeter!” Jolober snarled. Vicki had laid a towel on the saddle before he mounted and was now using another to silently dry his body. “You can detach two guards to escort ’em if they need their hands held, but nobody brings powerguns into Paradise Port.”

“Roger, I’ll tell them,” Feldman agreed doubtfully. “Over and out.”

“I have a fresh uniform out,” said Vicki, stepping back so that Jolober could follow her into the bedroom, where the air was drier.

“That’s three, today,” Jolober said, grinning. “Well, I’ve done a lot more than I’ve managed any three other days.

“Via,” he added more seriously. “It’s more headway than I’ve made since they appointed me commandant.”

Vicki smiled, but her eyes were so tired that Jolober’s body trembled in response. His flesh remembered how much he had already been through today and yearned for the sleep to which the hot bath had disposed it.

Jolober lifted himself on his hands so that Vicki could raise and cinch his trousers. He could do it himself, but he was in a hurry, and . . . besides, just as she’d said, Vicki was a part of him in a real way.

“Cheer up, love,” he said as he closed his tunic. “It isn’t done yet, but it’s sure getting that way.”

“Good-bye, Horace,” the Doll said as she kissed him.

“Keep the bed warm,” Jolober called as he slid toward the door and the inner staircase. His head was tumbling with memories and images. For a change, they were all pleasant ones.

* * *

The port offices were easily identified at night because they weren’t garishly illuminated like every other building in Paradise Port. Jolober had a small staff, and he didn’t choose to waste it at desks. Outside of ordinary business hours, Central’s artificial intelligence handled everything—by putting non-emergency requests on hold till morning, and by vectoring a uniformed patrol to the real business.

Anybody who insisted on personal service could get it by hammering at the Patrol entrance on the west side, opposite Jolober’s private staircase. A patrolman would find the noisemaker a personal holding cell for the remainder of the night.

The front entrance was built like a vault door, not so much to prevent intrusion as to keep drunks from destroying the panel for reasons they’d be unable to remember sober. Jolober palmed the release for the separate bolting systems and had just begun to swing the door open in invitation when the two men in khaki uniforms, neither of them tall, strode up to the building.

“Blood and Martyrs!” Jolober said as he continued to back, not entirely because the door required it.

“You run a tight base here, Commandant,” said Colonel Alois Hammer as he stepped into the waiting room. “Do you know my aide, Major Steuben?”

“By reputation only,” said Jolober, nodding to Joachim Steuben with the formal correctness which that reputation enjoined. “Ah—with a little more information, I might have relaxed the prohibition on weapons.”

Steuben closed the door behind them, moving the heavy panel with a control which belied the boyish delicacy of his face and frame. “If the colonel’s satisfied with his security,” Joachim said mildly, “then of course I am, too.”

The eyes above his smile would willingly have watched Jolober drawn and quartered.

“You’ve had some problems with troops of mine today,” said Hammer, seating himself on one of the chairs and rising again, almost as quickly as if he had continued to walk. His eyes touched Jolober and moved on in short hops that covered everything in the room like an animal checking a new environment.

“Only reported problems occurred,” said Jolober, keeping the promise he’d made earlier in the day. He lighted the hologram projection tank on the counter to let it warm up. “There was an incident a few hours ago, yes.”

The promise didn’t matter to Tad Hoffritz, not after the shootings; but it mattered more than life to Horace Jolober that he keep the bargains he’d made.

“According to Captain van Zuyle s report,” Hammer said as his eyes flickered over furniture and recesses dim under the partial lighting, “you’re of the opinion the boy was set up.”

“What you do with a gun,” said Joachim Steuben softly from the door against which he leaned, “is your own responsibility.”

“As Joachim says,” Hammer went on with a nod and no facial expression, “that doesn’t affect how we’ll deal with Captain Hoffritz when he’s released from local custody. But it does affect how we act to prevent recurrences, doesn’t it?”

“Load file Ike One into the downstairs holo,” said Jolober to Central.

He looked at Hammer, paused till their eyes met. “Sure, he was set up, just like half a dozen others in the past three months—only they were money assessments, no real problem.

“And the data prove,” Jolober continued coolly, claiming what his data suggested but could not prove, “that it’s going to get a lot worse than what happened tonight if Red Ike and his Dolls aren’t shipped out fast.”

The holotank sprang to life in a three-dimensional cross-hatching of orange lines. As abruptly, the lines shrank into words and columns of figures. “Red Ike and his Dolls—they were all his openly, then—first show up on Sparrow-home a little over five years standard ago, according to Bonding Authority records. Then—”

Jolober pointed toward the figures. Colonel Hammer put his smaller, equally firm, hand over the commandant’s and said, “Wait. Just give me your assessment.”

“Dolls have been imported as recreational support in seven conflicts,” said Jolober as calmly as if his mind had not just shifted gears. He’d been a good combat commander for the same reason, for dealing with the situation that occurred rather than the one he’d planned for. “There’s been rear-echelon trouble each time, and the riot on Ketelby caused the Bonding Authority to order the disbandment of a battalion of Guardforce O’Higgins.”

“There was trouble over a woman,” said Steuben unemotionally, reeling out the data he gathered because he was Hammer’s adjutant as well as his bodyguard. “A fight between a ranger and an artilleryman led to a riot in which half the nearest town was burned.”

“Not a woman,” corrected Jolober. “A Doll.”

He tapped the surface of the holotank. “It’s all here, downloaded from Bonding Authority archives. You just have to see what’s happening so you know the questions to ask.”

“You can get me a line to the capital?” Hammer asked as if he were discussing the weather. “I was in a hurry, and I didn’t bring along my usual commo.”

Jolober lifted the visiplate folded into the surface of the counter beside the holotank and rotated it toward Hammer.

“I’ve always preferred nonhumans for recreation areas,” Hammer said idly as his finger played over the plate’s keypad. “Oh, the troops complain, but I’ve never seen that hurt combat efficiency. Whereas real women gave all sorts of problems.”

“And real men,” said Joachim Steuben, with a deadpan expression that could have meant anything.

The visiplate beeped. “Main Switch,” said a voice, tart but not sleepy. “Go ahead.”

“You have my authorization code,” Hammer said to the human operator on the other end of the connection. From Jolober’s flat angle to the plate, he couldn’t make out the operator’s features—only that he sat in a brightly illuminated white cubicle. “Patch me through to the chairman of the Facilities Inspection Committee.”

‘”Senator Dieter?” said the operator, professionally able to keep the question short of being amazement.

“If he’s the chairman,” Hammer said. The words had the angry undertone of a dynamite fuse burning.

“Yessir, she is,” replied the operator with studied neutrality. “One moment, please.”

“I’ve been dealing with her chief aide,” said Jolober in a hasty whisper. “Guy named Higgey. His pager’s loaded—”

“Got you a long ways, didn’t it, Commandant?” Hammer said with a gun-turret click of his head toward Jolober.

“Your pardon, sir,” said Jolober, bracing reflexively to attention. He wasn’t Hammer’s subordinate, but they both served the same ideal—getting the job done. The ball was in Hammer’s court just now, and he’d ask for support if he thought he needed it.

From across the waiting room, Joachim Steuben smiled at Jolober. That one had the same ideal, perhaps; but his terms of reference were something else again.

“The senator isn’t at any of her registered work stations,” the operator reported coolly.

“Son,” said Hammer, leaning toward the visiplate, “you have a unique opportunity to lose the war for Placida. All you have to do is not get me through to the chairman.”

“Yes, Colonel Hammer,” the operator replied with an aplomb that made it clear why he held the job he did. “I’ve processed your authorization, and I’m running it through again on War Emergency Ord—”

The last syllable was clipped. The bright rectangle of screen dimmed gray. Jolober slid his chair in a short arc so that he could see the visiplate clearly past Hammer’s shoulder.

“What is it?” demanded the woman in the dim light beyond. She was stocky, middle-aged, and rather attractive because of the force of personality she radiated even sleepless in a dressing gown.

“This is Colonel Alois Hammer,” Hammer said. “Are you recording?”

“On this circuit?” the senator replied with a frosty smile. “Of course I am. So are at least three other agencies, whether I will or no.”

Hammer blinked, startled to find himself on the wrong end of a silly question for a change.

“Senator,” he went on without the hectoring edge that had been present since his arrival. “A contractor engaged by your government to provide services at Paradise Port has been causing problems. One of the L??g??re’s down, in critical, and I’m short a company commander over the same incident.”

“You’ve reported to the port commandant?” Senator Dieter said, her eyes unblinking as they passed over Jolober.

“The commandant reported to me because your staff stonewalled him,” Hammer said flatly while Jolober felt his skin grow cold, even the tips of the toes he no longer had. “I want the contractor, a nonhuman called Red Ike, off-planet in seventy-two hours with all his chattels. That specifically includes his Dolls. We’ll work—”

“That’s too soon,” said Dieter, her fingers tugging a lock of hair over one ear while her mind worked. “Even if—”

Forty-eight hours, Senator,” Hammer interrupted. “This is a violation of your bond. And I promise you, I’ll have the support of all the other commanders of units contracted to Placidan service. Forty-eight hours, or we’ll withdraw from combat and you won’t have a front line.”

“You can’t—” Dieter began. Then all muscles froze, tongue and fingers among them, as her mind considered the implications of what the colonel had just told her.

“I have no concern over being able to win my case at the Bonding Authority hearing on Earth,” Hammer continued softly. “But I’m quite certain that the present Placidan government won’t be there to contest it.”

Dieter smiled without humor. “Seventy-two hours,” she said as if repeating the figure.

“I’ve shifted the Regiment across continents in less time, Senator,” Hammer said.

“Yes,” said Dieter calmly. “Well, there are political consequences to any action, and I’d rather explain myself to my constituents than to an army of occupation. I’ll take care of it.”

She broke the circuit.

“I wouldn’t mind getting to know that lady,” said Hammer, mostly to himself, as he folded the visiplate back into the counter.

“That takes care of your concerns, then?” he added sharply, looking up at Jolober.

“Yes, sir, it does,” said Jolober, who had the feeling he had drifted into a plane where dreams could be happy.

“Ah, about Captain Hoffritz . . .” Hammer said. His eyes slipped, but he snapped them back to meet Jolober’s despite the embarrassment of being about to ask a favor.

“He’s not combat-fit right now, Colonel,” Jolober said, warming as authority flooded back to fill his mind. “He’ll do as well in our care for the next few days as he would in yours. After that, and assuming that no one wants to press charges—”

“Understood,” said Hammer, nodding. “I’ll deal with the victim and General Claire.”

“—then some accommodation can probably be arranged with the courts.”

“It’s been a pleasure dealing with a professional of your caliber, Commandant,” Hammer said as he shook Jolober’s hand. He spoke without emphasis, but nobody meeting his cool blue eyes could have imagined that Hammer would have bothered to lie about it.

“It’s started to rain,” observed Major Steuben as he muscled the door open.

“It’s permitted to,” Hammer said. “We’ve been wet be—”

“A jeep to the front of the building,” Jolober ordered with his ring finger crooked. He straightened and said, “Ah, Colonel? Unless you’d like to be picked up by one of your own vehicles?”

“Nobody knows I’m here,” said Hammer from the doorway. “I don’t want van Zuyle to think I’m second-guessing him—I’m not, I’m just handling the part that’s mine to handle.”

He paused before adding with an ironic smile, “In any case, we’re four hours from exploiting the salient Hoffritz’s company formed when they took the junction at Kettering.”

A jeep with two patrolmen, stunners ready, scraped to a halt outside. The team was primed for a situation like the one in the alley less than an hour before.

“Taxi service only, boys,” Jolober called to the patrolmen. “Carry these gentlemen to their courier ship, please.”

The jeep was spinning away in the drizzle before Jolober had closed and locked the door again. It didn’t occur to him that it mattered whether or not the troops bivouacked around Paradise Port knew immediately what Hammer had just arranged.

And it didn’t occur to him, as he bounced his chair up the stairs calling, “Vicki! We’ve won!” that he should feel any emotion except joy.

“Vicki!” he repeated as he opened the bedroom door. They’d have to leave Placida unless he could get Vicki released from the blanket order on Dolls—but he hadn’t expected to keep his job anyway, not after he went over the head of the whole Placidan government.

“Vi—”

She’d left a light on, one of the point sources in the ceiling. It was a shock, but not nearly as bad a shock as Jolober would have gotten if he’d slid onto the bed in the dark.

“Who?” his tongue asked while his mind couldn’t think of anything to say, could only move his chair to the bedside and palm the hydraulics to lower him into a sitting position.

Her right hand and forearm were undamaged. She flexed her fingers and the keen plastic blade shot from her fist, then collapsed again into a baton. She let it roll onto the bedclothes.

“He couldn’t force me to kill you,” Vicki said. “He was very surprised, very . . .”

Jolober thought she might be smiling, but he couldn’t be sure since she no longer had lips. The plastic edges of the knife Vicki took as she dressed him were not sharp enough for finesse, but she had not attempted surgical delicacy.

Vicki had destroyed herself from her toes to her once-perfect face. All she had left was one eye with which to watch Jolober, and the parts of her body which she couldn’t reach unaided. She had six ribs to a side, broader and flatter than those of a human skeleton. After she laid open the ribs, she had dissected the skin and flesh of the left side farther.

Jolober had always assumed—when he let himself think about it—that her breasts were sponge implants. He’d been wrong. On the bedspread lay a wad of yellowish fat streaked with blood vessels. He didn’t have a background that would tell him whether or not it was human normal, but it certainly was biological.

It was a tribute to Vicki’s toughness that she had remained alive as long as she had.

Instinct turned Jolober’s head to the side so that he vomited away from the bed. He clasped Vicki’s right hand with both of his, keeping his eyes closed so that he could imagine that everything was as it had been minutes before when he was triumphantly happy. His left wrist brushed the knife that should have remained an inert baton in any hands but his. He snatched up the weapon, feeling the blade flow out—

As it had when Vicki held it, turned it on herself.

“We are one, my Horace,” she whispered, her hand squeezing his.

It was the last time she spoke, but Jolober couldn’t be sure of that because his mind had shifted out of the present into a cosmos limited to the sense of touch: body-warm plastic in his left hand, and flesh cooling slowly in his right.

He sat in his separate cosmos for almost an hour, until the emergency call on his mastoid implant threw him back into an existence where his life had purpose.

“All units!” cried a voice on the panic push. “The—”

The blast of static which drowned the voice lasted only a fraction of a second before the implant’s logic circuits shut the unit down to keep the white noise from driving Jolober mad. The implant would be disabled as long as the jamming continued—but jamming of this intensity would block even the most sophisticated equipment in the Slammers’ tanks.

Which were probably carrying out the jamming.

Jolober’s hand slipped the knife away without thinking—with fiery determination not to think—as his stump kicked the chair into life and he glided toward the alley stairs. He was still dressed, still mounted in his saddle, and that was as much as he was willing to know about his immediate surroundings.

The stairs rang. The thrust of his fans was a fitful gust on the metal treads each time he bounced on his way to the ground.

The voice could have been Feldman at the gate; she was the most likely source anyway. At the moment, Jolober had an emergency.

In a matter of minutes, it could be a disaster instead.

It was raining, a nasty drizzle which distorted the invitations capering on the building fronts. The street was empty except for a pair of patrol jeeps, bubbles in the night beneath canopies that would stop most of the droplets.

Even this weather shouldn’t have kept soldiers from scurrying from one establishment to another, hoping to change their luck when they changed location. Overhanging facades ought to have been crowded with morose troopers, waiting for a lull—or someone drunk or angry enough to lead an exodus toward another empty destination.

The emptiness would have worried Jolober if he didn’t have much better reasons for concern. The vehicles sliding down the street from the gate were unlighted, but there was no mistaking the roar of a tank.

Someone in the China Doll heard and understood the sound also, because the armored door squealed down across the archway even as Jolober’s chair lifted him in that direction at high thrust.

He braked in a spray. The water-slicked pavement didn’t affect his control, since the chair depended on thrust rather than friction—but being able to stop didn’t give him any ideas about how he should proceed.

One of the patrol jeeps swung in front of the tank with a courage and panache which made Jolober proud of his men. The patrolman on the passenger side had ripped the canopy away to stand waving a yellow light-wand with furious determination.

The tank did not slow. It shifted direction just enough to strike the jeep a glancing blow instead of center-punching it. That didn’t spare the vehicle; its light frame crumpled like tissue before it resisted enough to spin across the pavement at twice the velocity of the slowly advancing tank. The slight adjustment in angle did save the patrolmen, who were thrown clear instead of being ground between concrete and the steel skirts.

The tank’s scarred turret made it identifiable in the light of the building fronts. Jolober crooked his finger and shouted, “Commandant to Corporal Days. For the Lord’s sake, trooper, don’t get your unit disbanded for mutiny! Colonel Hammer’s already gotten Red Ike ordered off-planet!”

There was no burp from his mastoid as Central retransmitted the message a microsecond behind the original. Only then did Jolober recall that the Slammers had jammed his communications.

Not the Slammers alone. The two vehicles behind the tank were squat armored personnel carriers, each capable of hauling an infantry section with all its equipment. Nobody had bothered to paint out the fender markings of the Division L??g??re.

Rain stung Jolober’s eyes as he hopped the last five meters to the sealed facade of the China Doll. Anything could be covered, could be settled, except murder—and killing Red Ike would be a murder of which the Bonding Authority would have to take cognizance.

“Let me in!” Jolober shouted to the door. The armor was so thick that it didn’t ring when he pounded it. “Let me—”

Normally the sound of a mortar firing was audible for a kilometer, a hollow shoomp! like a firecracker going off in an oil drum. Jolober hadn’t heard the launch from beyond the perimeter because of the nearby roar of drive fans.

When the round went off on the roof of the China Doll, the charge streamed tendrils of white fire down as far as the pavement, where they pocked the concrete. The snake-pit coruscance of blue sparks lighting the roof a moment later was the battery pack of Red Ike’s aircar shorting through the new paths the mortar shell had burned in the car’s circuitry.

The mercs were playing for keeps. They hadn’t come to destroy the China Doll and leave its owner to rebuild somewhere else.

The lead tank swung in the street with the cautious delicacy of an elephant wearing a hoopskirt. Its driving lights blazed on, silhouetting the port commandant against the steel door. Jolober held out his palm in prohibition, knowing that if he could delay events even a minute, Red Ike would escape through his tunnel.

Everything else within the China Doll was a chattel which could be compensated with money.

There was a red flash and a roar from the stern of the tank, then an explosion muffled by a meter of concrete and volcanic rock. Buildings shuddered like sails in a squall; the front of the port offices cracked as its fabric was placed under a flexing strain that concrete was never meant to resist.

The rocket-assisted penetrators carried by the Slammers’ tanks were intended to shatter bunkers of any thickness imaginable in the field. Red Ike’s bolthole was now a long cavity filled with chunks and dust of the material intended to protect it.

The tanks had very good detection equipment, and combat troops live to become veterans by observing their surroundings. Quite clearly, the tunnel had not escaped notice when Tad Hoffritz led his company down the street to hoo-rah Paradise Port.

“Wait!” Jolober shouted, because there’s always a chance until there’s no chance at all.

“Get out of the way, Commandant!” boomed the tank’s public address system, loudly enough to seem an echo of the penetrator’s earth-shock.

“Colonel Hammer has—” Jolober shouted.

“We’d as soon not hurt you,” the speakers roared as the turret squealed ten degrees on its gimbals. The main gun’s bore was a 20cm tube aligned perfectly with Jolober’s eyes.

They couldn’t hear him; they wouldn’t listen if they could; and anyway, the troopers involved in this weren’t interested in contract law. They wanted justice, and to them that didn’t mean a ticket off-planet for Red Ike.

The tribarrel in the tank’s cupola fired a single shot. The bolt of directed energy struck the descending arch just in front of Jolober and gouged the plastic away in fire and black smoke. Bits of the covering continued to burn, and the underlying concrete added an odor of hot lime to the plastic and the ozone of the bolt’s track through the air.

Jolober’s miniature vehicle thrust him away in a flat arc, out of the door alcove and sideways in the street as a powergun fired from a port concealed in the China Doll’s facade. The tank’s main gun demolished the front wall with a single round.

The street echoed with the thunderclap of cold air filling the track seared through it by the energy bolt. The pistol shot an instant earlier could almost have been a proleptic reflection, confused in memory with the sun-bright cyan glare of the tank cannon—and, by being confused, forgotten.

Horace Jolober understood the situation too well to mistake its events. The shot meant Red Ike was still in the China Doll, trapped there and desperate enough to issue his Droid’s lethal weapons that must have been difficult even for him to smuggle into Paradise Port.

Desperate and foolish, because the pistol bolt had only flicked dust from the tank’s iridium turret. Jolober had warned Red Ike that combat troops played by a different rulebook. The message just hadn’t been received until it was too late. . . .

Jolober swung into the three-meter alley beside the China Doll. There was neither an opening here nor ornamentation, just the blank concrete wall of a fortress.

Which wouldn’t hold for thirty seconds if the combat team out front chose to assault it.

The tank had fired at the building front, not the door. The main gun could have blasted a hole in the armor, but that wouldn’t have been a large enough entrance for the infantry now deploying behind the armored flanks of the APCs.

The concrete wall shattered like a bomb when it tried to absorb the point-blank energy of the 20cm gun. The cavity the shot left was big enough to pass a jeep with a careful driver. Infantrymen in battle armor, hunched over their weapons, dived into the China Doll. The interior lit with cyan flashes as they shot everything that moved.

The exterior lighting had gone out, but flames clawed their way up the thermoplastic facade. The fire threw a red light onto the street in which shadows of smoke capered like demons. Drips traced blazing lines through the air as they fell to spatter troops waiting their turn for a chance to kill.

The assault didn’t require a full infantry platoon, but few operations have failed because the attackers had too many troops.

Jolober had seen the equivalent too often to doubt how it was going to go this time. He didn’t have long; very possibly he didn’t have long enough.

Standing parallel to the sheer sidewall, Jolober ran his fans up to full power, then clamped the plenum chamber into a tight nozzle and lifted. His left hand paddled against the wall three times. That gave him balance and the suggestion of added thrust to help his screaming fans carry out a task for which they hadn’t been designed.

When his palm touched the coping, Jolober used the contact to center him, and rotated onto the flat roof of the China Doll.

Sparks spat peevishly from the corpse of the aircar. The vehicle’s frame was a twisted wire sculpture from which most of the sheathing material had burned away, but occasionally the breeze brought oxygen to a scrap that was still combustible.

The penthouse that held Ike’s office and living quarters was a squat box beyond the aircar. The mortar shell had detonated just as the alien started to run for his vehicle.

He’d gotten back inside as the incendiary compound sprayed the roof, but bouncing fragments left black trails across the plush blue floor of the office.

The door was a section of wall broad enough to have passed the aircar. Red Ike hadn’t bothered to close it when he fled to his elevator and the tunnel exit. Jolober, skimming again on ground effect, slid into the office shouting, “Ike! This—”

Red Ike burst from the elevator cage as the door rotated open. He had a pistol and eyes as wide as a madman’s as he swung the weapon toward the hulking figure in his office.

Jolober reacted as the adrenaline pumping through his body had primed him to do. The arm with which he swatted at the pistol was long enough that his fingers touched the barrel, strong enough that the touch hurled the gun across the room despite Red Ike’s deathgrip on the butt.

Red Ike screamed.

An explosion in the elevator shaft wedged the elevator doors as they began to close and burped orange flame against the far wall.

Jolober didn’t know how the assault team proposed to get to the roof, but neither did he intend to wait around to learn. He wrapped both arms around the stocky alien and shouted, “Shut up and hold still if you want to get out of here alive!”

Red Ike froze, either because he understood the warning—or because at last he recognized Horace Jolober and panicked to realize that the port commandant had already disarmed him.

Jolober lifted the alien and turned his chair. It glided toward the door at gathering speed, logy with the double burden.

There was another blast from the office. The assault team had cleared the elevator shaft with a cratering charge whose directed blast sprayed the room with the bits and vapors that remained of the cage. Grenades would be next, then grappling hooks and more grenades just before—

Jolober kicked his throttle as he rounded the aircar. The fans snarled and the ride, still on ground effect, became greasy as the skirts lifted undesirably.

The office rocked in a series of dense white flashes. The room lights went out and a large piece of shrapnel, the fuze housing of a grenade, powdered a fist-sized mass of the concrete coping beside Jolober.

His chair’s throttle had a gate. With the fans already at normal maximum, he sphinctered his skirts into a nozzle and kicked again at the throttle. He could smell the chair’s circuits frying under the overload as it lifted Jolober and Red Ike to the coping—

But it did lift them, and after a meter’s run along the narrow track to build speed, it launched them across the black, empty air of the alley.

Red Ike wailed. The only sound Horace Jolober made was in his mind. He saw not a roof but the looming bow of a tank, and his fears shouted the word they hadn’t been able to get out on Primavera either: “No!”

They cleared the coping of the other roof with a click, not a crash, and bounced as Jolober spilled air and cut thrust back to normal levels.

An explosion behind them lit the night red and blew chunks of Red Ike’s office a hundred meters in the air.

Instead of trying to winkle out their quarry with gunfire, the assault team had lobbed a bunker-buster up the elevator shaft. The blast walloped Jolober even though distance and the pair of meter-high concrete copings protected his hunching form from dangerous fragments.

Nothing in the penthouse of the China Doll could have survived. It wasn’t neat, but it saved lives where they counted—in the attacking force—and veteran soldiers have never put a high premium on finesse.

“You saved me,” Red Ike said.

Jolober’s ears were numb from the final explosion, but he could watch Red Ike’s lips move in the flames lifting even higher from the front of the China Doll.

“I had to,” Jolober said, marvelling at how fully human the alien seemed.

“Those men, they’re line soldiers. They think that because there were so many of them involved, nobody can be punished.”

Hatches rang shut on the armored personnel carriers.

A noncom snarled an order to stragglers that could be heard even over the drive fans.

Red Ike started toward the undamaged aircar parked beside them on this roof. Jolober’s left hand still held the alien’s wrist. Ike paused as if to pretend his movement had never taken place. His face was emotionless.

“Numbers made it a mutiny,” Jolober continued. Part of him wondered whether Red Ike could hear the words he was speaking in a soft voice, but he was unwilling to shout.

It would have been disrespectful.

Fierce wind rocked the flames as the armored vehicles, tank in the lead as before, lifted and began to howl their way out of Paradise Port.

“I’ll take care of you,” Red Ike said. “You’ll have Vicki back in three weeks, I promise. Tailored to you, just like the other. You won’t be able to tell the difference.”

“There’s no me to take care of anymore,” said Horace Jolober with no more emotion than a man tossing his uniform into a laundry hamper.

“You see,” he added as he reached behind him, “if they’d killed you tonight, the Bonding Authority would have disbanded both units whatever the Placidans wanted. But me? Anything I do is my responsibility.”

Red Ike began to scream in a voice that became progressively less human as the sound continued.

Horace Jolober was strong enough that he wouldn’t have needed the knife despite the way his victim struggled.

But it seemed like a fitting monument for Vicki.

M91A COMBAT CAR

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