A DEATH IN PEACETIME

The brothel was too upscale to have an armored street entrance, but the doorman was a wall of solid muscle beneath a frock coat in the latest style. He frowned when the nondescript aircar hummed to a halt in front of the door.

Four hard-looking men got out. Hesitating only long enough to press the button warning those upstairs to keep an eye on the closed-circuit screen, the doorman stepped into the street. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” he said, “but we’re closed tonight for a private party. Perhaps—”

“We’re the party, buddy,” one of the men said, placing himself alongside the doorman while his partner took the other side. The other two men faced the street in opposite directions. All four wore short capes which concealed their hands and whatever they might be holding.

A fifth man, small and dapper, followed the others out of the car. His suit was exquisitely tailored. The fabric had tawny dappling on the shoulders which faded imperceptibly into the gray undertone as one’s eye travelled downward.

The man nodded pleasantly toward the doorman and started toward the stairs. Movement lifted the tail of his jacket enough to disclose the pistol holstered high on his right hip.

“I’m sorry, sir!” the doorman said. “We don’t allow guns—”

He tried to step in front of the little man. The guards to either side of him—they were obviously guards—shoved him back against the wall.

“You’re making an exception tonight,” the little man said. His shoes touched the stair treads with the tsk-tsk-tsk of a whisk broom sweeping up ashes; the men who’d initially stayed with the car followed him. “I promise I won’t tell anybody.”

Madame opened the upper stairway door to let the little man into the parlor. Straight-backed and dressed in severe black, she was the only woman in the establishment. In the muted lighting which the mirrors diffused rather than multiplied, she might’ve been anything from forty years old to twice that age.

Her face was stony and her tone coldly furious. “You have no business here!” she said. “We have all our licenses. Everything is perfectly legal!”

Six youths had been reclining on couches of plush and dark wood. They’d sprung to their feet when the doorman gave the alarm. Though Madame had gestured them back to their places, they still had the look of startled fawns.

The barman and waiter had retreated into their small lounge off the parlor. The usher had slipped into the back hallway so recently that the door was still swinging shut.

All three had the size and hard features of the doorman. The waiter in particular looked upset at being ordered away, but Madame had reacted instantly when she recognized the visitor in the closed-circuit image from the street door. No matter how badly things went, she knew she’d make things worse if she used force.

It was possible that things were going to go very badly.

“Everything legal?” the little man said. He giggled. “Oh, I very much doubt that, my dear. I suspect that we wouldn’t have to search very hard to find drugs that’re illegal even in these unsettled times, and . . .”

He stepped past Madame and traced his left index finger along the jawline of a youth as slim as a willow sapling. The boy didn’t flinch away, but when the finger withdrew he shuddered. His head was a mass of gleaming black ringlets; all other hair had been carefully removed from his nude body.

” . . . I’m quite sure that some of your staff is under age.”

He turned and faced Madame. “That’s why I’m here, you see. I’ve come on your business, not mine, and I assure you my money’s good.”

The boy he’d caressed looked like an ivory carving against the red velvet upholstery. His expression was unreadable. “You’re Joachim Steuben,” he said.

“Rafe!” said Madame in a harsh, desperate whisper.

“You kill people,” Rafe said. He didn’t seem to have heard Madame. His eyes were locked with the little man’s. “You killed thousands of people other places, and now you’re on Nieuw Friesland.”

“Rafe, if you don’t—” Madame said.

“I’ll quiet him!” the waiter said. He stepped out of the lounge, his fists bunched.

The little man made a barely perceptible gesture. One of the guards who’d come up with him clipped the waiter behind the ear with the edge of his hand, dropping him in a boneless heap.

“I don’t know about ‘thousands’, Rafe,” the little man said without glancing back at the waiter. “I’m Joachim Steuben, though.”

He giggled. “And perhaps thousands, yes. One loses track, you know.”

Rafe rose in an eel-like wriggle. Joachim held out his hand, but the boy slipped past and through the door into the back hall.

Madame stood transfixed, her mouth open, then closing again. Touching her lips with her tongue she said at last, “Sir, I’ll bring him back if you’ll permit me. Rafe’s new here, you see, and a little. . . .”

She didn’t know how to end the phrase, so her voice trailed off.

Another boy rose as if to follow. He was black-haired also, but his skin was darker and he was probably several years older.

“Felipe,” Madame said, gesturing urgently but continuing to watch Joachim.

Felipe sat down again reluctantly. “Rafe’s brother was killed last month so he had to come here,” he said to Joachim. “He’s a sweet boy, please?”

“My name’s Sharls, Baron Steuben,” said the muscular youth on the next couch. His naturally blond hair was so fine that it clung to his scalp like a halo. “I won’t run away from you.”

Joachim glanced at Sharls’ erection. “Indeed,” he said. “Well, we’ll see how things develop.”

The waiter began to groan. The guard who’d slugged him gestured. The barman came out warily, gripped the waiter by collar and belt, and dragged him into the lounge. His eyes never left the grinning guard.

“Can I get you some refreshment, Baron Steuben?” Madame said, raising an eyebrow. “Or something for the gentlemen with you?”

She’d recognized her guest instantly, though she’d have preferred that he remain formally incognito. If Steuben’s name hadn’t been spoken, they could all pretend afterwards that this evening had never occurred.

“Those gentlemen are working,” Joachim said. He seated himself on the couch Rafe had vacated. His movements were so supple that they appeared relaxed to a casual observer. “I’ll have some light wine while I consider the rest of the evening, though.”

Steuben had been the bodyguard and enforcer of Colonel Alois Hammer while the latter was a mercenary leader. Hammer, originally from Nieuw Friesland himself, had returned in the pay of one of the contenders in a presidential race turned violent. When his employer had been killed, supposedly by a stray pistol shot, Hammer himself had become president of Nieuw Friesland.

At Hammer’s inauguration the former Major Joachim Steuben had become Baron Steuben, Director of Security for Nieuw Friesland. Joachim remained, as anyone who looked into his eyes could tell, the same sociopathic killer he’d been since birth.

“Of course, sir,” said Madame, turning toward the barman with birdlike quickness. “Some Graceling, Kedrick! Red Seal, mind you.”

He was already reaching beneath the bar. The nearer guard watched the barman’s movements intently, but he rose cradling a fat, fluted bottle.

“Come here, Felipe dearest,” Joachim said, smiling as he crooked a finger toward the black-haired boy. “You can help me drink my wine.”

A panel concealed as a pilaster between two mirrors opened. Rafe stood in the doorway, still nude but pointing a heavy service pistol in both hands at Joachim.

“You bastard!” he screamed. “You killed my brother!”

Rafe’s head exploded in a cyan flash. The whack! of the shot that killed him was echoed an instant later as the boy’s finger spasmed on the trigger of his own weapon. It blasted a similar bolt of copper plasma into the molding above where Joachim had been sitting. Rafe’s body thrashed into the center of the parlor.

The air was hazy. Plaster dust, ozone from the pistol bolts, and the stench of Rafe’s voided bowels combined to grip the guts of those who breathed it. A red-haired youth with the face of a cherub looked stricken. He tried to cover his mouth with his hands but only succeeded in deflecting the surge of vomit back over himself.

Joachim stood with his back to the wall, his pistol raised at a slight angle. Its iridium muzzle glowed white; he wouldn’t be able to holster it again until it cooled. Not even the guards, crouching horror-struck with their submachine guns openly displayed, had seen him draw and shoot.

He looked at Rafe and giggled. “And now I’ve killed you, too,” he said.

The 1cm plasma bolt had hit the boy between the eyes. At this short range, its energy had turned the boy’s brain to steam and ruptured the skull.

Joachim gently toed the pistol from Rafe’s hand. “Where do you suppose he got this?” he said. “It’s standard military issue, but he scarcely seems a soldier.”

One of the guards snatched Rafe’s pistol up in his left hand and wheeled to put his submachine gun in Madame’s face. “Where did he get it, bitch?” he shouted. “I’ll kill you anyway, but you get to decide if it’s fast or slow!”

“Calm down, Detrich,” Joachim said. “There’s no harm done, after all. But—”

He looked pointedly around the room. Even before the shooting his eyes had continually flicked from one side to the other, never resting.

“—I do need to know where the weapon came from.”

Joachim’s pistol had cooled below red heat, but he still didn’t holster it. It was similar to Rafe’s weapon, but the receiver was carved and filled with golden, silvery, and richly purple inlays.

“Rafe’s brother was captain of Baron Herscholdt’s bodyguards,” the boy Felipe said unexpectedly. “Rafe lived with him. Rafe loved his brother.”

“I’ll check the serial number,” said the guard holding the pistol, calm and professional again. He dropped the weapon into a side pocket attached to the armored vest he wore under his cape.

“Sir . . .” Madame said. Her legs slowly buckled; she looked like she was kneeling to pray, but her posture may simply have been the result of weakness. “Sir, I beg you, I didn’t know. I didn’t have any idea . . .”

“You’re a monster,” Felipe said. He’d gotten to his feet when Joachim summoned him. He remained where he’d been at the moment of the shot, one foot advanced. “You’ll burn in Hell.”

Madame turned to look over her shoulder. “Felipe,” she said. “For God’s sake, shut up!”

“You’ve never done a decent thing in your life!” Felipe said, his face distorted in a rictus of fear and loathing. Tears ran down his cheeks, but his eyes were open and staring. “Not one thing!”

Felipe!” Madame shouted.

The guard who’d been watching Madame when Rafe opened the door behind him now muttered, “Punk bastard.” He stepped forward, raising his submachine gun to smash the butt of it down on the boy’s face.

“Painter, I’ll handle this,” Joachim said. He didn’t raise his voice, but the guard jerked back as though he’d been struck.

Felipe’s lips moved, but the words had stopped coming out. Joachim walked closer.

“You’re too sure of me on short acquaintance,” he said, tracing the curve of the boy’s jaw with the tip of his left index finger. He giggled again. “But you may be right at that.”

“Baron . . .” Sharls said. He hadn’t moved during the shooting. “Take me, Baron. Take me now.”

Joachim looked at the blond youth without expression, then let his eyes travel over Madame and each of her boys in turn. “I could kill you all,” he said. “Nobody would even care. I could kill almost anyone and nobody’d say a word. But tonight I don’t think I will.”

He put his left hand, as delicate as a woman’s, on Felipe’s shoulder. “Come along, boy,” he said. “I prefer to transact our business in privacy.”

As Joachim walked into the back hallway, his fingers on the boy’s pale flesh, he holstered his pistol. The motion was as smooth and graceful as that of a lizard snatching a fly.

Whitey Bernsdorf jiggled the earthenware brandy bottle; it made a hollow rattle. He set it back on the workbench they were using for a table and said morosely, “We just about killed it, Spence, and Sally’s going to be closed by now. Via, she’ll be asleep.”

“Then we’ll wake her up, won’t we?” Spencer growled. “Bloody hell, Whitey. It’s not like we don’t have real problems that you have to borrow more!”

Someone knocked on the sliding back door of the garage; not loud, but sharply. The men looked up, momentarily very still. “Go the hell away!” Spencer called.

The door opened. The man who stepped in wore a distortion cape which blurred his face and torso into a smoky haze.

Whitey got up and walked across the shop to his toolchest, moving with quick economy. Spencer remained seated, but he picked up the brandy bottle by the neck. He was balding and heavy, but much less of his weight was fat than a stranger might’ve guessed.

“You’ve come to the wrong place, buddy,” Spencer said. “Go rob somebody else.”

“I’m here to offer you money, not rob you,” the figure said. The voice was male; the cape concealed even the sex. “I want you to kill a man for me.”

The toolchest’s lower right-hand drawer slid open when Whitey thumbed the lock, but he didn’t pick up the pistol nested in foam within. Instead he glanced at Spencer, the first time his eyes had left the stranger.

Spencer laughed harshly and set the bottle down. “We’re outa that business,” he said. “I bought this garage with my retirement bonus. Come back in the morning and see our grand opening. We’ll get your aircar running the way it ought to.”

“I’m his wrench,” Whitey said proudly. He hesitated, then closed the drawer over the gun. “I never could keep two trissies rubbing together in my pocket, but I’ll balance your fans so you think it’s a new car.”

“You’ll be sold up before the year’s out, Sergeant Spencer,” the stranger said calmly. “It’ll take six months to build your clientele, and your suppliers will keep you on cash terms for at least that long. You’ve spent your entire savings buying the operation, so you don’t have a cushion to see you through.”

Spencer stood, gripping the bottle again. “Look, buddy,” he said. “I told you to stay out, and now I’m telling you to get out. I won’t tell you again.”

“You know it’s the truth,” the stranger said. “That’s why you’re getting drunk tonight. The money I’ll pay you will see you through.”

Whitey stared at the blurred shape, then frowned and said to his partner, “Seems like we could talk to him, Spence. Right?”

Spencer’s knuckles mottled as he squeezed the earthenware; then he relaxed and set the bottle down. “This is political?” he said in a challenging voice.

“Not for me,” said the stranger. “It’s purely personal. For somebody else it might be political, though.”

His shrug beneath the cape looked like watching fog swirl. “I’ll pay you a hundred thousand thalers for the job,” he added in the same cool tone as everything else he’d said since he entered the garage.

“Are you crazy?” Whitey said. “Or is this some bloody game? There’s so many guns around now that you can get a man killed for three hundred, not a hundred thousand!”

“Not this man,” the stranger said. His left hand came out from under his cape with a holochip which he set on the table. He wore a pale gray glove, so thin that it could’ve been a second skin.

He squeezed the chip to activate it, then withdrew his hand. The two ex-soldiers stared at the image in disbelief.

“It’s a trap, Spence!” Whitey said. He reached for the toolchest again, but he couldn’t find the print-activated lock with his thumb. “He’s setting us up for the chop!”

The stranger turned. “You little fool,” he said. The cape concealed his features, but his tone of poisonous scorn was unmistakable. “How do you think you’re worth setting up? If you were worth killing, you’d have been shot out of hand. He would’ve shot you himself!”

Whitey banged the heel of his hand on the toolchest and scowled. “It’s still crazy!” he said, but his voice had dropped from a shout to an embarrassed mutter.

Spencer prodded the holochip with a thick, hairy index finger, then looked up at the stranger’s smoky face. “Why do you want him dead?” he said. His voice was suddenly husky and soft, as though he’d just awakened.

“I told you,” said the stranger. He shrugged. “Personal reasons.”

“It happens I’ve got personal reasons, too,” Spencer said. “He shot a buddy of mine on Dunderberg for thinking there was better use for a warehouse of good liquor than burning it. That was twelve years ago; hell, fourteen. But it’s a good reason.”

“Robbie shouldn’t have gone for his gun, Spence,” Whitey said sadly. “He’d been into that whiskey already or he’d have known better.”

“Did I ask your opinion?” Spencer said. “Just belt up, Whitey! D’you hear me? Belt up!”

“Sorry, Spence,” the mechanic said in a low voice. He pretended to study the travelling hoist latched against the wall of the garage.

“Anyway,” Spencer said, his voice harsh again, “it don’t matter what your reasons are, or mine either. It can’t be done. Not without taking out a couple square blocks, and even then I wouldn’t trust the bastard not to wriggle clear. I don’t care how much money you promise.”

“I’ll guarantee you a clean shot at the target,” the stranger said. He made a sound that might have been meant for laughter. “You won’t be close, but you’ll have a clear line of sight. Then it’s just a matter of whether you’re good enough.”

“I don’t believe it,” Whitey said. “I don’t believe it.”

The stranger shrugged. “I’ll give you a day to think about it,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

He paused in the doorway and looked back at them. “He has to die, you know,” he said in his soft, precise voice. “Has to.”

Then he was gone, sliding the door closed behind him.

Spencer lifted the bottle to his lips and finished it in a gulp. “I’m good enough, Whitey,” he said. “But bloody hell. . . .” They stared at the fist-sized image of Joachim Steuben projected by the holochip.

Danny Pritchard stood at the balcony railing, looking out over Landfall City. A few fires smudged the clear night, and once his eye caught the familiar cyan flash of a powergun bolt somewhere in the capital’s street. Those were merely incidents of city life: the real fighting had been over for nearly a month.

Danny’d been born on Dunstan, a farming world where everybody was pretty much equal: equally in debt to the Combine of off-planet merchants who bought Dunstan’s wheat and shipped it to hungry neighboring worlds at a fat profit. Nobody on Dunstan would’ve known what a baron was except as a name out of a book, so for that whimsical reason Danny’d refused the title of Baron when President Hammer offered it to him. He was simply Mister Daniel Pritchard, Director of Administration for Nieuw Friesland.

Danny hadn’t been back to Dunstan since he left thirty-odd standard years before. His homeworld was a peaceful place. It didn’t need soldiers, and until he took off his uniform on the day Colonel Hammer became President Hammer, Danny Pritchard had been a soldier.

Nobody on Dunstan could’ve afforded to pay Hammer’s Slammers anyway. The Slammers weren’t cheap, but in cases where victory was the difference between having a future or not . . . well, what was life worth?

“Danny?” Margritte said, coming out onto the balcony with him. She’d put a robe over her nightgown. He hadn’t bothered with clothing; the autumn chill helped bring his thoughts into perfect clarity.

That didn’t help, of course. When there’s no way out, there’s little pleasure in having a clear view of your own doom.

“Just going over things,” Danny said, smiling at his wife. He wished that she hadn’t awakened. “I didn’t mean to get you up, too.”

Margritte had been as good a communications officer as there was in the Slammers, and as good a wife to him as ever a soldier had. There was nothing she could do now except give him one more problem to worry about.

Danny chuckled. No, when you really came down to it, he had only one real problem. Unfortunately, that one was insoluble.

“You’re worried about Steuben, aren’t you,” Margritte said. The words weren’t a question.

“Joachim, yes,” Danny said, following the path of a low-flying aircar. It was probably a police patrol. The repeal of the ban on private aircars in Landfall City wouldn’t come into effect till the end of the month, though a few citizens were anticipating it.

They were taking more of a risk than they probably realized. There were still military patrols out, and the Slammers’ motto wasn’t so much “Preserve and Protect” as “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

Danny grinned faintly. Troops blasting wealthy citizens out of the sky would make more problems for the Directorate of Administration, but relatively minor ones. A number of Nieuw Friesland’s wealthy citizens had been gunned down in the recent past—the former owners of this palace among them.

He had a breathtaking view from this balcony. The palace was a rambling two-story structure, but it was built on the ridge overlooking Landfall City from the south. It’d belonged to Baron Herscholdt, the man who’d regarded himself as the power behind President van Vorn’s throne though he stayed out of formal politics.

Herscholdt was out of life, now; he and his wife as well, because she’d gotten in the way when a squad of White Mice, the security troops under the direct command of Major Steuben, came for the baron.

Danny was used to being billeted in palaces. He was even used to the faint smell of burned flesh remaining even after the foyer’d been washed down with lye. What he wasn’t used to was owning the palace; which he did, for as long as he lived. It was one of the perquisites of his government position.

For as long as he lived.

“Steuben has to go,” Margritte said, hugging herself against more than the evening chill. “Can’t the colonel see that? There’s no place for him anymore.”

“Joachim’s completely loyal,” Danny said. He tried to put an arm around his wife. Now she flinched away, too tense for even that contact. “He won’t permit the existence of anything that threatens the colonel.”

Danny sighed. “That works in a war zone,” he said, letting out the words that’d spun in his mind for weeks. “We go in and then we leave. The people who hired us can blame everything that happened on us evil mercenaries. Then they can get on with governing without the bother of the folks who’d have been in opposition if we hadn’t shot them.”

Margritte shook her head angrily. “Maybe it’ll work here too,” she said. Her voice was thick, and Danny thought he caught the gleam of starlight on a tear. He looked away quickly.

“President Hammer isn’t leaving this time,” he explained quietly. “Shooting everybody who might be a threat will only work if you’re willing to kill about ninety percent of the population.”

He barked a laugh of sorts. “Which Joachim probably is,” he added. “But it isn’t possible, which is something else entirely.”

“Steuben isn’t stupid,” Margritte said. She suddenly reached for Danny’s hand and gripped it between hers; she still wouldn’t turn to look at him. “He’s . . . I don’t think he’s human, Danny, but I believe he really does love the colonel. Can’t he see that unless he steps aside, the colonel’s government can’t survive?”

“There’re fish that have to keep swimming to breathe,” Danny said—to Margritte; to himself; to the night. “For Joachim, retirement would mean suffocating. He won’t retire, and the colonel—”

He grimaced. He was trying to remember that Alois Hammer was no longer a mercenary leader and that Danny Pritchard was no longer his adjutant.

“And President Hammer,” he went on, “won’t force him out. The colonel—”

Again!

“—is loyal too. And besides, he needs a Director of Security. He knows as well as I do that there’s nobody better at it than Joachim. Nobody. The problem is that Joachim’s only willing to go at the job in one way, and that way’s going to be fatal to the civil government.”

Danny shook his head. “Maybe he can only go at it one way,” he said. “I’ve known Joachim for half my life, but I won’t pretend I understand what goes on in his head.”

“He’s a monster!” Margritte said to the night in sudden, fierce anger. She turned and glared at her husband. “Danny?” she said. “If he won’t leave but he has to go . . . ?”

Danny laughed. He gave Margritte a quick hug, but that was to permit him to ease back and look toward the city before speaking.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ve thought about killing Joachim. Having him killed. It’d be possible, though it might take a platoon of tanks to make sure of him.”

He looked at his wife, his face hard in the starlight. Danny Pritchard was only a little over average height, but there were times—this one of them—that he seemed a much bigger man.

“And I could get a platoon of tanks for the job, sure,” he said harshly. “If this was a war, I’d do just that. I’ve done it, done worse, and we both know it. But that’s the whole point, it’s not a war: it’s the civil government of the planet where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. Unlike Joachim, I won’t try to preserve that government by means that I know would destroy it.”

Margritte hugged herself again. “What is there to do then, Danny?” she said. “What are we going to do?”

Danny reached out and hugged her with real affection. “We’re going to deal with the situation as it develops, I suppose,” he said softly, stroking his wife’s hair. She cut it short to fit under a commo helmet, but it retained a springy liveliness that always thrilled him. “War gives you a lot of experience in doing that, and war’s been my whole life.”

He kissed Margritte’s forehead. “Now,” he said with mock sternness. “Go back to bed and let me stand here for a little while more, all right?”

She kissed him passionately, then stepped away. “All right, Danny,” she said as she went back into the bedroom. “I know you’ll find a way.”

I wish I knew that, thought Danny Pritchard, looking down on the nighted city. I sure don’t.

All he knew was that if he stood here alone, an assassin wouldn’t kill anybody besides his intended target. Joachim Steuben certainly realized that the Director of Administration was a potential danger to him, which he’d read as meaning a danger to President Hammer.

And Joachim didn’t have Danny Pritchard’s compunctions about how to deal with a threat.

They were expecting the knock on the back door, but even so Whitey’s hand jerked the bottle; brandy splashed onto the workbench, beading on the oil-soaked wood.

Spencer said, “Bloody hell, Whitey.” Then, louder and with the anger directed at the real cause, he said, “Come in then, curse it!”

The shop’s harsh overhead lights were on. The stranger’s distortion cape was a deeper pool of shadow than it’d been in the light of the small table lamp the night before. He closed the door and said, “How was your first day’s business, then?”

Spencer didn’t speak. “It was fine,” Whitey said, a trifle too loudly. “Anyway, things’ll pick up.”

“What have you decided about my proposition?” the stranger said. His voice was like the paw of a cat playing with a small animal; it was very delicate, but points pressed through its softness.

Whitey looked at his partner. Spencer took the holochip from his pocket, activated the image of Joachim Steuben, and tossed it onto the bench.

“All right,” he said in a challenging tone. “We’ll do it on one condition: you pay us all the money up front.”

“Every thaler!” Whitey said. His index finger had been drawing circles in the spilled brandy. When he realized what he was doing, he jerked his hand into his lap.

“Yes, that’s reasonable,” the stranger said. His gloved left hand slipped from beneath his cape, this time holding a small bag of wash leather. He placed it on the bench, then withdrew his hand. “I think you’ll find the full amount there.”

“What the hell is this?” Spencer muttered. After a moment’s general silence he tugged open the drawstring closure and spilled the bag’s contents, several dozen credit chips, onto the wood.

“A hundred thousand thalers in one chip,” the stranger said mildly, “might present you with difficulties. But the total is correct.”

Spencer began rotating the semiconductor wafers so that the amounts printed on the edges faced him. Whitey picked one up. His lips moved; then he read aloud, “Four . . . four-thousand-one-hunnert-forty-nine.”

“Most of the chips range from three to five thousand thalers,” the stranger said. “One’s for eleven thousand, but you shouldn’t have any trouble banking it if you build up a pattern of deposits over the course of a month.”

“What the hell,” Spencer repeated, scowling at the chips and then looking up at the stranger. “You agreed just like that?”

The shadow rippled in a shrug. “It was a reasonable condition,” the stranger said. “You have no reason to trust me, after all. And as for me trusting you . . .”

He gave a chittering laugh. “You may fail, Sergeant Spencer,” he said, “but you won’t try to cheat me.”

“No, I don’t guess we will,” Spencer said grimly. “But just how are you so sure of that, buddy?”

The gloved hand pointed to the holochip image. “Because if you did, he’d learn that you took money to kill him,” the stranger said. “What do you think would happen next?”

“We’ll do the bloody job,” Spencer said, pushing the credit chips back into the bag. He hadn’t counted them; at this point the money wasn’t the most important thing. “We’ll do it if we get a clear shot.”

He glowered at the stranger’s blurred face. “How d’ye plan to arrange it?” he demanded. “Because I’ll tell you, nothing I know about that bastard makes me think you can do it.”

The stranger put a small data cube beside the image of Joachim Steuben. “This will run in your inventory reader,” he said. “It contains the full plan. I suggest you take the machine off-line before you view it, though. It’s unlikely that the Directorate of Security would be doing key-word sweeps detailed enough to pick up the contents, but—”

His laugh was like bats quarrelling.

“—it would only take once, wouldn’t it? So better safe than sorry.”

“How are you going to manage it?” Whitey demanded, angry because he was so nervous. He’s been shot at many times; he knew how to handle himself in a firefight. The thing that was happening now made him feel as though the ground was streaming away beneath his feet. “You say ‘here’s the plan’, but what d’you know about this kinda job? You think it’s easy?”

Spencer looked at the stranger’s smoky features, pursed his lips, and said to his partner, “Whitey, we’ll take a look at it—”

He prodded an index finger in the direction of the cube.

“—and make our go, no-go on what we think.”

He shifted his gaze back to the stranger. “That’s how Whitey and me’ve always worked, buddy,” he said, raising his voice slightly. “If we don’t like the mission, we don’t take it. We figure we’re not paid to commit suicide, we’re paid to kill other people. And we’re bloody good at it!”

“I know, Sergeant,” the stranger said; there was more real humor in his voice now than there had been in his previous cracklings of laughter. “That’s why I’m here.”

His blurred visage turned to Whitey. Occasionally his eyes glinted through the polarizing fabric.

“Next week there’ll be privy council meeting in the Maritime Commission building on Quetzal Point, Trooper Bernsdorf,” the stranger said. “There’s a knoll three kilometers west of the building. When the meeting breaks up, the sergeant will have a shot.”

The distortion cape rippled as he gestured through it toward the data cube.

“The details are in there. If you decide there’s anything else you need—a tribarrel, for example, or perhaps a vehicle—hang a white rag on your rear doorlatch. I’ll come back to get the details.”

Spencer rose and walked to the degreasing tank in which air bubbled through a culture of petroleum-eating bacteria. “I don’t need a tribarrel,” he said, reaching into the tank and coming out with a long, sealed tube. “You want to knock down a wall, a tribarrel does the job a treat. But if you’re just trying to drop one man—”

He twisted the top off the container and slid a shoulder-stocked powergun onto the workbench. It should’ve been turned in when Spencer retired from the Slammers. An unassigned weapon, picked up in the bloody shambles that’d been an Iron Guard barracks, had gone into the armory in its place.

“—this old girl has always done the job for me.”

Spencer shook his head as he lifted the weapon. The stubby iridium barrel’s 2cm bore channeled plasma released from precisely aligned copper atoms in the breech. The bolts were as straight as light beams and remained lethal to a human at any range within the curvature of a planet’s surface.

“I don’t remember how many times I’ve rebarreled her,” Spencer said affectionately. “She never let me down.”

“Five-hunnert-an-three kills,” Whitey said proudly. “Planned shots, I mean, not firefights where you never know who nailed what.”

“I’ll use a sandbag rest,” Spencer said, facing the hidden figure. “Whitey’ll spot for me and pull security, like always. I don’t see any bloody thing but what’s in my sight picture when I’m waiting, and at three klicks that’s not very much. If there’s a shot, I’ll take it.”

He was a different man with the big weapon cradled in his arms. The change wasn’t so much that Spencer projected confidence as that he’d become an utterly stable thing: a boulder or a tree with centuries of growth behind it.

“All right, Sergeant,” the stranger said. “That appears satisfactory. I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing you again.”

He touched the vertical door handle, then reached back beneath the cape and did something hidden. When his gloved hand came out again, it held a coin of gold-colored crystal that’d been pierced for a chain. He dropped it on the bench between the sack of credit chips and the image of Joachim Steuben.

“This is my lucky piece,” he said. He chuckled. “If you ever get to Newland I suppose it’s still worth a hundred wreaths, but I think you’re going to need the luck more than you will the money.”

He closed the door behind him, a shadow returning to the night’s other shadows.

Whitey carried the data cube to the inventory computer in the service port between the work bay and the front office. “If he gets you a clear line of sight, you don’t need luck, Spence,” he said.

Spencer didn’t reply. He was sliding a twenty-round tube of ammunition into the butt-well of his weapon.

President Hammer rested his elbows on the top of the table and massaged his forehead with the fingers of both hands. He muttered something, but the words were lost in his palms. The meeting had been going on since dawn, and it was now late in the afternoon.

“We really need to settle this quickly, sir,” said Danny Pritchard, seated to the right of Hammer at the head of the table. “Every day there’s another hundred people being added to the camps. Releasing them won’t gain us back nearly the amount of good will we lose by arresting them in the first place. And there’s too many being shot during arrest, too.”

“There’s always going to be a few fools who think they can outrun a powergun bolt,” said Joachim Steuben with a grin. “I think we’re benefiting the race by removing them from the gene pool. And as for the ones who choose to shoot it out with my men, well, that’s simply a form of suicide.”

Joachim was in a khaki uniform, identical except for the lack of rank tabs to those he’d worn during his years in the Slammers. Instead of a normal uniform’s tough, rip-stopped synthetic and utilitarian fit, Joachim’s was woven from natural fabrics and tailored with as much skill as a debutante’s ball gown. He’d always dressed that way. Strangers who’d met Joachim for the first time had often mistaken him for Hammer’s lover instead of his bodyguard and killer.

He didn’t wear body armor; he rarely had except on battlefields where shell fragments were a threat. He said that armor slowed him down and that his quickness was better protection than a ceramic plate. Thus far he’d been right.

Hammer lowered his hands and looked at the twelve officials—nine men and three women—seated at the table with him. No aides were present within the temporary privacy capsule erected within the volume of the large conference room.

“We’re not going to decide this today,” Hammer said. His voice was raspy and his face had aged more in a month as president than it had in the previous five years of combat operations. “I’ve had it for now.”

“Then we’ll settle it tomorrow?” Danny said in a carefully emotionless tone.

“Blood and martyrs!” said Hammer. “Not tomorrow. Maybe next week. I don’t want to hear about it tomorrow.”

“Sir,” said Danny, “no decision is a decision, and it’s the wrong one. We’ve—”

Hammer lurched up from the table and slammed the heel of his right fist down on the resin-stabilized wood. “This meeting is over!” he said. “Mister Pritchard, Baron Steuben—remain with me for a moment. Everyone else leaves now.”

Council members got to their feet and moved quickly to the capsule’s exit. Guards stationed there opened the doors of the room itself onto the corridor. Aides waited there with additional guards and a number of the people who ordinarily worked in the building.

The locations of privy council meetings were kept secret from all but the attendees and were never held in the same place twice in succession. The first the staff of the site knew what was happening was when workmen arrived an hour ahead of time to erect the privacy capsule that sealed the meeting from the eyes and ears of non-participants.

Half the councillors dressed in civilian clothes; the other half were in uniform, either Slammers khaki or the blue-piped gray of the Frisian Defense Forces. Hammer himself wore a civilian tunic and breeches, but he’d deliberately had them tailored in the style that’d been popular when he left Nieuw Friesland half a lifetime ago.

Hammer’s wife Anneke, nee Tromp, was present as the Director of Social Welfare. “Shut the door!” he called to her as she went out.

Anneke turned, met her husband’s eyes, and walked on through to the corridor without responding. A guard swung the panel closed, sealing the capsule again.

Hammer sighed. “Now listen, both of you,” he said in a voice that didn’t hold the same key from word to word. “I’ll make a decision on the detention policy when I’m ready to. Nobody—neither of you—will say another word to me on the subject till then. Do you hear me?”

“As you wish, Alois,” said Joachim Steuben.

Danny Pritchard grimaced. “Yes sir, I hear you,” he said.

“Pritchard, I mean it!” Hammer said in sudden fury.

“I’ve never doubted your word, Colonel,” Danny said, letting his anger show also. “Don’t you start doubting mine now!”

“Via, I’m not getting enough sleep,” Hammer muttered. He put his left hand over Danny’s right, squeezed it, and stepped out of the capsule.

Danny made a wry face and gestured to the exit. “After you, Baron,” he said.

Joachim grinned and walked out ahead of the other man. Without turning he said, “I wouldn’t shoot you in the back, Mister Pritchard.”

Danny laughed. Workmen moved into the meeting room behind him to tear down the privacy capsule for use in another few days or a week. It was simply a framework with an active sound-cancellation system between two layers of light-diffusing membrane.

“Joachim, we’ve known each other too long for nonsense,” Danny said. It was battlefield humor, but this was surely a battlefield. “You’d shoot me any way you felt like at the moment.”

Joachim giggled. They’d reached the hallway, but guards had formed a bubble of space around them without being directed to.

Margritte had been standing with the rest of the aides and clerks. They’d gone off with the remaining council members, leaving her alone. She was as still-faced as a statue in a wall niche.

“If I thought it was necessary, I suppose I would at that,” Joachim said. “As you would do in similar circumstances. Wouldn’t you, Daniel?”

Danny looked at the shorter man. They’d known each other for such a long time . . .

Aloud he said, “If you mean, ‘Would I shoot you if I thought that was necessary to bring an end to policies that I’m sure will destroy the government?’ then the answer is apparently, ‘No.’ Even though I believe that if I don’t kill you, nobody in that council meeting is going to die in bed. None of us.”

“You have your beliefs,” Joachim said, shrugging. “I have mine. I don’t believe that I should wait to see if a man who threatens the president is really serious; or if maybe he’ll change his mind before acting; or if he’s simply too incompetent to carry through with that threat.”

“Joachim . . .” Danny said. He and the other man were so focused on one another that the bustle of the hallway could have taken place on another planet. “You know I’m right. You can follow a chain of consequences as far as anybody I’ve ever met.”

“Yes, Daniel,” Joachim said. “And so can you, which is why you know that I’m right also.”

He giggled. “A pity that we can’t run the experiment both ways before we make our decision, isn’t it?” he said. “Well, perhaps in another universe Nieuw Friesland is being governed according to other principles. For now . . . well, go to your wife, Daniel. The only thing I know about is killing.”

Danny opened his mouth, then closed it and smiled. He said, “That’s been our job for a long time, Joachim. Maybe you’re right and it still is. If so, the Lord help us.”

Joachim frowned. “I left my hat,” he said, stepping back into the meeting room.

“Watch it!” a workman shouted as he and his partner swung one of the last panels of the privacy capsule out of its frame. When the fellow looked over his shoulder and saw who he’d spoken to, the panel slipped from his hands.

Joachim ignored him and bent to retrieve the saucer hat on the frame bracing the chair legs. He turned with a smile and called to Danny, “You have to remember, Daniel, that dying in bed has never been a goal of mine.”

One of the west-facing windows shattered in a cyan flash. The bolt caught Joachim between the shoulder blades. His body fluids flashed into steam, flinging his trim figure in a somersault that landed him face-up at Danny’s feet. The shot had torn the right arm from his torso, but his cherubic face was still smiling.

Mister Daniel Pritchard wasn’t carrying a gun, but his reflexes were still in place. He threw himself to the floor, snatched the pistol from the cutaway holster on Joachim’s right hip, and rose. He fired three times out the window through which the shot had come.

Danny didn’t expect to hit anything but empty sky, but he’d gotten to be a veteran by learning that you always shot back instantly. At the worst it wasn’t going to do their aim any good, and every once in a while you might nail the bastard.

People were shouting and running. The meeting room’s other high vitril windows cascaded in splinters as guards smashed them out with gun butts. They began raking shots along the distant hills.

Danny lifted himself into a crouch to get a better view. A trooper wearing body armor, one of Joachim’s White Mice, landed on his back and flattened him again.

“Keep the fuck down, sir!” she shouted. “We already lost the major!”

“Roger!” Danny said, trying to breathe against the weight of the trooper protecting him with her own body. “I’ll stay down!”

The guard got up and scuttled to join her fellows as they fired into the distance. Danny didn’t have commo, so he could only hope that the captain commanding the security detail was doing something more useful than the nearest personnel were.

“What happened?” said a voice nearby. He looked back, expecting to see Margritte. She was in the corridor under a guard twice her size.

President Hammer hunched at Danny’s side. In one hand he held the pistol he’d worn in a shoulder holster, but the fingers of the other traced Joachim’s cheek with a feather-light touch.

“A two-see-em bolt through the window,” Danny said, gesturing with his pistol. The inlays winked festively, reminding him whose weapon it’d been. “One round only, so the shooter was either really good or really lucky.”

He set the gun down. A floor tile cracked, broken by the glowing iridium barrel.

“Joachim wouldn’t have given him more than one round,” Hammer whispered. His face was set, but tears ran down his cheek. “I never thought I’d see this. Never.”

Hammer holstered his own pistol and rose to his knees. The guards had stopped shooting. Under a sergeant’s bellowed orders they backed away from the windows and stood shoulder to shoulder, a living wall between the direction of the shot and the men they were here to protect.

The bolt had blown the remainder of Joachim’s tunic away. His chest was as white and hairless as an ivory statue.

“Where’s his lucky piece?” Hammer said.

“What?”

Hammer looked at Danny, his expression suddenly blank and watchful. “Joachim always wore a coin from Newland around his neck,” Hammer said. “That was the only thing he’d brought from home. He said it was his luck.”

“Colonel?” Danny said harshly. He got to his feet. “I’m not behind this. I don’t care if you believe me, but it’s the truth anyway. However, this is the best piece of luck you and the whole planet could’ve gotten.”

Joachim’s corpse smiled at him from the floor.

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