Poul Anderson

The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century


INTRODUCTION

Harry Turtledove

<p>INTRODUCTION</p> <p>Harry Turtledove</p>

Sing, goddess, of the accursed rage of Akhilleus

Son of Peleus, which gave pain to countless Akhaioi,

Sent the many sturdy souls of warriors to

Hades, and left their bodies as spoil for all the dogs

And birds of prey….

—HOMER, ILIAD 1.1–5

It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.

—ROBERT E. LEE

HERE AT THE DAWN of the third millennium C.E., we don’t like to think about actually fighting wars. We hope we’ve outgrown them. For more than half a century, we’ve had the chance to wreck our civilization, and we haven’t taken it. This says something good about us as a species, maybe even something surprisingly good. Perhaps—just perhaps—we aren’t really so stupid as we often give signs of being.

Mankind has always hated war. And yet, it has always fascinated us, too. As long as we’ve written, we’ve written about it. This is quite literally true. The Epic of Gilgamesh goes back to the earliest days of our literacy and is, among other things, the story of warfare. The Iliad, the foundation stone of all Greek literature, centers on the siege of Troy and the great struggle between Akhilleus and Hektor. The Aeneid, Beowulf, the Norse sagas, the Chanson de Roland…all stories of battle, of warriors. And we’re still writing fiction about war, in and out of science fiction, to this day.

Why?

For the two cents it’s worth, here’s my answer. Fiction is about character under stress. What we do when the heat is on reveals far more about us than how we behave in ordinary times. What comes close to putting so much stress on the character, fictional or otherwise, as nearly getting killed? As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Well, I admit there is one other stress that does the same thing: love. And, of course, what passes between man and woman (or, less often, between man and man or between woman and woman) is the other enduringly popular theme of fiction.

And to this mix science fiction adds a couple of other interesting riffs: gadgetry as interesting as the writer can come up with and, sometimes, alien beings also as interesting as the writer can likewise. The grand-daddy of stories of this type, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, actually saw print in 1898, but since it set the stage for so much that came afterward, I don’t see how I can possibly neglect mentioning it here.

Wells was far from the only author interested in the effects of the Industrial Revolution on warfare yet to come. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was, in fact, a small boom in what we would now call technothrillers, stories examining near-future wars with emphasis on the newfangled machines that would make it different from anything that had gone before: ancestors of Tom Clancy, one might say. A fair number of these tales are collected in a fascinating volume called The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871–1914, edited by I. F. Clarke. In 1907, in his story “The Trenches,” a British army officer, Capt. C. E. Vickers, foretold the invention of the tank. His colleague, Major (later Major General) Sir Ernest Swinton—also a writer of such tales—must surely have seen this piece; when World War I broke out, he was one of the people who helped devise the actual armored fighting vehicle. Here fiction may well have influenced later fact. Others of that period who worked in this subgenre include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and A. A. Milne, who is better known—and deservedly so—for Winnie-the-Pooh than for tales such as his 1909 story “The Secret of the Army Aeroplane.”

Drawing a hard and fast line between technothrillers and science fiction proper has never been easy, and probably never will be. The one I’d try to make is that technothrillers tend to be interested in gadgetry for its own sake, while science fiction examines not only the machinery but its influence on the society that’s invented it. And if people are now lining up to tear me rhetorical limb from limb, well, so be it.

After the experience of World War I, far fewer people were interested in predicting what a second world war might be like. The short answer—dreadful—seemed obvious to everyone: and, indeed, everyone was right. Instead, conflicts set in distant times and against strange aliens took pride of place for a while. John W. Campbell, later the tremendously influential editor of Astounding and its later incarnation, Analog, was one of the champions of this invent a weapon today, mass produce it tomorrow, and use it to beat the enemy the day after school of writing.

A writer who stuck closer to home, and one whose influence on the entire field of science fiction was also incalculably large, was Robert A. Heinlein. His novellas “If This Goes On…” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” and his novel Sixth Column, all written before the American entry into World War II (Sixth Column springing in part from a Campbell idea), remain readable—and in print—today, while so much of the fiction of two generations ago has fallen by the wayside. “Solution Unsatisfactory” is an early and remarkably prescient attempt to define a problem that has plagued us ever since: How do you deal with the specter of atomic weaponry? The solutions we have worked out are as unsatisfactory as the one Heinlein proposed—but, as I said before, so far we’ve been both smarter and luckier than we might have been. As a graduate of the Naval Academy, Heinlein spoke with peculiar authority on matters military.

The brute fact of the atomic bomb hit popular consciousness hard after 1945. Nuclear war and its aftermath became a common theme in science fiction. Two early examples were Poul Anderson’s stories later collected in the paste-up novel Twilight World, and those of Henry Kuttner collected as Mutant. Anderson in particular would go on to have a long and amazingly successful career, frequently revisiting military themes in a variety of contexts: most often in his future history peopled by such swashbucklers as Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry.

Another writer who did likewise was H. Beam Piper, till his unfortunate and premature death in the mid 1960s. His series of paratime stories of alternate history, particularly his fine last work Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, revolve around matters military. So does the elaborate future history he built up, including such novels as The Cosmic Computer and Space Viking, which combines themes from medieval European warfare and the rise of Hitler in a most striking way.

Heinlein, of course, did not disappear after the war, either. In his juvenile novels (what would now be known as YAs), such as Between Planets, Space Cadet, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Red Planet, military themes either dominate or play a strong subordinate role. And in Starship Troopers, he produced a novel of military fiction that remains intensely controversial more than forty years after its publication, was made into an extraordinarily bad movie, and spawned at least two fine novels of direct rebuttal, Gordon R. Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not and Joe W. Haldeman’s The Forever War: no mean feat.

Another work from about the same period that should not pass unmentioned is Christopher Anvil’s novella “Pandora’s Planet,” later expanded into a novel of the same name. Anvil, most often published in Astounding and Analog, took a contrarian, sardonic, and often very funny look at things, and “Pandora’s Planet” shows him at the top of his form, with bumbling invading aliens trying to deal with humans who are both smarter than they are and, except for lacking starships, more technologically advanced, too.

During the 1960s and 1970s, no doubt under the influence of the Vietnam War, interest in military science fiction waned. The military generally came under a cloud during those turbulent decades. One interesting exception to the rule here is the rise in those same decades of fantasy series chronicling enormous wars, most often against the power of evil. The archetype, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I think such works became popular for a couple of reasons: first, who was good and who was not was very explicitly defined—which was not always the case in either the real world or the more realistic forms of science fiction—and, second, the stories were set in worlds so far removed from our own as to distance the readers from the everyday mundanities of life.

Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series of science-fiction adventure tales solved the problem of good guys and bad guys by making the enemy a fleet of robot starships programmed to root out life wherever it might be encountered (a theme also used earlier, not long after the end of World War II, by Theodore Sturgeon in “There Is No Defense”). In The Men in the Jungle, Norman Spinrad solved it by not solving it; as far as anyone can tell, there are no heroes in the story, only villains of one stripe or another—again, a motif disturbingly close to real life.

There is a certain irony in the fact that, in the 1970s, military science fiction revived not so much in book form but in the movies—irony because Hollywood, a traditionally liberal place, has not always taken kindly to soldiers and their trade. But blood and thunder have played very important roles in both the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas, not least because matters military tend to create strong blacks and whites without shades of gray, and also because they lend themselves to spectacular special effects. Written science fiction is often thought-provoking; filmed sci-fi is more often jaw-dropping. The two usually appeal to different audiences, which aficionados of the written variety sometimes forget to their peril—and frustration.

The last two decades of the twentieth century saw a revival of written military science fiction. Jerry Pournelle, a Korean War veteran, has written a number of stirring novels with strong military themes, both with Larry Niven (notably in The Mote in God’s Eye, a first-contact story, and Footfall, a fine tale of alien invasion) and by himself.

David Drake (who, like Joe W. Haldeman, saw the elephant in Vietnam) has contributed a gritty realism to the field in his future-history stories, such as Hammer’s Slammers, and, thanks to his strong background in ancient history and classics, with tales such as Ranks of Bronze and Birds of Prey.

Drake and S. M. Stirling have also collaborated on a series of novels set in the far future but based on the career of the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s great marshal, Belisarius. On his own hook, Stirling specializes in alternate histories with a strong military flavor: the Draka universe, surely as unpleasant a dystopia as has burst from anyone’s word processor; and the stories begun with Island in the Sea of Time, which drop the island of Nantucket back to 1250 B.C.E. and involve the inhabitants in military affairs up to their necks.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s series of novels, mostly based on the fragile (both in ego and in corpus) hero Miles Vorkosigan, have deservedly attracted a large following. Miles subverts hierarchies and discipline but is remarkably effective in spite of—or because of—that. His adventures also have in them a strong humorous strain not often seen in military science fiction.

Where Drake and Stirling have projected the career of an actual historical figure into the future, David Weber’s series of novels about Honor Harrington has many analogies to the fictional seafaring adventures of Horatio Hornblower set in Napoleonic times. Many fans of military science fiction are also passionate aficionados of the tales penned by C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and others who work in the small, crowded world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I don’t precisely know why this should be so, but that it’s so seems indisputable; it’s an enthusiasm I share myself.

One of the advantages of writing an introduction such as this is that I can also subject my readers to a two-paragraph commercial for my own work. As an escaped Byzantine historian, I’ve used Byzantium as a base for my Videssos universe, with the Time of Troubles series being based on the eventful career of the Emperor Herakleios, The Tale of Krispos on the reigns of Basil the Macedonian and John Tzimiskes (an advantage to fiction is that one can mix and match to suit oneself ), and The Videssos Cycle on the chaos surrounding the Battle of Manzikert.

Switching from fantasy to science fiction, I’ve imagined time-traveling South Africans interfering in the American Civil War in The Guns of the South, an alien invasion during World War II in the Worldwar series, and the United States and Confederate States on opposite sides of the European alliance system during the late nineteenth century and World War I in How Few Remain and the books of the Great War series.

Elizabeth Moon is a former member of the Marine Corps who has made a name for herself with both military-oriented fantasy and science fiction. Her worlds combine gritty realism and striking wit; no one else currently working in the field has a similar voice.

The Sten novels from the team of Allan Cole and Chris Bunch combine military affairs and political intrigue. The team—unfortunately no longer working together—had a striking mix of talents, Bunch having served as a member of a long-range reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam and Cole being the son of a prominent CIA official. Their hero, named for a British submachine gun of World War II vintage, is every bit as deadly as his prototype, and much less likely to go to pieces in action.

Technothrillers are vulnerable to events in the world around them. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, truly world-shattering ones became much harder to write; indeed, the entire genre suffered something of a collapse. However pleasant a much-reduced likelihood of armageddon may be for the world at large, it’s not far from hell for those who made a living with stories about such catastrophes.

Military science fiction seems less vulnerable to events in the world around it. Technothrillers, by their very nature, are limited to the near future, while military science fiction can and does span all of space and time. If the near future looks peaceful, there’s always the further future to explore—either that or a twisted past in which things went differently from the way they turned out in real history.

One area where written military science fiction differs from what vast audiences see on the silver screen is that it demands more from those who pursue it.


AMONG THIEVES

Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson

<p>AMONG THIEVES</p> <p>Poul Anderson</p>

HIS EXCELLENCY M’KATZE UNDUMA, Ambassador of the Terrestrial Federation to the Double Kingdom, was not accustomed to being kept waiting. But as the minutes dragged into an hour, anger faded before a chill deduction.

In this bleakly clock-bound society a short delay was bad manners, even if it were unintentional. But if you kept a man of rank cooling his heels for an entire sixty minutes, you offered him an unforgivable insult. Rusch was a barbarian but he was too canny to humiliate Earth’s representative without reason.

Which bore out everything that Terrestrial Intelligence had discovered. From a drunken junior officer, weeping in his cups because Old Earth, Civilization, was going to be attacked and the campus where he had once learned and loved would be scorched to ruin by his fire guns—to the battle plans and annotations thereon, which six men had died to smuggle out of the Royal War College—and now, this degradation of the ambassador himself—everything fitted.

The Margrave of Drakenstane had sold out Civilization.

Unduma shuddered, beneath the iridescent cloak, embroidered robe, and ostrich-plume headdress of his rank. He swept the antechamber with the eyes of a trapped animal.

This castle was ancient, dating back some eight hundred years to the first settlement of Norstad. The grim square massiveness of it, fused stone piled into a turreted mountain, was not much relieved by modern fittings. Tableservs, loungers, drapes, jewel mosaics, and biomurals only clashed with those fortress walls and ringing flagstones; fluorosheets did not light up all the dark corners, there was perpetual dusk up among the rafters where the old battle banners hung.

A dozen guards were posted around the room, in breastplate and plumed helmet but with very modern blast rifles. They were identical seven-foot blonds, and none of them moved at all, you couldn’t even see them breathe. It was an unnerving sight for a Civilized man.

Unduma snubbed out his cigar, swore miserably to himself, and wished he had at least brought along a book.

The inner door opened on noiseless hinges and a shavepate officer emerged. He clicked his heels and bowed at Unduma. “His Lordship will be honored to receive you now, excellency.”

The ambassador throttled his anger, nodded, and stood up. He was a tall thin man, the relatively light skin and sharp features of Bantu stock predominant in him. Earth’s emissaries were normally chosen to approximate a local ideal of beauty—hard to do for some of those weird little cultures scattered through the galaxy—and Norstad-Ostarik had been settled by a rather extreme Caucasoid type which had almost entirely emigrated from the home planet.

The aide showed him through the door and disappeared. Hans von Thoma Rusch, Margrave of Drakenstane, Lawman of the Western Folkmote, Hereditary Guardian of the White River Gates, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, sat waiting behind a desk at the end of an enormous black-and-red tile floor. He had a book in his hands, and didn’t close it till Unduma, sandals whispering on the great chessboard squares, had come near. Then he stood up and made a short ironic bow.

“How do you do, your excellency,” he said. “I am sorry to be so late. Please sit.” Such curtness was no apology at all, and both of them knew it.

Unduma lowered himself to a chair in front of the desk. He would not show temper, he thought, he was here for a greater purpose. His teeth clamped together.

“Thank you, your lordship,” he said tonelessly. “I hope you will have time to talk with me in some detail. I have come on a matter of grave importance.”

Rusch’s right eyebrow tilted up, so that the archaic monocle he affected beneath it seemed in danger of falling out. He was a big man, stiffly and solidly built, yellow hair cropped to a wiry brush around the long skull, a scar puckering his left cheek. He wore Army uniform, the gray high-collared tunic and old-fashioned breeches and shiny boots of his planet; the trident and suns of a primary general; a sidearm, its handle worn smooth from much use. If ever the iron barbarian with the iron brain had an epitome, thought Unduma, here he sat!

“Well, your excellency,” murmured Rusch—though the harsh Norron language did not lend itself to murmurs—“of course I’ll be glad to hear you out. But after all, I’ve no standing in the Ministry, except as unofficial advisor, and—”

“Please.” Unduma lifted a hand. “Must we keep up the fable? You not only speak for all the landed warloads—and the Nor-Samurai are still the most powerful single class in the Double Kingdom—but you have the General Staff in your pouch and, ah, you are well thought of by the royal family. I think I can talk directly to you.”

Rusch did not smile, but neither did he trouble to deny what everyone knew, that he was the leader of the fighting aristocracy, friend of the widowed Queen Regent, virtual step-father of her eight-year-old son King Hjalmar—in a word, that he was the dictator. If he preferred to keep a small title and not have his name unnecessarily before the public, what difference did that make?

“I’ll be glad to pass on whatever you wish to say to the proper authorities,” he answered slowly. “Pipe.” That was an order to his chair, which produced a lit briar for him.

Unduma felt appalled. This series of—informalities—was like one savage blow after another. Till now, in the three-hundred-year history of relations between Earth and the Double Kingdom, the Terrestrial ambassador had ranked everyone but God and the royal family.

No human planet, no matter how long sundered from the main stream, no matter what strange ways it had wandered, failed to remember that Earth was Earth, the home of man and the heart of Civilization. No human planet—had Norstad-Ostarik, then, gone the way of Kolresh?

Biologically, no, thought Unduma with an inward shudder. Nor culturally—yet. But it shrieked at him, from every insolent movement and twist of words, that Rusch had made a political deal.

“Well?” said the Margrave.

Unduma cleared his throat, desperately, and leaned forward. “Your lordship,” he said, “my embassy cannot help taking notice of certain public statements, as well as certain military preparations and other matters of common knowledge—”

“And items your spies have dug up,” drawled Rusch.

Unduma started. “My lord!”

“My good ambassador,” grinned Rusch, “it was you who suggested a straightforward talk. I know Earth has spies here. In any event, it’s impossible to hide so large a business as the mobilization of two planets for war.”

Unduma felt sweat trickle down his ribs.

“There is…you…your Ministry has only announced it is a…a defense measure,” he stammered. “I had hoped…frankly, yes, till the last minute I hoped you…your people might see fit to join us against Kolresh.”

There was a moment’s quiet. So quiet, thought Unduma. A redness crept up Rusch’s cheeks, the scar stood livid and his pale eyes were the coldest thing Unduma had ever seen.

Then, slowly, the Margrave got it out through his teeth: “For a number of centuries, your excellency, our people hoped Earth might join them.”

“What do you mean?” Unduma forgot all polished inanities. Rusch didn’t seem to notice. He stood up and went to the window.

“Come here,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

THE WINDOW WAS a modern inset of clear, invisible plastic, a broad sheet high in the castle’s infamous Witch Tower. It looked out on a black sky, the sun was down and the glacial forty-hour darkness of northern Norstad was crawling toward midnight.

Stars glittered mercilessly keen in an emptiness which seemed like crystal, which seemed about to ring thinly in contracting anguish under the cold. Ostarik, the companion planet, stood low to the south, a gibbous moon of steely blue; it never moved in that sky, the two worlds forever faced each other, the windy white peaks of one glaring at the warm lazy seas of the other. Northward, a great curtain of aurora flapped halfway around the cragged horizon.

From this dizzy height, Unduma could see little of the town Drakenstane: a few high-peaked roofs and small glowing windows, lamps lonesome above frozen streets. There wasn’t much to see anyhow—no big cities on either planet, only the small towns which had grown from scattered thorps, each clustered humbly about the manor of its lord. Beyond lay winter fields, climbing up the valley walls to the hard green blink of glaciers. It must be blowing out there, he saw snowdevils chase ghostly across the blue-tinged desolation.

Rusch spoke roughly: “Not much of a planet we’ve got here, is it? Out on the far end of nowhere, a thousand light-years from your precious Earth, and right in the middle of a glacial epoch. Have you ever wondered why we don’t set up weather-control stations and give this world a decent climate?”

“Well,” began Unduma, “of course, the exigencies of—”

“Of war.” Rusch sent his hand upward in a chopping motion, to sweep around the alien constellations. Among them burned Polaris, less than thirty parsecs away, huge and cruelly bright. “We never had a chance. Every time we thought we could begin, there would be war, usually with Kolresh, and the labor and materials would have to go for that. Once, about two centuries back, we did actually get stations established, it was even beginning to warm up a little. Kolresh blasted them off the map.

“Norstad was settled eight hundred years ago. For seven of those centuries, we’ve had Kolresh at our throats. Do you wonder if we’ve grown tired?”

“My lord, I…I can sympathize,” said Unduma awkwardly. “I am not ignorant of your heroic history. But it would seem to me…after all, Earth has also fought—”

“At a range of a thousand light-years!” jeered Rusch. “The forgotten war. A few underpaid patrolmen in obsolete rustbucket ships to defend unimportant outposts from sporadic Kolreshite raids. We live on their borders!”

“It would certainly appear, your lordship, that Kolresh is your natural enemy,” said Unduma. “As indeed it is of all Civilization of Homo sapiens himself. What I cannot credit are the, ah, the rumors of an, er, alliance—”

“And why shouldn’t we?” snarled Rusch. “For seven hundred years we’ve held them at bay, while your precious so-called Civilization grew fat behind a wall of our dead young men. The temptation to recoup some of our losses by helping Kolresh conquer Earth is very strong!”

“You don’t mean it!” The breath rushed from Unduma’s lungs.

The other man’s face was like carved bone. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he answered. “I merely point out that from our side there’s a good deal to be said for such a policy. Now if Earth is prepared to make a different policy worth our while—do you understand? Nothing is going to happen in the immediate future. You have time to think about it.”

“I would have to…communicate with my government,” whispered Unduma.

“Of course,” said Rusch. His bootheels clacked on the floor as he went back to his desk. “I’ve had a memorandum prepared for you, an unofficial informal sort of protocol, points which his majesty’s government would like to make the basis of negotiations with the Terrestrial Federation. Ah, here!” He picked up a bulky folio. “I suggest you take a leave of absence, your excellency, go home and show your superiors this, ah—”

“Ultimatum,” said Unduma in a sick voice.

Rusch shrugged. “Call it what you will.” His tone was empty and remote, as if he had already cut himself and his people out of Civilization.

As he accepted the folio, Unduma noticed the book beside it, the one Rusch had been reading: a local edition of Schakspier, badly printed on sleazy paper, but in the original Old Anglic. Odd thing for a barbarian dictator to read. But then, Rusch was a bit of an historical scholar, as well as an enthusiastic kayak racer, meteor polo player, chess champion, mountain climber, and…and all-around scoundrel!

NORSTAD LAY IN the grip of a ten-thousand-year winter, while Ostarik was a heaven of blue seas breaking on warm island sands. Nevertheless, because Ostarik harbored a peculiarly nasty plague virus, it remained an unattainable paradise in the sky till a bare two hundred fifty years ago. Then a research team from Earth got to work, found an effective vaccine, and saw a mountain carved into their likeness by the Norron folk.

It was through such means—and the sheer weight of example, the liberty and wealth and happiness of its people—that the Civilization centered on Earth had been propagating itself among colonies isolated for centuries. There were none which lacked reverence for Earth the Mother, Earth the Wise, Earth the Kindly: none but Kolresh, which had long ceased to be human.

Rusch’s private speedster whipped him from the icicle walls of Festning Drakenstane to the rose gardens of Sorgenlos in an hour of hell-bat haste across vacuum. But it was several hours more until he and the queen could get away from their courtiers and be alone.

They walked through geometric beds of smoldering blooms under songbirds and fronded trees, while the copper spires of the little palace reached up to the evening star and the hours-long sunset of Ostarik blazed gold across great quiet waters. The island was no more than a royal retreat, but lately it had known agonies.

Queen Ingra stooped over a mutant rose, tiger striped and a foot across; she plucked the petals from it and said close to weeping: “But I liked Unduma. I don’t want him to hate us.”

“He’s not a bad sort,” agreed Rusch. He stood behind her in a black dress uniform with silver insignia, like a formal version of death.

“He’s more than that, Hans. He stands for decency—Norstad froze our souls, and Ostarik hasn’t thawed them. I thought Earth might—” Her voice trailed off. She was slender and dark, still young, and her folk came from the rainy dales of Norstad’s equator, a farm race with gentler ways than the miners and fishermen and hunters of the red-haired ice ape who had bred Rusch. In her throat, the Norron language softened to a burring music; the Drakenstane men spat their words out rough-edged.

“Earth might what?” Rusch turned a moody gaze to the west. “Lavish more gifts on us? We were always proud of paying our own way.”

“Oh, no,” said Ingra wearily. “After all, we could trade with them, furs and minerals and so on, if ninety per cent of our production didn’t have to go into defense. I only thought they might teach us how to be human.”

“I had assumed we were still classified Homo sapiens,” said Rusch in a parched tone.

“Oh, you know what I mean!” She turned on him, violet eyes suddenly aflare. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re human, Margrave Hans von Thoma Rusch. I mean free, free to be something more than a robot, free to raise children knowing they won’t have their lungs shoved out their mouths when a Kolreshite cruiser hulls one of our spaceships. What is our whole culture, Hans? A layer of brutalized farmhands and factory workers—serfs! A top crust of heel-clattering aristocrats who live for nothing but war. A little folk art, folk music, folk saga, full of blood and treachery. Where are our symphonies, novels, cathedrals, research laboratories…where are people who can say what they wish and make what they will of their lives and be happy?”

RUSCH DIDN’T ANSWER for a moment. He looked at her, unblinking behind his monocle, till she dropped her gaze and twisted her hands together. Then he said only: “You exaggerate.”

“Perhaps. It’s still the basic truth.” Rebellion rode in her voice. “It’s what all the other worlds think of us.”

“Even if the democratic assumption—that the eternal verities can be discovered by counting enough noses—were true,” said Rusch, “you cannot repeal eight hundred years of history by decree.”

“No. But you could work toward it,” she said. “I think you’re wrong in despising the common man, Hans…when was he ever given a chance, in this kingdom? We could make a beginning now, and Earth could send psychotechnic advisors, and in two or three generations—”

“What would Kolresh be doing while we experimented with forms of government?” he laughed.

“Always Kolresh.” Her shoulders, slim behind the burning-red cloak, slumped. “Kolresh turned a hundred hopeful towns into radioactive craters and left the gnawed bones of children in the fields. Kolresh killed my husband, like a score of kings before him. Kolresh blasted your family to ash, Hans, and scarred your face and your soul—” She whirled back on him, fists aloft, and almost screamed: “Do you want to make an ally of Kolresh?”

The Margrave took out his pipe and began filling it. The saffron sundown, reflected off the ocean to his face, gave him a metal look.

“Well,” he said, “we’ve been at peace with them for all of ten years now. Almost a record.”

“Can’t we find allies? Real ones? I’m sick of being a figurehead! I’d befriend Ahuramazda, New Mars, Lagrange—We could raise a crusade against Kolresh, wipe every last filthy one of them out of the universe!”

“Now who’s a heel-clattering aristocrat?” grinned Rusch.

He lit his pipe and strolled toward the beach. She stood for an angry moment, then sighed and followed him.

“Do you think it hasn’t been tried?” he said patiently. “For generations we’ve tried to build up a permanent alliance directed at Kolresh. What temporary ones we achieved have always fallen apart. Nobody loves us enough—and, since we’ve always taken the heaviest blows, nobody hates Kolresh enough.”

He found a bench on the glistening edge of the strand, and sat down and looked across a steady march of surf, turned to molten gold by the low sun and the incandescent western clouds. Ingra joined him.

“I can’t really blame the others for not liking us,” she said in a small voice. “We are overmechanized and undercultured, arrogant, tactless, undemocratic, hard-boiled…oh, yes. But their own self-interest—”

“They don’t imagine it can happen to them,” replied Rusch contemptuously. “And there are even pro-Kolresh elements, here and there.” He raised his voice an octave: “Oh, my dear sir, my dear Margrave, what are you saying? Why, of course Kolresh would never attack us! They made a treaty never to attack us!”

Ingra sighed, forlornly. Rusch laid an arm across her shoulders. They sat for a while without speaking.

“ANYWAY,” SAID THE man finally, “Kolresh is too strong for any combination of powers in this part of the galaxy. We and they are the only ones with a military strength worth mentioning. Even Earth would have a hard time defeating them, and Earth, of course, will lean backward before undertaking a major war. She has too much to lose; it’s so much more comfortable to regard the Kolreshite raids as mere piracies, the skirmishes as ‘police actions.’ She just plain will not pay the stiff price of an army and a navy able to whip Kolresh and occupy the Kolreshite planets.”

“And so it is to be war again.” Ingra looked out in desolation across the sea.

“Maybe not,” said Rusch. “Maybe a different kind of war, at least—no more black ships coming out of our sky.”

He blew smoke for a while, as if gathering courage, then spoke in a quick, impersonal manner: “Look here. We Norrons are not a naval power. It’s not in our tradition. Our navy has always been inadequate and always will be. But we can breed the toughest soldiers in the known galaxy, in unlimited numbers; we can condition them into fighting machines, and equip them with the most lethal weapons living flesh can wield.

“Kolresh, of course, is just the opposite. Space nomads, small population, able to destroy anything their guns can reach but not able to dig in and hold it against us. For seven hundred years, we and they have been the elephant and the whale. Neither could ever win a real victory over the other; war became the normal state of affairs, peace a breathing spell. Because of the mutation, there will always be war, as long as one single Kolreshite lives. We can’t kill them, we can’t befriend them—all we can do is to be bled white to stop them.”

A wind sighed over the slow thunder on the beach. A line of sea birds crossed the sky, thin and black against glowing bronze.

“I know,” said Ingra. “I know the history, and I know what you’re leading up to. Kolresh will furnish transportation and naval escort; Norstad-Ostarik will furnish men. Between us, we may be able to take Earth.”

“We will,” said Rusch flatly. “Earth has grown plump and lazy. She can’t possibly rearm enough in a few months to stop such a combination.”

“And all the galaxy will spit on our name.”

“All the galaxy will lie open to conquest, once Earth has fallen.”

“How long do you think we would last, riding the Kolresh tiger?”

“I have no illusions about them, my dear. But neither can I see any way to break this eternal deadlock. In a fluid situation, such as the collapse of Earth would produce, we might be able to create a navy as good as theirs. They’ve never yet given us a chance to build one, but perhaps—”

“Perhaps not! I doubt very much it was a meteor which wrecked my husband’s ship, five years ago. I think Kolresh knew of his hopes, of the shipyard he wanted to start, and murdered him.”

“It’s probable,” said Rusch.

“And you would league us with them.” Ingra turned a colorless face on him. “I’m still the queen. I forbid any further consideration of this…this obscene alliance!”

Rusch sighed. “I was afraid of that, your highness.” For a moment he looked gray, tired. “You have a veto power, of course. But I don’t think the Ministry would continue in office a regent who used it against the best interests of—”

She leaped to her feet. “You wouldn’t!”

“Oh, you’d not be harmed,” said Rusch with a crooked smile. “Not even deposed. You’d be in a protective custody, shall we say. Of course, his majesty, your son, would have to be educated elsewhere, but if you wish—”

Her palm cracked on his face. He made no motion.

“I…won’t veto—” Ingra shook her head. Then her back grew stiff. “Your ship will be ready to take you home, my lord. I do not think we shall require your presence here again.”

“As you will, your highness,” mumbled the dictator of the Double Kingdom.

THOUGH HE RETURNED with a bitter word in his mouth, Unduma felt the joy, the biological rightness of being home, rise warm within him. He sat on a terrace under the mild sky of Earth, with the dear bright flow of the Zambezi River at his feet and the slim towers of Capital City rearing as far as he could see, each gracious, in its own green park. The people on the clean quiet streets wore airy blouses and colorful kilts—not the trousers for men, ankle-length skirts for women, which muffled the sad folk of Norstad. And there was educated conversation in the gentle Tierrans language, music from an open window, laughter on the verandas and children playing in the parks: freedom, law, and leisure.

The thought that this might be rubbed out of history, that the robots of Norstad and the snake-souled monsters of Kolresh might tramp between broken spires where starved Earthmen hid, was a tearing in Unduma.

He managed to lift his drink and lean back with the proper casual elegance. “No, sir,” he said, “they are not bluffing.”

Ngu Chilongo, Premier of the Federation Parliament, blinked unhappy eyes. He was a small grizzled man, and a wise man, but this lay beyond everything he had known in a long lifetime and he was slow to grasp it.

“But surely—” he began. “Surely this…this Rusch person is not insane. He cannot think that his two planets, with a population of, what is it, perhaps one billion, can overcome four billion Terrestrials!”

“There would also be several million Kolreshites to help,” reminded Unduma. “However, they would handle the naval end of it entirely—and their navy is considerably stronger than ours. The Norron forces would be the ones which actually landed, to fight the air and ground battles. And out of those paltry one billion, Rusch can raise approximately one hundred million soldiers.”

Chilongo’s glass crashed to the terrace. “What!”

“It’s true, sir.” The third man present, Mustafa Lefarge, Minister of Defense, spoke in a miserable tone. “It’s a question of every able-bodied citizen, male and female, being a trained member of the armed forces. In time of war, virtually everyone not in actual combat is directly contributing to some phase of the effort—a civilian economy virtually ceases to exist. They’re used to getting along for years at a stretch with no comforts and a bare minimum of necessities.” His voice grew sardonic. “By necessities, they mean things like food and ammunition—not, say, entertainment or cultural activity, as we assume.”

“A hundred million,” whispered Chilongo. He stared at his hands. “Why, that’s ten times our total forces!”

“Which are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and ill-regarded by our own civilians,” pointed out Lefarge bitterly.

“In short, sir,” said Unduma, “while we could defeat either Kolresh or Norstad-Ostarik in an all-out war—though with considerable difficulty—between them they can defeat us.”

Chilongo shivered. Unduma felt a certain pity for him. You had to get used to it in small doses, this fact which Civilization screened from Earth: that the depths of hell are found in the human soul. That no law of nature guards the upright innocent from malice.

“But they wouldn’t dare!” protested the Premier. “Our friends…everywhere—”

“All the human-colonized galaxy will wring its hands and send stiff notes of protest,” said Lefarge. “Then they’ll pull the blankets back over their heads and assure themselves that now the big bad aggressor has been sated.”

“This note—of Rusch’s.” Chilongo seemed to be grabbing out after support while the world dropped from beneath his feet. Sweat glistened on his wrinkled brown forehead. “Their terms…surely we can make some agreement?”

“Their terms are impossible, as you’ll see for yourself when you read,” said Unduma flatly. “They want us to declare war on Kolresh, accept a joint command under Norron leadership, foot the bill and—No!”

“But if we have to fight anyway,” began Chilongo, “it would seem better to have at least one ally—”

“Has Earth changed that much since I was gone?” asked Unduma in astonishment. “Would our people really consent to this…this extortion…letting those hairy barbarians write our foreign policy for us—Why, jumping into war, making the first declaration ourselves, it’s unconstitutional! It’s un-Civilized!”

Chilongo seemed to shrink a little. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t mean that. Of course it’s impossible; better to be honestly defeated in battle. I only thought, perhaps we could bargain—”

“We can try,” said Unduma skeptically, “but I never heard of Hans Rusch yielding an angstrom without a pistol at his head.”

Lefarge struck a cigar, inhaled deeply, and took another sip from his glass. “I hardly imagine an alliance with Kolresh would please his own people,” he mused.

“Scarcely!” said Unduma. “But they’ll accept it if they must.”

“Oh? No chance for us to get him overthrown—assassinated, even?”

“Not to speak of. Let me explain. He’s only a petty aristocrat by birth, but during the last war with Kolresh he gained high rank and a personal following of fanatically loyal young officers. For the past few years, since the king died, he’s been the dictator. He’s filled the key posts with his men: hard, able, and unquestioning. Everyone else is either admiring or cowed. Give him credit, he’s no megalomaniac—he shuns publicity—but that simply divorces his power all the more from responsibility. You can measure it by pointing out that everyone knows he will probably ally with Kolresh, and everyone has a nearly physical loathing of the idea—but there is not a word of criticism for Rusch himself, and when he orders it they will embark on Kolreshite ships to ruin the Earth they love.”

“It could almost make you believe in the old myths,” whispered Chilongo. “About the Devil incarnate.”

“Well,” said Unduma, “this sort of thing has happened before, you know.”

“Hm-m-m?” Lefarge sat up.

Unduma smiled sadly. “Historical examples,” he said. “They’re of no practical value today, except for giving the cold consolation that we’re not uniquely betrayed.”

“What do you mean?” asked Chilongo.

“Well,” said Unduma, “consider the astropolitics of the situation. Around Polaris and beyond lies Kolresh territory, where for a long time they sharpened their teeth preying on backward autochthones. At last they started expanding toward the richer human-settled planets. Norstad happened to lie directly on their path, so Norstad took the first blow—and stopped them.

“Since then, it’s been seven hundred years of stalemated war. Oh, naturally Kolresh outflanks Norstad from time to time, seizes this planet in the galactic west and raids that one to the north, fights a war with one to the south and makes an alliance with one to the east. But it has never amounted to anything important. It can’t, with Norstad astride the most direct line between the heart of Kolresh and the heart of Civilization. If Kolresh made a serious effort to by-pass Norstad, the Norrons could—and would—disrupt everything with an attack in the rear.

“In short, despite the fact that interstellar space is three-dimensional and enormous, Norstad guards the northern marches of Civilization.”

He paused for another sip. It was cool and subtle on his tongue, a benediction after the outworld rotgut.

“Hm-m-m, I never thought of it just that way,” said Lefarge. “I assumed it was just a matter of barbarians fighting each other for the usual barbarian reasons.”

“Oh, it is, I imagine,” said Unduma, “but the result is that Norstad acts as the shield of Earth.

“Now if you examine early Terrestrial history—and Rusch, who has a remarkable knowledge of it, stimulated me to do so—you’ll find that this is a common thing. A small semicivilized state, out on the marches, holds off the enemy while the true civilization prospers behind it. Assyria warded Mesopotamia, Rome defended Greece, the Welsh border lords kept England safe, the Transoxanian Tartars were the shield of Persia, Prussia blocked the approaches to western Europe…oh, I could add a good many examples. In every instance, a somewhat backward people on the distant frontier of a civilization receive the worst hammer-blows of the really alien races beyond, the wild men who would leave nothing standing if they could get at the protected cities of the inner society.”

He paused for breath. “And so?” asked Chilongo.

“Well, of course, suffering isn’t good for people,” shrugged Unduma. “It tends to make them rather nasty. The marchmen react to incessant war by becoming a warrior race, uncouth peasants with an absolute government of ruthless militarists. Nobody loves them, neither the outer savages nor the inner polite nations.

“And in the end, they’re all too apt to turn inward. Their military skill and vigor need a more promising outlet than this grim business of always fighting off an enemy who always comes back and who has even less to steal than the sentry culture.

“So Assyria sacks Babylon; Rome conquers Greece; Percy rises against King Henry; Tamerlane overthrows Bajazet; Prussia clanks into France—”

“And Norstad-Ostarik falls on Earth,” finished Lefarge.

“Exactly,” said Unduma. “It’s not even unprecedented for the border state to join hands with the very tribes it fought so long. Percy and Owen Glendower, for instance…though in that case, I imagine both parties were considerably more attractive than Hans Rusch or Klerak Belug.”

“What are we going to do?” Chilongo whispered it toward the blue sky of Earth, from which no bombs had fallen for a thousand years.

Then he shook himself, jumped to his feet, and faced the other two. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. This has taken me rather by surprise, and I’ll naturally require time to look at this Norron protocol and evaluate the other data. But if it turns out you’re right”—he bowed urbanely—“as I’m sure it will—”

“Yes?” said Unduma in a tautening voice.

“Why, then, we appear to have some months, at least, before anything drastic happens. We can try to gain more time by negotiation. We do have the largest industrial complex in the known universe, and four billion people who have surely not had courage bred out of them. We’ll build up our armed forces, and if those barbarians attack we’ll whip them back into their own kennels and kick them through the rear walls thereof!”

“I hoped you’d say that,” breathed Unduma.

I hope we’ll be granted time,” Lefarge scowled. “I assume Rusch is not a fool. We cannot rearm in anything less than a glare of publicity. When he learns of it, what’s to prevent him from cementing the Kolresh alliance and attacking at once, before we’re ready?”

“Their mutual suspiciousness ought to help,” said Unduma. “I’ll go back there, of course, and do what I can to stir up trouble between them.”

He sat still for a moment, then added as if to himself: “Till we do finish preparing, we have no resources but hope.”

THE KOLRESHITE MUTATION was a subtle thing. It did not show on the surface: physically, they were a handsome people, running to white skin and orange hair. Over the centuries, thousands of Norron spies had infiltrated them, and frequently gotten back alive; what made such work unusually difficult was not the normal hazards of impersonation, but an ingrained reluctance to practice cannibalism and worse.

The mutation was a psychic twist, probably originating in some obscure gene related to the endocrine system. It was extraordinarily hard to describe—every categorical statement about it had the usual quota of exceptions and qualifications. But one might, to a first approximation, call it extreme xenophobia. It is normal for Homo sapiens to be somewhat wary of outsiders till he has established their bona fides; it was normal for Homo Kolreshi to hate all outsiders, from first glimpse to final destruction.

Naturally, such an instinct produced a tendency to inbreeding, which lowered fertility, but systematic execution of the unfit had so far kept the stock vigorous. The instinct also led to strongarm rule within the nation; to nomadism, where a planet was only a base like the oasis of the ancient Bedouin, essential to life but rarely seen; to a cult of secrecy and cruelty, a religion of abominations; to an ultimate goal of conquering the accessible universe and wiping out all other races.

Of course, it was not so simple, nor so blatant. Among themselves, the Kolreshites doubtless found a degree of tenderness and fidelity. Visiting on neutral planets—i.e., planets which it was not yet expedient to attack—they were very courteous and had an account of defending themselves against one unprovoked aggression after another, which some found plausible. Even their enemies stood in awe of their personal heroism.

Nevertheless, few in the galaxy would have wept if the Kolreshites all died one rainy night.

Hans von Thoma Rusch brought his speedster to the great whaleback of the battleship. It lay a light-year from his sun, hidden by cold emptiness; the co-ordinates had been given him secretly, together with an invitation which was more like a summons.

He glided into the landing cradle, under the turrets of guns that could pound a moon apart, and let the mechanism suck him down below decks. When he stepped out into the high, coldly lit debarkation chamber, an honor guard in red presented arms and pipes twittered for him.

He walked slowly forward, a big man in black and silver, to meet his counterpart, Klerak Belug, the Overman of Kolresh, who waited rigid in a blood-colored tunic. The cabin bristled around him with secret police and guns.

Rusch clicked heels. “Good day, your dominance,” he said. A faint echo followed his voice. For some unknown reason, this folk liked echoes and always built walls to resonate.

Belug, an aging giant who topped him by a head, raised shaggy brows. “Are you alone, your lordship?” he asked in atrociously accented Norron. “It was understood that you could bring a personal bodyguard.”

Rusch shrugged. “I would have needed a personal dreadnought to be quite safe,” he replied in fluent Kolra, “so I decided to trust your safe conduct. I assume you realize that any harm done to me means instant war with my kingdom.”

The broad, wrinkled lion-face before him split into a grin. “My representatives did not misjudge you, your lordship. I think we can indeed do business. Come.”

The Overman turned and led the way down a ramp toward the guts of the ship. Rusch followed, enclosed by guards and bayonets. He kept a hand on his own sidearm—not that it would do him much good, if matters came to that.

Events were approaching their climax, he thought in a cold layer of his brain. For more than a year now, negotiations had dragged on, hemmed in by the requirement of secrecy, weighted down by mutual suspicion. There were only two points of disagreement remaining, but discussion had been so thoroughly snagged on those that the two absolute rulers must meet to settle it personally. It was Belug who had issued the contemptuous invitation.

And he, Rusch, had come. Tonight the old kings of Norstad wept worms in their graves.

The party entered a small, luxuriously chaired room. There were the usual robots, for transcription and reference purposes, and there were guards, but Overman and Margrave were essentially alone.

Belug wheezed his bulk into a seat. “Smoke? Drink?”

“I have my own, thank you.” Rusch took out his pipe and a hip flask.

“That is scarcely diplomatic,” rumbled Belug.

Rusch laughed. “I’d always understood that your dominance had no use for the mannerisms of Civilization. I daresay we’d both like to finish our business as quickly as possible.”

The Overman snapped his fingers. Someone glided up with wine in a glass. He sipped for a while before answering: “Yes. By all means. Let us reach an executive agreement now and wait for our hirelings to draw up a formal treaty. But it seems odd, sir, that after all these months of delay, you are suddenly so eager to complete the work.”

“Not odd,” said Rusch. “Earth is rearming at a considerable rate. She’s had almost a year now. We can still whip her, but in another six months we’ll no longer be able to; give her automated factories half a year beyond that, and she’ll destroy us!”

“It must have been clear to you, sir, that after the Earth Ambassador—what’s his name, Unduma—after he returned to your planets last year, he was doing all he could to gain time.”

“Oh, yes,” said Rusch. “Making offers to me, and then haggling over them—brewing trouble elsewhere to divert our attention—a gallant effort. But it didn’t work. Frankly, your dominance, you’ve only yourself to blame for the delays. For example, your insisting that Earth be administered as Kolreshite territory—”

“My dear sir!” exploded Belug. “It was a talking point. Only a talking point. Any diplomatist would have understood. But you took six weeks to study it, then offered that preposterous counter-proposal that everything should revert to you, loot and territory both—Why, if you had been truly willing to co-operate, we could have settled the terms in a month!”

“As you like, your dominance,” said Rusch carelessly. “It’s all past now. There are only these questions of troop transport and prisoners, then we’re in total agreement.”

Klerak Belug narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin with one outsize hand. “I do not comprehend,” he said, “and neither do my naval officers. We have regular transports for your men, nothing extraordinary in the way of comfort, to be sure, but infinitely more suitable for so long a voyage than…than the naval units you insist we use. Don’t you understand? A transport is for carrying men or cargo; a ship of the line is to fight or convoy. You do not mix the functions!”

“I do, your dominance,” said Rusch. “As many of my soldiers as possible are going to travel on regular warships furnished by Kolresh, and there are going to be Double Kingdom naval personnel with them for liaison.”

“But—” Belug’s fist closed on his wineglass as if to splinter it. “Why?” he roared.

“My representatives have explained it a hundred times,” said Rusch wearily. “In blunt language, I don’t trust you. If…oh, let us say there should be disagreement between us while the armada is en route…well, a transport ship is easily replaced, after its convoy vessels have blown it up. The fighting craft of Kolresh are a better hostage for your good behavior.” He struck a light to his pipe. “Naturally, you can’t take our whole fifty-million-man expeditionary force on your battle wagons; but I want soldiers on every warship as well as in the transports.”

Belug shook his ginger head. “No.”

“Come now,” said Rusch. “Your spies have been active enough on Norstad and Ostarik. Have you found any reason to doubt my intentions? Bearing in mind that an army the size of ours cannot be alerted for a given operation without a great many people knowing the fact—”

“Yes, yes,” grumbled Belug. “Granted.” He smiled, a sharp flash of teeth. “But the upper hand is mine, your lordship. I can wait indefinitely to attack Earth. You can’t.”

“Eh?” Rusch drew hard on his pipe.

“In the last analysis, even dictators rely on popular support. My Intelligence tells me you are rapidly losing yours. The queen has not spoken to you for a year, has she? And there are many Norrons whose first loyalty is to the Crown. As the thought of war with Earth seeps in, as men have time to comprehend how little they like the idea, time to see through your present anti-Terrestrial propaganda—they grow angry. Already they mutter about you in the beer halls and the officers’ clubs, they whisper in ministry cloakrooms. My agents have heard.

“Your personal cadre of young key officers are the only ones left with unquestioning loyalty to you. Let discontent grow just a little more, let open revolt break out, and your followers will be hanged from the lamp posts.

“You can’t delay much longer.”

Rusch made no reply for a while. Then he sat up, his monocle glittering like a cold round window on winter.

“I can always call off this plan and resume the normal state of affairs,” he snapped.

Belug flushed red. “War with Kolresh again? It would take you too long to shift gears—to reorganize.”

“It would not. Our war college, like any other, has prepared military plans for all foreseeable combinations of circumstances. If I cannot come to terms with you, Plan No. So-and-So goes into effect. And obviously it will have popular enthusiasm behind it!”

He nailed the Overman with a fish-pale eye and continued in frozen tones: “After all, your dominance, I would prefer to fight you. The only thing I would enjoy more would be to hunt you with hounds. Seven hundred years have shown this to be impossible. I opened negotiations to make the best of an evil bargain—since you cannot be conquered, it will pay better to join with you on a course of mutually profitable imperialism.

“But if your stubborness prevents an agreement, I can declare war on you in the usual manner and be no worse off than I was. The choice is, therefore, yours.”

Belug swallowed. Even his guards lost some of their blankness. One does not speak in that fashion across the negotiators’ table.

Finally, only his lips stirring, he said: “Your frankness is appreciated, my lord. Some day I would like to discuss that aspect further. As for now, though…yes, I can see your point. I am prepared to admit some of your troops to our ships of the line.” After another moment, still sitting like a stone ido “But this question of returning prisoners of war. We have never done it. I do not propose to begin.”

I do not propose to let poor devils of Norrons rot any longer in your camps,” said Rusch. “I have a pretty good idea of what goes on there. If we’re to be allies, I’ll want back such of my countrymen as are still alive.”

“Not many are still sane,” Belug told him deliberately.

Rusch puffed smoke and made no reply.

“If I give in on the one item,” said Belug, “I have a right to test your sincerity by the other. We keep our prisoners.”

Rusch’s own face had gone quite pale and still. It grew altogether silent in the room.

“Very well,” he said after a long time. “Let it be so.”

WITHOUT A WORD, Major Othkar Graaborg led his company into the black cruiser. The words came from the spaceport, where police held off a hooting, hissing, rock-throwing mob. It was the first time in history that Norron folk had stoned their own soldiers.

His men tramped stolidly behind him, up the gangway and through the corridors. Among the helmets and packs and weapons, racketing boots and clashing body armor, their faces were lost, they were an army without faces.

Graaborg followed a Kolreshite ensign, who kept looking back nervously at these hereditary foes, till they reached the bunkroom. It had been hastily converted from a storage hold, and was scant cramped comfort for a thousand men.

“All right, boys,” he said when the door had closed on his guide. “Make yourselves at home.”

They got busy, opening packs, spreading bedrolls on bunks. Immediately thereafter, they started to assemble heavy machine guns, howitzers, even a nuclear blaster.

“You, there!” The accented voice squawked indignantly from a loudspeaker in the wall. “I see that. I got video. You not put guns together here.”

Graaborg looked up from his inspection of a live fission shell. “Obscenity you,” he said pleasantly. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I executive officer. I tell captain.”

“Go right ahead. My orders say that according to treaty, as long as we stay in our assigned part of the ship, we’re under our own discipline. If your captain doesn’t like it, let him come down here and talk to us.” Graaborg ran a thumb along the edge of his bayonet. A wolfish chorus from his men underlined the invitation.

No one pressed the point. The cruiser lumbered into space, rendezvoused with her task force, and went into nonspatial drive. For several days, the Norron army contingent remained in its den, more patient with such stinking quarters than the Kolreshites could imagine anyone being. Nevertheless, no spaceman ventured in there; meals were fetched at the galley by Norron squads.

Graaborg alone wandered freely about the ship. He was joined by Commander von Brecca of Ostarik, the head of the Double Kingdom’s naval liaison on this ship: a small band of officers and ratings, housed elsewhere. They conferred with the Kolreshite officers as the necessity arose, on routine problems, rehearsal of various operations to be performed when Earth was reached a month hence—but they did not mingle socially. This suited their hosts.

The fact is, the Kolreshites were rather frightened of them. A spaceman does not lack courage, but he is a gentleman among warriors. His ship either functions well, keeping him clean and comfortable, or it does not function at all and he dies quickly and mercifully. He fights with machines, at enormous ranges.

The ground soldier, muscle in mud, whose ultimate weapon is whetted steel in bare hands, has a different kind of toughness.

Two weeks after departure, Graaborg’s wrist chronometer showed a certain hour. He was drilling his men in full combat rig, as he had been doing every “day” in spite of the narrow quarters.

“Ten-SHUN!” The order flowed through captains, lieutenants, and sergeants; the bulky mass of men crashed to stillness.

Major Graaborg put a small pocket amplifier to his lips. “All right, lads,” he said casually, “assume gas masks, radiation shields, all gun squads to weapons. Now let’s clean up this ship.”

He himself blew down the wall with a grenade.

Being perhaps the most thoroughly trained soldiers in the universe, the Norron men paused for only one amazed second. Then they cheered, with death and hell in their voices, and crowded at his heels.

Little resistance was met until Graaborg had picked up von Brecca’s naval command, the crucial ones, who could sail and fight the ship. The Kolreshites were too dumbfounded. Thereafter the nomads rallied and fought gamely. Graaborg was handicapped by not having been able to give his men a battle plan. He split up his forces and trusted to the intelligence of the noncoms.

His faith was not misplaced, though the ship was in poor condition by the time the last Kolreshite had been machine-gunned.

Graaborg himself had used a bayonet, with vast satisfaction.

M’KATZE UNDUMA ENTERED the office in the Witch Tower. “You sent for me, your lordship?” he asked. His voice was as cold and bitter as the gale outside.

“Yes. Please be seated.” Margrave Hans von Thoma Rusch looked tired. “I have some news for you.”

“What news? You declared war on Earth two weeks ago. Your army can’t have reached her yet.” Unduma leaned over the desk. “Is it that you’ve found transportation to send me home?”

“Somewhat better news, your excellency.” Rusch leaned over and tuned a telescreen. A background of clattering robots and frantically busy junior officers came into view.

Then a face entered the screen, young, and with more life in it than Unduma had ever before seen on this sullen planet. “Central Data headquarters—Oh, yes, your lordship.” Boyishly, against all rules: “We’ve got her! The Bheoka just called in…she’s ours!”

“Hm-m-m. Good.” Rusch glanced at Unduma. “The Bheoka is the superdreadnought accompanying Task Force Two. Carry on with the news.”

“Yes, sir. She’s already reducing the units we failed to capture. Admiral Sorrens estimates he’ll control Force Two entirely in another hour. Bulletin just came in from Force Three. Admiral Gundrup killed in fighting, but Vice Admiral Smitt has assumed command and reports three-fourths of the ships in our hands. He’s delaying fire until he sees how it goes aboard the rest. Also—”

“Never mind,” said Rusch. “I’ll get the comprehensive report later. Remind Staff that for the next few hours all command decisions had better be made by officers on the spot. After that, when we see what we’ve got, broader tactics can be prepared. If some extreme emergency doesn’t arise, it’ll be a few hours before I can get over to HQ.”

“Yes, sir. Sir, I…may I say—” So might the young Norron have addressed a god.

“All right, son, you’ve said it.” Rusch turned off the screen and looked at Unduma. “Do you realize what’s happening?”

The ambassador sat down; his knees seemed all at once to have melted. “What have you done?” It was like a stranger speaking.

“What I planned quite a few years ago,” said the Margrave.

He reached into his desk and brought forth a bottle. “Here, your excellency. I think we could both use a swig. Authentic Terrestrial Scotch. I’ve saved it for this day.”

But there was no glory leaping in him. It is often thus, you reach a dream and you only feel how tired you are.

Unduma let the liquid fire slide down his throat.

“You understand, don’t you?” said Rusch. “For seven centuries, the Elephant and the Whale fought, without being able to get at each other’s vitals. I made this alliance against Earth solely to get our men aboard their ships. But a really large operation like that can’t be faked. It has to be genuine—the agreements, the preparations, the propaganda, everything. Only a handful of officers, men who could be trusted to…to infinity”—his voice cracked over, and Unduma thought of war prisoners sacrificed, hideous casualties in the steel corridors of spaceships, Norron gunners destroying Kolreshite vessels and the survivors of Norron detachments which failed to capture them—“only a few could be told, and then only at the last instant. For the rest, I relied on the quality of our troops. They’re good lads, every one of them and, therefore adaptable. They’re especially adaptable when suddenly told to fall on the men they’d most like to kill.”

He tilted the bottle afresh. “It’s proving expensive,” he said in a slurred, hurried tone. “It will cost us as many casualties, no doubt, as ten years of ordinary war. But if I hadn’t done this, there could easily have been another seven hundred years of war. Couldn’t there? Couldn’t there have been? As it is, we’ve already broken the spine of the Kolreshite fleet. She has plenty of ships yet, to be sure, still a menace, but crippled. I hope Earth will see fit to join us. Between them, Earth and Norstad-Ostarik can finish off Kolresh in a hurry. And after all, Kolresh did declare war on you, had every intention of destroying you. If you won’t help, well, we can end it by ourselves, now that the fleet is broken. But I hope you’ll join us.”

“I don’t know,” said Unduma. He was still wobbling in a new cosmos. “We’re not a…a hard people.”

“You ought to be,” said Rusch. “Hard enough, anyway, to win a voice for yourselves in what’s going to happen around Polaris. Important frontier, Polaris.”

“Yes,” said Unduma slowly. “There is that. It won’t cause any hosannahs in our streets, but…yes, I think we will continue the war, as your allies, if only to prevent you from massacring the Kolreshites. They can be rehabilitated, you know.”

“I doubt that,” grunted Rusch. “But it’s a detail. At the very least, they’ll never be allowed weapons again.” He raised a sardonic brow. “I suppose we, too, can be rehabilitated, once you get your peace groups and psychotechs out here. No doubt you’ll manage to demilitarize us and turn us into good plump democrats. All right, Unduma, send your Civilizing missionaries. But permit me to give thanks that I won’t live to see their work completed!”

The Earthman nodded, rather coldly. You couldn’t blame Rusch for treachery, callousness, and arrogance—he was what his history had made him—but he remained unpleasant company for a Civilized man. “I shall communicate with my government at once, your lordship, and recommend a provisional alliance, the terms to be settled later,” he said. “I will report back to you as soon as…ah, where will you be?”

“How should I know?” Rusch got out of his chair. The winter night howled at his back. “I have to convene the Ministry, and make a public telecast, and get over to Staff, and—No. The devil with it! If you need me inside the next few hours, I’ll be at Sorgenlos on Ostarik. But the matter had better be urgent!”

<p><emphasis>Poul Anderson</emphasis></p>

War of the Wing-Men, The Day of Their Return, and The Game of Empire. Anderson has tackled many of science fiction’s classic themes, including human evolution in Brain Wave (1954), near-light-speed space travel in Tau Zero (1970), and the time-travel paradox in his series of Time Patrol stories collected as Guardians of Time. He is renowned for his interweaving of science fiction and mythology, notably in his alien-contact novel The High Crusade. He also has produced distinguished fantasy fiction, including the heroic sagas Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword, and an alternate history according to Shakespeare, Midsummer Tempest. He received the Tolkien Memorial Award in 1978. With his wife, Karen, he wrote The King of Ys Celtic fantasy quartet. With Gordon R. Dickson, he has authored the popular comic Hoka series. His short story “Call Me Joe” was chosen for inclusion in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1974, and his short fiction has been collected in several volumes, notably The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories, All One Universe, and The Best of Poul Anderson.


HIS EXCELLENCY M’KATZE UNDUMA, Ambassador of the Terrestrial Federation to the Double Kingdom, was not accustomed to being kept waiting. But as the minutes dragged into an hour, anger faded before a chill deduction.

In this bleakly clock-bound society a short delay was bad manners, even if it were unintentional. But if you kept a man of rank cooling his heels for an entire sixty minutes, you offered him an unforgivable insult. Rusch was a barbarian but he was too canny to humiliate Earth’s representative without reason.

Which bore out everything that Terrestrial Intelligence had discovered. From a drunken junior officer, weeping in his cups because Old Earth, Civilization, was going to be attacked and the campus where he had once learned and loved would be scorched to ruin by his fire guns—to the battle plans and annotations thereon, which six men had died to smuggle out of the Royal War College—and now, this degradation of the ambassador himself—everything fitted.

The Margrave of Drakenstane had sold out Civilization.

Unduma shuddered, beneath the iridescent cloak, embroidered robe, and ostrich-plume headdress of his rank. He swept the antechamber with the eyes of a trapped animal.

This castle was ancient, dating back some eight hundred years to the first settlement of Norstad. The grim square massiveness of it, fused stone piled into a turreted mountain, was not much relieved by modern fittings. Tableservs, loungers, drapes, jewel mosaics, and biomurals only clashed with those fortress walls and ringing flagstones; fluorosheets did not light up all the dark corners, there was perpetual dusk up among the rafters where the old battle banners hung.

A dozen guards were posted around the room, in breastplate and plumed helmet but with very modern blast rifles. They were identical seven-foot blonds, and none of them moved at all, you couldn’t even see them breathe. It was an unnerving sight for a Civilized man.

Unduma snubbed out his cigar, swore miserably to himself, and wished he had at least brought along a book.

The inner door opened on noiseless hinges and a shavepate officer emerged. He clicked his heels and bowed at Unduma. “His Lordship will be honored to receive you now, excellency.”

The ambassador throttled his anger, nodded, and stood up. He was a tall thin man, the relatively light skin and sharp features of Bantu stock predominant in him. Earth’s emissaries were normally chosen to approximate a local ideal of beauty—hard to do for some of those weird little cultures scattered through the galaxy—and Norstad-Ostarik had been settled by a rather extreme Caucasoid type which had almost entirely emigrated from the home planet.

The aide showed him through the door and disappeared. Hans von Thoma Rusch, Margrave of Drakenstane, Lawman of the Western Folkmote, Hereditary Guardian of the White River Gates, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, sat waiting behind a desk at the end of an enormous black-and-red tile floor. He had a book in his hands, and didn’t close it till Unduma, sandals whispering on the great chessboard squares, had come near. Then he stood up and made a short ironic bow.

“How do you do, your excellency,” he said. “I am sorry to be so late. Please sit.” Such curtness was no apology at all, and both of them knew it.

Unduma lowered himself to a chair in front of the desk. He would not show temper, he thought, he was here for a greater purpose. His teeth clamped together.

“Thank you, your lordship,” he said tonelessly. “I hope you will have time to talk with me in some detail. I have come on a matter of grave importance.”

Rusch’s right eyebrow tilted up, so that the archaic monocle he affected beneath it seemed in danger of falling out. He was a big man, stiffly and solidly built, yellow hair cropped to a wiry brush around the long skull, a scar puckering his left cheek. He wore Army uniform, the gray high-collared tunic and old-fashioned breeches and shiny boots of his planet; the trident and suns of a primary general; a sidearm, its handle worn smooth from much use. If ever the iron barbarian with the iron brain had an epitome, thought Unduma, here he sat!

“Well, your excellency,” murmured Rusch—though the harsh Norron language did not lend itself to murmurs—“of course I’ll be glad to hear you out. But after all, I’ve no standing in the Ministry, except as unofficial advisor, and—”

“Please.” Unduma lifted a hand. “Must we keep up the fable? You not only speak for all the landed warloads—and the Nor-Samurai are still the most powerful single class in the Double Kingdom—but you have the General Staff in your pouch and, ah, you are well thought of by the royal family. I think I can talk directly to you.”

Rusch did not smile, but neither did he trouble to deny what everyone knew, that he was the leader of the fighting aristocracy, friend of the widowed Queen Regent, virtual step-father of her eight-year-old son King Hjalmar—in a word, that he was the dictator. If he preferred to keep a small title and not have his name unnecessarily before the public, what difference did that make?

“I’ll be glad to pass on whatever you wish to say to the proper authorities,” he answered slowly. “Pipe.” That was an order to his chair, which produced a lit briar for him.

Unduma felt appalled. This series of—informalities—was like one savage blow after another. Till now, in the three-hundred-year history of relations between Earth and the Double Kingdom, the Terrestrial ambassador had ranked everyone but God and the royal family.

No human planet, no matter how long sundered from the main stream, no matter what strange ways it had wandered, failed to remember that Earth was Earth, the home of man and the heart of Civilization. No human planet—had Norstad-Ostarik, then, gone the way of Kolresh?

Biologically, no, thought Unduma with an inward shudder. Nor culturally—yet. But it shrieked at him, from every insolent movement and twist of words, that Rusch had made a political deal.

“Well?” said the Margrave.

Unduma cleared his throat, desperately, and leaned forward. “Your lordship,” he said, “my embassy cannot help taking notice of certain public statements, as well as certain military preparations and other matters of common knowledge—”

“And items your spies have dug up,” drawled Rusch.

Unduma started. “My lord!”

“My good ambassador,” grinned Rusch, “it was you who suggested a straightforward talk. I know Earth has spies here. In any event, it’s impossible to hide so large a business as the mobilization of two planets for war.”

Unduma felt sweat trickle down his ribs.

“There is…you…your Ministry has only announced it is a…a defense measure,” he stammered. “I had hoped…frankly, yes, till the last minute I hoped you…your people might see fit to join us against Kolresh.”

There was a moment’s quiet. So quiet, thought Unduma. A redness crept up Rusch’s cheeks, the scar stood livid and his pale eyes were the coldest thing Unduma had ever seen.

Then, slowly, the Margrave got it out through his teeth: “For a number of centuries, your excellency, our people hoped Earth might join them.”

“What do you mean?” Unduma forgot all polished inanities. Rusch didn’t seem to notice. He stood up and went to the window.

“Come here,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

THE WINDOW WAS a modern inset of clear, invisible plastic, a broad sheet high in the castle’s infamous Witch Tower. It looked out on a black sky, the sun was down and the glacial forty-hour darkness of northern Norstad was crawling toward midnight.

Stars glittered mercilessly keen in an emptiness which seemed like crystal, which seemed about to ring thinly in contracting anguish under the cold. Ostarik, the companion planet, stood low to the south, a gibbous moon of steely blue; it never moved in that sky, the two worlds forever faced each other, the windy white peaks of one glaring at the warm lazy seas of the other. Northward, a great curtain of aurora flapped halfway around the cragged horizon.

From this dizzy height, Unduma could see little of the town Drakenstane: a few high-peaked roofs and small glowing windows, lamps lonesome above frozen streets. There wasn’t much to see anyhow—no big cities on either planet, only the small towns which had grown from scattered thorps, each clustered humbly about the manor of its lord. Beyond lay winter fields, climbing up the valley walls to the hard green blink of glaciers. It must be blowing out there, he saw snowdevils chase ghostly across the blue-tinged desolation.

Rusch spoke roughly: “Not much of a planet we’ve got here, is it? Out on the far end of nowhere, a thousand light-years from your precious Earth, and right in the middle of a glacial epoch. Have you ever wondered why we don’t set up weather-control stations and give this world a decent climate?”

“Well,” began Unduma, “of course, the exigencies of—”

“Of war.” Rusch sent his hand upward in a chopping motion, to sweep around the alien constellations. Among them burned Polaris, less than thirty parsecs away, huge and cruelly bright. “We never had a chance. Every time we thought we could begin, there would be war, usually with Kolresh, and the labor and materials would have to go for that. Once, about two centuries back, we did actually get stations established, it was even beginning to warm up a little. Kolresh blasted them off the map.

“Norstad was settled eight hundred years ago. For seven of those centuries, we’ve had Kolresh at our throats. Do you wonder if we’ve grown tired?”

“My lord, I…I can sympathize,” said Unduma awkwardly. “I am not ignorant of your heroic history. But it would seem to me…after all, Earth has also fought—”

“At a range of a thousand light-years!” jeered Rusch. “The forgotten war. A few underpaid patrolmen in obsolete rustbucket ships to defend unimportant outposts from sporadic Kolreshite raids. We live on their borders!”

“It would certainly appear, your lordship, that Kolresh is your natural enemy,” said Unduma. “As indeed it is of all Civilization of Homo sapiens himself. What I cannot credit are the, ah, the rumors of an, er, alliance—”

“And why shouldn’t we?” snarled Rusch. “For seven hundred years we’ve held them at bay, while your precious so-called Civilization grew fat behind a wall of our dead young men. The temptation to recoup some of our losses by helping Kolresh conquer Earth is very strong!”

“You don’t mean it!” The breath rushed from Unduma’s lungs.

The other man’s face was like carved bone. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he answered. “I merely point out that from our side there’s a good deal to be said for such a policy. Now if Earth is prepared to make a different policy worth our while—do you understand? Nothing is going to happen in the immediate future. You have time to think about it.”

“I would have to…communicate with my government,” whispered Unduma.

“Of course,” said Rusch. His bootheels clacked on the floor as he went back to his desk. “I’ve had a memorandum prepared for you, an unofficial informal sort of protocol, points which his majesty’s government would like to make the basis of negotiations with the Terrestrial Federation. Ah, here!” He picked up a bulky folio. “I suggest you take a leave of absence, your excellency, go home and show your superiors this, ah—”

“Ultimatum,” said Unduma in a sick voice.

Rusch shrugged. “Call it what you will.” His tone was empty and remote, as if he had already cut himself and his people out of Civilization.

As he accepted the folio, Unduma noticed the book beside it, the one Rusch had been reading: a local edition of Schakspier, badly printed on sleazy paper, but in the original Old Anglic. Odd thing for a barbarian dictator to read. But then, Rusch was a bit of an historical scholar, as well as an enthusiastic kayak racer, meteor polo player, chess champion, mountain climber, and…and all-around scoundrel!

NORSTAD LAY IN the grip of a ten-thousand-year winter, while Ostarik was a heaven of blue seas breaking on warm island sands. Nevertheless, because Ostarik harbored a peculiarly nasty plague virus, it remained an unattainable paradise in the sky till a bare two hundred fifty years ago. Then a research team from Earth got to work, found an effective vaccine, and saw a mountain carved into their likeness by the Norron folk.

It was through such means—and the sheer weight of example, the liberty and wealth and happiness of its people—that the Civilization centered on Earth had been propagating itself among colonies isolated for centuries. There were none which lacked reverence for Earth the Mother, Earth the Wise, Earth the Kindly: none but Kolresh, which had long ceased to be human.

Rusch’s private speedster whipped him from the icicle walls of Festning Drakenstane to the rose gardens of Sorgenlos in an hour of hell-bat haste across vacuum. But it was several hours more until he and the queen could get away from their courtiers and be alone.

They walked through geometric beds of smoldering blooms under songbirds and fronded trees, while the copper spires of the little palace reached up to the evening star and the hours-long sunset of Ostarik blazed gold across great quiet waters. The island was no more than a royal retreat, but lately it had known agonies.

Queen Ingra stooped over a mutant rose, tiger striped and a foot across; she plucked the petals from it and said close to weeping: “But I liked Unduma. I don’t want him to hate us.”

“He’s not a bad sort,” agreed Rusch. He stood behind her in a black dress uniform with silver insignia, like a formal version of death.

“He’s more than that, Hans. He stands for decency—Norstad froze our souls, and Ostarik hasn’t thawed them. I thought Earth might—” Her voice trailed off. She was slender and dark, still young, and her folk came from the rainy dales of Norstad’s equator, a farm race with gentler ways than the miners and fishermen and hunters of the red-haired ice ape who had bred Rusch. In her throat, the Norron language softened to a burring music; the Drakenstane men spat their words out rough-edged.

“Earth might what?” Rusch turned a moody gaze to the west. “Lavish more gifts on us? We were always proud of paying our own way.”

“Oh, no,” said Ingra wearily. “After all, we could trade with them, furs and minerals and so on, if ninety per cent of our production didn’t have to go into defense. I only thought they might teach us how to be human.”

“I had assumed we were still classified Homo sapiens,” said Rusch in a parched tone.

“Oh, you know what I mean!” She turned on him, violet eyes suddenly aflare. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re human, Margrave Hans von Thoma Rusch. I mean free, free to be something more than a robot, free to raise children knowing they won’t have their lungs shoved out their mouths when a Kolreshite cruiser hulls one of our spaceships. What is our whole culture, Hans? A layer of brutalized farmhands and factory workers—serfs! A top crust of heel-clattering aristocrats who live for nothing but war. A little folk art, folk music, folk saga, full of blood and treachery. Where are our symphonies, novels, cathedrals, research laboratories…where are people who can say what they wish and make what they will of their lives and be happy?”

RUSCH DIDN’T ANSWER for a moment. He looked at her, unblinking behind his monocle, till she dropped her gaze and twisted her hands together. Then he said only: “You exaggerate.”

“Perhaps. It’s still the basic truth.” Rebellion rode in her voice. “It’s what all the other worlds think of us.”

“Even if the democratic assumption—that the eternal verities can be discovered by counting enough noses—were true,” said Rusch, “you cannot repeal eight hundred years of history by decree.”

“No. But you could work toward it,” she said. “I think you’re wrong in despising the common man, Hans…when was he ever given a chance, in this kingdom? We could make a beginning now, and Earth could send psychotechnic advisors, and in two or three generations—”

“What would Kolresh be doing while we experimented with forms of government?” he laughed.

“Always Kolresh.” Her shoulders, slim behind the burning-red cloak, slumped. “Kolresh turned a hundred hopeful towns into radioactive craters and left the gnawed bones of children in the fields. Kolresh killed my husband, like a score of kings before him. Kolresh blasted your family to ash, Hans, and scarred your face and your soul—” She whirled back on him, fists aloft, and almost screamed: “Do you want to make an ally of Kolresh?”

The Margrave took out his pipe and began filling it. The saffron sundown, reflected off the ocean to his face, gave him a metal look.

“Well,” he said, “we’ve been at peace with them for all of ten years now. Almost a record.”

“Can’t we find allies? Real ones? I’m sick of being a figurehead! I’d befriend Ahuramazda, New Mars, Lagrange—We could raise a crusade against Kolresh, wipe every last filthy one of them out of the universe!”

“Now who’s a heel-clattering aristocrat?” grinned Rusch.

He lit his pipe and strolled toward the beach. She stood for an angry moment, then sighed and followed him.

“Do you think it hasn’t been tried?” he said patiently. “For generations we’ve tried to build up a permanent alliance directed at Kolresh. What temporary ones we achieved have always fallen apart. Nobody loves us enough—and, since we’ve always taken the heaviest blows, nobody hates Kolresh enough.”

He found a bench on the glistening edge of the strand, and sat down and looked across a steady march of surf, turned to molten gold by the low sun and the incandescent western clouds. Ingra joined him.

“I can’t really blame the others for not liking us,” she said in a small voice. “We are overmechanized and undercultured, arrogant, tactless, undemocratic, hard-boiled…oh, yes. But their own self-interest—”

“They don’t imagine it can happen to them,” replied Rusch contemptuously. “And there are even pro-Kolresh elements, here and there.” He raised his voice an octave: “Oh, my dear sir, my dear Margrave, what are you saying? Why, of course Kolresh would never attack us! They made a treaty never to attack us!”

Ingra sighed, forlornly. Rusch laid an arm across her shoulders. They sat for a while without speaking.

“ANYWAY,” SAID THE man finally, “Kolresh is too strong for any combination of powers in this part of the galaxy. We and they are the only ones with a military strength worth mentioning. Even Earth would have a hard time defeating them, and Earth, of course, will lean backward before undertaking a major war. She has too much to lose; it’s so much more comfortable to regard the Kolreshite raids as mere piracies, the skirmishes as ‘police actions.’ She just plain will not pay the stiff price of an army and a navy able to whip Kolresh and occupy the Kolreshite planets.”

“And so it is to be war again.” Ingra looked out in desolation across the sea.

“Maybe not,” said Rusch. “Maybe a different kind of war, at least—no more black ships coming out of our sky.”

He blew smoke for a while, as if gathering courage, then spoke in a quick, impersonal manner: “Look here. We Norrons are not a naval power. It’s not in our tradition. Our navy has always been inadequate and always will be. But we can breed the toughest soldiers in the known galaxy, in unlimited numbers; we can condition them into fighting machines, and equip them with the most lethal weapons living flesh can wield.

“Kolresh, of course, is just the opposite. Space nomads, small population, able to destroy anything their guns can reach but not able to dig in and hold it against us. For seven hundred years, we and they have been the elephant and the whale. Neither could ever win a real victory over the other; war became the normal state of affairs, peace a breathing spell. Because of the mutation, there will always be war, as long as one single Kolreshite lives. We can’t kill them, we can’t befriend them—all we can do is to be bled white to stop them.”

A wind sighed over the slow thunder on the beach. A line of sea birds crossed the sky, thin and black against glowing bronze.

“I know,” said Ingra. “I know the history, and I know what you’re leading up to. Kolresh will furnish transportation and naval escort; Norstad-Ostarik will furnish men. Between us, we may be able to take Earth.”

“We will,” said Rusch flatly. “Earth has grown plump and lazy. She can’t possibly rearm enough in a few months to stop such a combination.”

“And all the galaxy will spit on our name.”

“All the galaxy will lie open to conquest, once Earth has fallen.”

“How long do you think we would last, riding the Kolresh tiger?”

“I have no illusions about them, my dear. But neither can I see any way to break this eternal deadlock. In a fluid situation, such as the collapse of Earth would produce, we might be able to create a navy as good as theirs. They’ve never yet given us a chance to build one, but perhaps—”

“Perhaps not! I doubt very much it was a meteor which wrecked my husband’s ship, five years ago. I think Kolresh knew of his hopes, of the shipyard he wanted to start, and murdered him.”

“It’s probable,” said Rusch.

“And you would league us with them.” Ingra turned a colorless face on him. “I’m still the queen. I forbid any further consideration of this…this obscene alliance!”

Rusch sighed. “I was afraid of that, your highness.” For a moment he looked gray, tired. “You have a veto power, of course. But I don’t think the Ministry would continue in office a regent who used it against the best interests of—”

She leaped to her feet. “You wouldn’t!”

“Oh, you’d not be harmed,” said Rusch with a crooked smile. “Not even deposed. You’d be in a protective custody, shall we say. Of course, his majesty, your son, would have to be educated elsewhere, but if you wish—”

Her palm cracked on his face. He made no motion.

“I…won’t veto—” Ingra shook her head. Then her back grew stiff. “Your ship will be ready to take you home, my lord. I do not think we shall require your presence here again.”

“As you will, your highness,” mumbled the dictator of the Double Kingdom.

THOUGH HE RETURNED with a bitter word in his mouth, Unduma felt the joy, the biological rightness of being home, rise warm within him. He sat on a terrace under the mild sky of Earth, with the dear bright flow of the Zambezi River at his feet and the slim towers of Capital City rearing as far as he could see, each gracious, in its own green park. The people on the clean quiet streets wore airy blouses and colorful kilts—not the trousers for men, ankle-length skirts for women, which muffled the sad folk of Norstad. And there was educated conversation in the gentle Tierrans language, music from an open window, laughter on the verandas and children playing in the parks: freedom, law, and leisure.

The thought that this might be rubbed out of history, that the robots of Norstad and the snake-souled monsters of Kolresh might tramp between broken spires where starved Earthmen hid, was a tearing in Unduma.

He managed to lift his drink and lean back with the proper casual elegance. “No, sir,” he said, “they are not bluffing.”

Ngu Chilongo, Premier of the Federation Parliament, blinked unhappy eyes. He was a small grizzled man, and a wise man, but this lay beyond everything he had known in a long lifetime and he was slow to grasp it.

“But surely—” he began. “Surely this…this Rusch person is not insane. He cannot think that his two planets, with a population of, what is it, perhaps one billion, can overcome four billion Terrestrials!”

“There would also be several million Kolreshites to help,” reminded Unduma. “However, they would handle the naval end of it entirely—and their navy is considerably stronger than ours. The Norron forces would be the ones which actually landed, to fight the air and ground battles. And out of those paltry one billion, Rusch can raise approximately one hundred million soldiers.”

Chilongo’s glass crashed to the terrace. “What!”

“It’s true, sir.” The third man present, Mustafa Lefarge, Minister of Defense, spoke in a miserable tone. “It’s a question of every able-bodied citizen, male and female, being a trained member of the armed forces. In time of war, virtually everyone not in actual combat is directly contributing to some phase of the effort—a civilian economy virtually ceases to exist. They’re used to getting along for years at a stretch with no comforts and a bare minimum of necessities.” His voice grew sardonic. “By necessities, they mean things like food and ammunition—not, say, entertainment or cultural activity, as we assume.”

“A hundred million,” whispered Chilongo. He stared at his hands. “Why, that’s ten times our total forces!”

“Which are ill-trained, ill-equipped, and ill-regarded by our own civilians,” pointed out Lefarge bitterly.

“In short, sir,” said Unduma, “while we could defeat either Kolresh or Norstad-Ostarik in an all-out war—though with considerable difficulty—between them they can defeat us.”

Chilongo shivered. Unduma felt a certain pity for him. You had to get used to it in small doses, this fact which Civilization screened from Earth: that the depths of hell are found in the human soul. That no law of nature guards the upright innocent from malice.

“But they wouldn’t dare!” protested the Premier. “Our friends…everywhere—”

“All the human-colonized galaxy will wring its hands and send stiff notes of protest,” said Lefarge. “Then they’ll pull the blankets back over their heads and assure themselves that now the big bad aggressor has been sated.”

“This note—of Rusch’s.” Chilongo seemed to be grabbing out after support while the world dropped from beneath his feet. Sweat glistened on his wrinkled brown forehead. “Their terms…surely we can make some agreement?”

“Their terms are impossible, as you’ll see for yourself when you read,” said Unduma flatly. “They want us to declare war on Kolresh, accept a joint command under Norron leadership, foot the bill and—No!”

“But if we have to fight anyway,” began Chilongo, “it would seem better to have at least one ally—”

“Has Earth changed that much since I was gone?” asked Unduma in astonishment. “Would our people really consent to this…this extortion…letting those hairy barbarians write our foreign policy for us—Why, jumping into war, making the first declaration ourselves, it’s unconstitutional! It’s un-Civilized!”

Chilongo seemed to shrink a little. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t mean that. Of course it’s impossible; better to be honestly defeated in battle. I only thought, perhaps we could bargain—”

“We can try,” said Unduma skeptically, “but I never heard of Hans Rusch yielding an angstrom without a pistol at his head.”

Lefarge struck a cigar, inhaled deeply, and took another sip from his glass. “I hardly imagine an alliance with Kolresh would please his own people,” he mused.

“Scarcely!” said Unduma. “But they’ll accept it if they must.”

“Oh? No chance for us to get him overthrown—assassinated, even?”

“Not to speak of. Let me explain. He’s only a petty aristocrat by birth, but during the last war with Kolresh he gained high rank and a personal following of fanatically loyal young officers. For the past few years, since the king died, he’s been the dictator. He’s filled the key posts with his men: hard, able, and unquestioning. Everyone else is either admiring or cowed. Give him credit, he’s no megalomaniac—he shuns publicity—but that simply divorces his power all the more from responsibility. You can measure it by pointing out that everyone knows he will probably ally with Kolresh, and everyone has a nearly physical loathing of the idea—but there is not a word of criticism for Rusch himself, and when he orders it they will embark on Kolreshite ships to ruin the Earth they love.”

“It could almost make you believe in the old myths,” whispered Chilongo. “About the Devil incarnate.”

“Well,” said Unduma, “this sort of thing has happened before, you know.”

“Hm-m-m?” Lefarge sat up.

Unduma smiled sadly. “Historical examples,” he said. “They’re of no practical value today, except for giving the cold consolation that we’re not uniquely betrayed.”

“What do you mean?” asked Chilongo.

“Well,” said Unduma, “consider the astropolitics of the situation. Around Polaris and beyond lies Kolresh territory, where for a long time they sharpened their teeth preying on backward autochthones. At last they started expanding toward the richer human-settled planets. Norstad happened to lie directly on their path, so Norstad took the first blow—and stopped them.

“Since then, it’s been seven hundred years of stalemated war. Oh, naturally Kolresh outflanks Norstad from time to time, seizes this planet in the galactic west and raids that one to the north, fights a war with one to the south and makes an alliance with one to the east. But it has never amounted to anything important. It can’t, with Norstad astride the most direct line between the heart of Kolresh and the heart of Civilization. If Kolresh made a serious effort to by-pass Norstad, the Norrons could—and would—disrupt everything with an attack in the rear.

“In short, despite the fact that interstellar space is three-dimensional and enormous, Norstad guards the northern marches of Civilization.”

He paused for another sip. It was cool and subtle on his tongue, a benediction after the outworld rotgut.

“Hm-m-m, I never thought of it just that way,” said Lefarge. “I assumed it was just a matter of barbarians fighting each other for the usual barbarian reasons.”

“Oh, it is, I imagine,” said Unduma, “but the result is that Norstad acts as the shield of Earth.

“Now if you examine early Terrestrial history—and Rusch, who has a remarkable knowledge of it, stimulated me to do so—you’ll find that this is a common thing. A small semicivilized state, out on the marches, holds off the enemy while the true civilization prospers behind it. Assyria warded Mesopotamia, Rome defended Greece, the Welsh border lords kept England safe, the Transoxanian Tartars were the shield of Persia, Prussia blocked the approaches to western Europe…oh, I could add a good many examples. In every instance, a somewhat backward people on the distant frontier of a civilization receive the worst hammer-blows of the really alien races beyond, the wild men who would leave nothing standing if they could get at the protected cities of the inner society.”

He paused for breath. “And so?” asked Chilongo.

“Well, of course, suffering isn’t good for people,” shrugged Unduma. “It tends to make them rather nasty. The marchmen react to incessant war by becoming a warrior race, uncouth peasants with an absolute government of ruthless militarists. Nobody loves them, neither the outer savages nor the inner polite nations.

“And in the end, they’re all too apt to turn inward. Their military skill and vigor need a more promising outlet than this grim business of always fighting off an enemy who always comes back and who has even less to steal than the sentry culture.

“So Assyria sacks Babylon; Rome conquers Greece; Percy rises against King Henry; Tamerlane overthrows Bajazet; Prussia clanks into France—”

“And Norstad-Ostarik falls on Earth,” finished Lefarge.

“Exactly,” said Unduma. “It’s not even unprecedented for the border state to join hands with the very tribes it fought so long. Percy and Owen Glendower, for instance…though in that case, I imagine both parties were considerably more attractive than Hans Rusch or Klerak Belug.”

“What are we going to do?” Chilongo whispered it toward the blue sky of Earth, from which no bombs had fallen for a thousand years.

Then he shook himself, jumped to his feet, and faced the other two. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. This has taken me rather by surprise, and I’ll naturally require time to look at this Norron protocol and evaluate the other data. But if it turns out you’re right”—he bowed urbanely—“as I’m sure it will—”

“Yes?” said Unduma in a tautening voice.

“Why, then, we appear to have some months, at least, before anything drastic happens. We can try to gain more time by negotiation. We do have the largest industrial complex in the known universe, and four billion people who have surely not had courage bred out of them. We’ll build up our armed forces, and if those barbarians attack we’ll whip them back into their own kennels and kick them through the rear walls thereof!”

“I hoped you’d say that,” breathed Unduma.

I hope we’ll be granted time,” Lefarge scowled. “I assume Rusch is not a fool. We cannot rearm in anything less than a glare of publicity. When he learns of it, what’s to prevent him from cementing the Kolresh alliance and attacking at once, before we’re ready?”

“Their mutual suspiciousness ought to help,” said Unduma. “I’ll go back there, of course, and do what I can to stir up trouble between them.”

He sat still for a moment, then added as if to himself: “Till we do finish preparing, we have no resources but hope.”

THE KOLRESHITE MUTATION was a subtle thing. It did not show on the surface: physically, they were a handsome people, running to white skin and orange hair. Over the centuries, thousands of Norron spies had infiltrated them, and frequently gotten back alive; what made such work unusually difficult was not the normal hazards of impersonation, but an ingrained reluctance to practice cannibalism and worse.

The mutation was a psychic twist, probably originating in some obscure gene related to the endocrine system. It was extraordinarily hard to describe—every categorical statement about it had the usual quota of exceptions and qualifications. But one might, to a first approximation, call it extreme xenophobia. It is normal for Homo sapiens to be somewhat wary of outsiders till he has established their bona fides; it was normal for Homo Kolreshi to hate all outsiders, from first glimpse to final destruction.

Naturally, such an instinct produced a tendency to inbreeding, which lowered fertility, but systematic execution of the unfit had so far kept the stock vigorous. The instinct also led to strongarm rule within the nation; to nomadism, where a planet was only a base like the oasis of the ancient Bedouin, essential to life but rarely seen; to a cult of secrecy and cruelty, a religion of abominations; to an ultimate goal of conquering the accessible universe and wiping out all other races.

Of course, it was not so simple, nor so blatant. Among themselves, the Kolreshites doubtless found a degree of tenderness and fidelity. Visiting on neutral planets—i.e., planets which it was not yet expedient to attack—they were very courteous and had an account of defending themselves against one unprovoked aggression after another, which some found plausible. Even their enemies stood in awe of their personal heroism.

Nevertheless, few in the galaxy would have wept if the Kolreshites all died one rainy night.

Hans von Thoma Rusch brought his speedster to the great whaleback of the battleship. It lay a light-year from his sun, hidden by cold emptiness; the co-ordinates had been given him secretly, together with an invitation which was more like a summons.

He glided into the landing cradle, under the turrets of guns that could pound a moon apart, and let the mechanism suck him down below decks. When he stepped out into the high, coldly lit debarkation chamber, an honor guard in red presented arms and pipes twittered for him.

He walked slowly forward, a big man in black and silver, to meet his counterpart, Klerak Belug, the Overman of Kolresh, who waited rigid in a blood-colored tunic. The cabin bristled around him with secret police and guns.

Rusch clicked heels. “Good day, your dominance,” he said. A faint echo followed his voice. For some unknown reason, this folk liked echoes and always built walls to resonate.

Belug, an aging giant who topped him by a head, raised shaggy brows. “Are you alone, your lordship?” he asked in atrociously accented Norron. “It was understood that you could bring a personal bodyguard.”

Rusch shrugged. “I would have needed a personal dreadnought to be quite safe,” he replied in fluent Kolra, “so I decided to trust your safe conduct. I assume you realize that any harm done to me means instant war with my kingdom.”

The broad, wrinkled lion-face before him split into a grin. “My representatives did not misjudge you, your lordship. I think we can indeed do business. Come.”

The Overman turned and led the way down a ramp toward the guts of the ship. Rusch followed, enclosed by guards and bayonets. He kept a hand on his own sidearm—not that it would do him much good, if matters came to that.

Events were approaching their climax, he thought in a cold layer of his brain. For more than a year now, negotiations had dragged on, hemmed in by the requirement of secrecy, weighted down by mutual suspicion. There were only two points of disagreement remaining, but discussion had been so thoroughly snagged on those that the two absolute rulers must meet to settle it personally. It was Belug who had issued the contemptuous invitation.

And he, Rusch, had come. Tonight the old kings of Norstad wept worms in their graves.

The party entered a small, luxuriously chaired room. There were the usual robots, for transcription and reference purposes, and there were guards, but Overman and Margrave were essentially alone.

Belug wheezed his bulk into a seat. “Smoke? Drink?”

“I have my own, thank you.” Rusch took out his pipe and a hip flask.

“That is scarcely diplomatic,” rumbled Belug.

Rusch laughed. “I’d always understood that your dominance had no use for the mannerisms of Civilization. I daresay we’d both like to finish our business as quickly as possible.”

The Overman snapped his fingers. Someone glided up with wine in a glass. He sipped for a while before answering: “Yes. By all means. Let us reach an executive agreement now and wait for our hirelings to draw up a formal treaty. But it seems odd, sir, that after all these months of delay, you are suddenly so eager to complete the work.”

“Not odd,” said Rusch. “Earth is rearming at a considerable rate. She’s had almost a year now. We can still whip her, but in another six months we’ll no longer be able to; give her automated factories half a year beyond that, and she’ll destroy us!”

“It must have been clear to you, sir, that after the Earth Ambassador—what’s his name, Unduma—after he returned to your planets last year, he was doing all he could to gain time.”

“Oh, yes,” said Rusch. “Making offers to me, and then haggling over them—brewing trouble elsewhere to divert our attention—a gallant effort. But it didn’t work. Frankly, your dominance, you’ve only yourself to blame for the delays. For example, your insisting that Earth be administered as Kolreshite territory—”

“My dear sir!” exploded Belug. “It was a talking point. Only a talking point. Any diplomatist would have understood. But you took six weeks to study it, then offered that preposterous counter-proposal that everything should revert to you, loot and territory both—Why, if you had been truly willing to co-operate, we could have settled the terms in a month!”

“As you like, your dominance,” said Rusch carelessly. “It’s all past now. There are only these questions of troop transport and prisoners, then we’re in total agreement.”

Klerak Belug narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin with one outsize hand. “I do not comprehend,” he said, “and neither do my naval officers. We have regular transports for your men, nothing extraordinary in the way of comfort, to be sure, but infinitely more suitable for so long a voyage than…than the naval units you insist we use. Don’t you understand? A transport is for carrying men or cargo; a ship of the line is to fight or convoy. You do not mix the functions!”

“I do, your dominance,” said Rusch. “As many of my soldiers as possible are going to travel on regular warships furnished by Kolresh, and there are going to be Double Kingdom naval personnel with them for liaison.”

“But—” Belug’s fist closed on his wineglass as if to splinter it. “Why?” he roared.

“My representatives have explained it a hundred times,” said Rusch wearily. “In blunt language, I don’t trust you. If…oh, let us say there should be disagreement between us while the armada is en route…well, a transport ship is easily replaced, after its convoy vessels have blown it up. The fighting craft of Kolresh are a better hostage for your good behavior.” He struck a light to his pipe. “Naturally, you can’t take our whole fifty-million-man expeditionary force on your battle wagons; but I want soldiers on every warship as well as in the transports.”

Belug shook his ginger head. “No.”

“Come now,” said Rusch. “Your spies have been active enough on Norstad and Ostarik. Have you found any reason to doubt my intentions? Bearing in mind that an army the size of ours cannot be alerted for a given operation without a great many people knowing the fact—”

“Yes, yes,” grumbled Belug. “Granted.” He smiled, a sharp flash of teeth. “But the upper hand is mine, your lordship. I can wait indefinitely to attack Earth. You can’t.”

“Eh?” Rusch drew hard on his pipe.

“In the last analysis, even dictators rely on popular support. My Intelligence tells me you are rapidly losing yours. The queen has not spoken to you for a year, has she? And there are many Norrons whose first loyalty is to the Crown. As the thought of war with Earth seeps in, as men have time to comprehend how little they like the idea, time to see through your present anti-Terrestrial propaganda—they grow angry. Already they mutter about you in the beer halls and the officers’ clubs, they whisper in ministry cloakrooms. My agents have heard.

“Your personal cadre of young key officers are the only ones left with unquestioning loyalty to you. Let discontent grow just a little more, let open revolt break out, and your followers will be hanged from the lamp posts.

“You can’t delay much longer.”

Rusch made no reply for a while. Then he sat up, his monocle glittering like a cold round window on winter.

“I can always call off this plan and resume the normal state of affairs,” he snapped.

Belug flushed red. “War with Kolresh again? It would take you too long to shift gears—to reorganize.”

“It would not. Our war college, like any other, has prepared military plans for all foreseeable combinations of circumstances. If I cannot come to terms with you, Plan No. So-and-So goes into effect. And obviously it will have popular enthusiasm behind it!”

He nailed the Overman with a fish-pale eye and continued in frozen tones: “After all, your dominance, I would prefer to fight you. The only thing I would enjoy more would be to hunt you with hounds. Seven hundred years have shown this to be impossible. I opened negotiations to make the best of an evil bargain—since you cannot be conquered, it will pay better to join with you on a course of mutually profitable imperialism.

“But if your stubborness prevents an agreement, I can declare war on you in the usual manner and be no worse off than I was. The choice is, therefore, yours.”

Belug swallowed. Even his guards lost some of their blankness. One does not speak in that fashion across the negotiators’ table.

Finally, only his lips stirring, he said: “Your frankness is appreciated, my lord. Some day I would like to discuss that aspect further. As for now, though…yes, I can see your point. I am prepared to admit some of your troops to our ships of the line.” After another moment, still sitting like a stone ido “But this question of returning prisoners of war. We have never done it. I do not propose to begin.”

I do not propose to let poor devils of Norrons rot any longer in your camps,” said Rusch. “I have a pretty good idea of what goes on there. If we’re to be allies, I’ll want back such of my countrymen as are still alive.”

“Not many are still sane,” Belug told him deliberately.

Rusch puffed smoke and made no reply.

“If I give in on the one item,” said Belug, “I have a right to test your sincerity by the other. We keep our prisoners.”

Rusch’s own face had gone quite pale and still. It grew altogether silent in the room.

“Very well,” he said after a long time. “Let it be so.”

WITHOUT A WORD, Major Othkar Graaborg led his company into the black cruiser. The words came from the spaceport, where police held off a hooting, hissing, rock-throwing mob. It was the first time in history that Norron folk had stoned their own soldiers.

His men tramped stolidly behind him, up the gangway and through the corridors. Among the helmets and packs and weapons, racketing boots and clashing body armor, their faces were lost, they were an army without faces.

Graaborg followed a Kolreshite ensign, who kept looking back nervously at these hereditary foes, till they reached the bunkroom. It had been hastily converted from a storage hold, and was scant cramped comfort for a thousand men.

“All right, boys,” he said when the door had closed on his guide. “Make yourselves at home.”

They got busy, opening packs, spreading bedrolls on bunks. Immediately thereafter, they started to assemble heavy machine guns, howitzers, even a nuclear blaster.

“You, there!” The accented voice squawked indignantly from a loudspeaker in the wall. “I see that. I got video. You not put guns together here.”

Graaborg looked up from his inspection of a live fission shell. “Obscenity you,” he said pleasantly. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I executive officer. I tell captain.”

“Go right ahead. My orders say that according to treaty, as long as we stay in our assigned part of the ship, we’re under our own discipline. If your captain doesn’t like it, let him come down here and talk to us.” Graaborg ran a thumb along the edge of his bayonet. A wolfish chorus from his men underlined the invitation.

No one pressed the point. The cruiser lumbered into space, rendezvoused with her task force, and went into nonspatial drive. For several days, the Norron army contingent remained in its den, more patient with such stinking quarters than the Kolreshites could imagine anyone being. Nevertheless, no spaceman ventured in there; meals were fetched at the galley by Norron squads.

Graaborg alone wandered freely about the ship. He was joined by Commander von Brecca of Ostarik, the head of the Double Kingdom’s naval liaison on this ship: a small band of officers and ratings, housed elsewhere. They conferred with the Kolreshite officers as the necessity arose, on routine problems, rehearsal of various operations to be performed when Earth was reached a month hence—but they did not mingle socially. This suited their hosts.

The fact is, the Kolreshites were rather frightened of them. A spaceman does not lack courage, but he is a gentleman among warriors. His ship either functions well, keeping him clean and comfortable, or it does not function at all and he dies quickly and mercifully. He fights with machines, at enormous ranges.

The ground soldier, muscle in mud, whose ultimate weapon is whetted steel in bare hands, has a different kind of toughness.

Two weeks after departure, Graaborg’s wrist chronometer showed a certain hour. He was drilling his men in full combat rig, as he had been doing every “day” in spite of the narrow quarters.

“Ten-SHUN!” The order flowed through captains, lieutenants, and sergeants; the bulky mass of men crashed to stillness.

Major Graaborg put a small pocket amplifier to his lips. “All right, lads,” he said casually, “assume gas masks, radiation shields, all gun squads to weapons. Now let’s clean up this ship.”

He himself blew down the wall with a grenade.

Being perhaps the most thoroughly trained soldiers in the universe, the Norron men paused for only one amazed second. Then they cheered, with death and hell in their voices, and crowded at his heels.

Little resistance was met until Graaborg had picked up von Brecca’s naval command, the crucial ones, who could sail and fight the ship. The Kolreshites were too dumbfounded. Thereafter the nomads rallied and fought gamely. Graaborg was handicapped by not having been able to give his men a battle plan. He split up his forces and trusted to the intelligence of the noncoms.

His faith was not misplaced, though the ship was in poor condition by the time the last Kolreshite had been machine-gunned.

Graaborg himself had used a bayonet, with vast satisfaction.

M’KATZE UNDUMA ENTERED the office in the Witch Tower. “You sent for me, your lordship?” he asked. His voice was as cold and bitter as the gale outside.

“Yes. Please be seated.” Margrave Hans von Thoma Rusch looked tired. “I have some news for you.”

“What news? You declared war on Earth two weeks ago. Your army can’t have reached her yet.” Unduma leaned over the desk. “Is it that you’ve found transportation to send me home?”

“Somewhat better news, your excellency.” Rusch leaned over and tuned a telescreen. A background of clattering robots and frantically busy junior officers came into view.

Then a face entered the screen, young, and with more life in it than Unduma had ever before seen on this sullen planet. “Central Data headquarters—Oh, yes, your lordship.” Boyishly, against all rules: “We’ve got her! The Bheoka just called in…she’s ours!”

“Hm-m-m. Good.” Rusch glanced at Unduma. “The Bheoka is the superdreadnought accompanying Task Force Two. Carry on with the news.”

“Yes, sir. She’s already reducing the units we failed to capture. Admiral Sorrens estimates he’ll control Force Two entirely in another hour. Bulletin just came in from Force Three. Admiral Gundrup killed in fighting, but Vice Admiral Smitt has assumed command and reports three-fourths of the ships in our hands. He’s delaying fire until he sees how it goes aboard the rest. Also—”

“Never mind,” said Rusch. “I’ll get the comprehensive report later. Remind Staff that for the next few hours all command decisions had better be made by officers on the spot. After that, when we see what we’ve got, broader tactics can be prepared. If some extreme emergency doesn’t arise, it’ll be a few hours before I can get over to HQ.”

“Yes, sir. Sir, I…may I say—” So might the young Norron have addressed a god.

“All right, son, you’ve said it.” Rusch turned off the screen and looked at Unduma. “Do you realize what’s happening?”

The ambassador sat down; his knees seemed all at once to have melted. “What have you done?” It was like a stranger speaking.

“What I planned quite a few years ago,” said the Margrave.

He reached into his desk and brought forth a bottle. “Here, your excellency. I think we could both use a swig. Authentic Terrestrial Scotch. I’ve saved it for this day.”

But there was no glory leaping in him. It is often thus, you reach a dream and you only feel how tired you are.

Unduma let the liquid fire slide down his throat.

“You understand, don’t you?” said Rusch. “For seven centuries, the Elephant and the Whale fought, without being able to get at each other’s vitals. I made this alliance against Earth solely to get our men aboard their ships. But a really large operation like that can’t be faked. It has to be genuine—the agreements, the preparations, the propaganda, everything. Only a handful of officers, men who could be trusted to…to infinity”—his voice cracked over, and Unduma thought of war prisoners sacrificed, hideous casualties in the steel corridors of spaceships, Norron gunners destroying Kolreshite vessels and the survivors of Norron detachments which failed to capture them—“only a few could be told, and then only at the last instant. For the rest, I relied on the quality of our troops. They’re good lads, every one of them and, therefore adaptable. They’re especially adaptable when suddenly told to fall on the men they’d most like to kill.”

He tilted the bottle afresh. “It’s proving expensive,” he said in a slurred, hurried tone. “It will cost us as many casualties, no doubt, as ten years of ordinary war. But if I hadn’t done this, there could easily have been another seven hundred years of war. Couldn’t there? Couldn’t there have been? As it is, we’ve already broken the spine of the Kolreshite fleet. She has plenty of ships yet, to be sure, still a menace, but crippled. I hope Earth will see fit to join us. Between them, Earth and Norstad-Ostarik can finish off Kolresh in a hurry. And after all, Kolresh did declare war on you, had every intention of destroying you. If you won’t help, well, we can end it by ourselves, now that the fleet is broken. But I hope you’ll join us.”

“I don’t know,” said Unduma. He was still wobbling in a new cosmos. “We’re not a…a hard people.”

“You ought to be,” said Rusch. “Hard enough, anyway, to win a voice for yourselves in what’s going to happen around Polaris. Important frontier, Polaris.”

“Yes,” said Unduma slowly. “There is that. It won’t cause any hosannahs in our streets, but…yes, I think we will continue the war, as your allies, if only to prevent you from massacring the Kolreshites. They can be rehabilitated, you know.”

“I doubt that,” grunted Rusch. “But it’s a detail. At the very least, they’ll never be allowed weapons again.” He raised a sardonic brow. “I suppose we, too, can be rehabilitated, once you get your peace groups and psychotechs out here. No doubt you’ll manage to demilitarize us and turn us into good plump democrats. All right, Unduma, send your Civilizing missionaries. But permit me to give thanks that I won’t live to see their work completed!”

The Earthman nodded, rather coldly. You couldn’t blame Rusch for treachery, callousness, and arrogance—he was what his history had made him—but he remained unpleasant company for a Civilized man. “I shall communicate with my government at once, your lordship, and recommend a provisional alliance, the terms to be settled later,” he said. “I will report back to you as soon as…ah, where will you be?”

“How should I know?” Rusch got out of his chair. The winter night howled at his back. “I have to convene the Ministry, and make a public telecast, and get over to Staff, and—No. The devil with it! If you need me inside the next few hours, I’ll be at Sorgenlos on Ostarik. But the matter had better be urgent!”


Poul Anderson

<p><emphasis>Poul Anderson</emphasis></p>

War of the Wing-Men, The Day of Their Return, and The Game of Empire. Anderson has tackled many of science fiction’s classic themes, including human evolution in Brain Wave (1954), near-light-speed space travel in Tau Zero (1970), and the time-travel paradox in his series of Time Patrol stories collected as Guardians of Time. He is renowned for his interweaving of science fiction and mythology, notably in his alien-contact novel The High Crusade. He also has produced distinguished fantasy fiction, including the heroic sagas Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword, and an alternate history according to Shakespeare, Midsummer Tempest. He received the Tolkien Memorial Award in 1978. With his wife, Karen, he wrote The King of Ys Celtic fantasy quartet. With Gordon R. Dickson, he has authored the popular comic Hoka series. His short story “Call Me Joe” was chosen for inclusion in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1974, and his short fiction has been collected in several volumes, notably The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories, All One Universe, and The Best of Poul Anderson.


SECOND VARIETY

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

<p>SECOND VARIETY</p> <p>Philip K. Dick</p>

THE RUSSIAN SOLDIER made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready. He glanced around him, licking his dry lips, his face set. From time to time he reached up a gloved hand and wiped perspiration from his neck, pushing down his coat collar.

Eric turned to Corporal Leone. “Want him? Or can I have him?” He adjusted the view sight so the Russian’s features squarely filled the glass, the lines cutting across his hard, somber features.

Leone considered. The Russian was close, moving rapidly, almost running. “Don’t fire. Wait.” Leone tensed. “I don’t think we’re needed.”

The Russian increased his pace, kicking ash and piles of debris out of his way. He reached the top of the hill and stopped, panting, staring around him. The sky was overcast, with drifting clouds of gray particles. Bare trunks of trees jutted up occasionally; the ground was level and bare, rubble-strewn, with the ruins of buildings standing out here and there like yellowing skulls.

The Russian was uneasy. He knew something was wrong. He started down the hill. Now he was only a few paces from the bunker. Eric was getting fidgety. He played with his pistol, glancing at Leone.

“Don’t worry,” Leone said. “He won’t get here. They’ll take care of him.”

“Are you sure? He’s got damn far.”

“They hang around close to the bunker. He’s getting into the bad part. Get set!”

The Russian began to hurry, sliding down the hill, his boots sinking into the heaps of gray ash, trying to keep his gun up. He stopped for a moment, lifting his field glasses to his face.

“He’s looking right at us,” Eric said.

The Russian came on. They could see his eyes, like two blue stones. His mouth was open a little. He needed a shave; his chin was stubbled. On one bony cheek was a square of tape, showing blue at the edge. A fungoid spot. His coat was muddy and torn. One glove was missing. As he ran, his belt counter bounced up and down against him.

Leone touched Eric’s arm. “Here one comes.”

Across the ground something small and metallic came, flashing in the dull sunlight of midday. A metal sphere. It raced up the hill after the Russian, its treads flying. It was small, one of the baby ones. Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur of white steel. The Russian heard it. He turned instantly, firing. The sphere dissolved into particles. But already a second had emerged and was following the first. The Russian fired again.

A third sphere leaped up the Russian’s leg, clicking and whirring. It jumped to the shoulder. The spinning blades disappeared into the Russian’s throat.

Eric relaxed. “Well, that’s that. God, those damn things give me the creeps. Sometimes I think we were better off before.”

“If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.” Leone lit a cigarette shakily. “I wonder why a Russian would come all this way alone. I didn’t see anyone covering him.”

Lieutenant Scott came slipping up the tunnel, into the bunker. “What happened? Something entered the screen.”

“An Ivan.”

“Just one?”

Eric brought the viewscreen around. Scott peered into it. Now there were numerous metal spheres crawling over the prostrate body, dull metal globes clicking and whirring, sawing up the Russian into small parts to be carried away.

“What a lot of claws,” Scott murmured.

“They come like flies. Not much game for them anymore.”

Scott pushed the sight away, disgusted. “Like flies. I wonder why he was out there. They know we have claws all around.”

A larger robot had joined the smaller spheres. A long blunt tube with projecting eyepieces, it was directing operations. There was not much left of the soldier. What remained was being brought down the hillside by the host of claws.

“Sir,” Leone said. “If it’s all right, I’d like to go out there and take a look at him.”

“Why?”

“Maybe he came with something.”

Scott considered. He shrugged. “All right. But be careful.”

“I have my tab.” Leone patted the metal band at his wrist. “I’ll be out of bounds.”

He picked up his rifle and stepped carefully up to the mouth of the bunker, making his way between blocks of concrete and steel prongs, twisted and bent. The air was cold at the top. He crossed over the ground toward the remains of the soldier, striding across the soft ash. A wind blew around him, swirling gray particles up in his face. He squinted and pushed on.

The claws retreated as he came close, some of them stiffening into immobility. He touched his tab. The Ivan would have given something for that! Short hard radiation emitted from the tab neutralized the claws, put them out of commission. Even the big robot with its two waving eyestalks retreated respectfully as he approached.

He bent down over the remains of the soldier. The gloved hand was closed tightly. There was something in it. Leone pried the fingers apart. A sealed container, aluminum. Still shiny.

He put it in his pocket and made his way back to the bunker. Behind him the claws came back to life, moving into operation again. The procession resumed, metal spheres moving through the gray ash with their loads. He could hear their treads scrabbling against the ground. He shuddered.

Scott watched intently as he brought the shiny tube out of his pocket. “He had that?”

“In his hand.” Leone unscrewed the top. “Maybe you should look at it, sir.”

Scott took it. He emptied the contents out in the palm of his hand. A small piece of silk paper, carefully folded. He sat down by the light and unfolded it.

“What’s it say, sir?” Eric said. Several officers came up the tunnel. Major Hendricks appeared.

“Major,” Scott said. “Look at this.”

Hendricks read the slip. “This just come?”

“A single runner. Just now.”

“Where is he?” Hendricks asked sharply.

“The claws got him.”

Major Hendricks grunted. “Here.” He passed it to his companions. “I think this is what we’ve been waiting for. They certainly took their time about it.”

“So they want to talk terms,” Scott said. “Are we going along with them?”

“That’s not for us to decide.” Hendricks sat down. “Where’s the communications officer? I want the Moon Base.”

Leone pondered as the communications officer raised the outside antenna cautiously, scanning the sky above the bunker for any sign of a watching Russian ship.

“Sir,” Scott said to Hendricks. “It’s sure strange they suddenly came around. We’ve been using the claws for almost a year. Now all of a sudden they start to fold.”

“Maybe claws have been getting down in their bunkers.”

“One of the big ones, the kind with stalks, got into an Ivan bunker last week,” Eric said. “It got a whole platoon of them before they got their lid shut.”

“How do you know?”

“A buddy told me. The thing came back with—with remains.”

“Moon Base, sir,” the communications officer said.

On the screen the face of the lunar monitor appeared. His crisp uniform contrasted to the uniforms in the bunker. And he was cleanshaven. “Moon Base.”

“This is forward command L-Whistle. On Terra. Let me have General Thompson.”

The monitor faded. Presently General Thompson’s heavy features came into focus. “What is it, Major?”

“Our claws got a single Russian runner with a message. We don’t know whether to act on it—there have been tricks like this in the past.”

“What’s the message?”

“The Russians want us to send a single officer on policy level over to their lines. For a conference. They don’t state the nature of the conference. They say that matters of—” He consulted the slip: “—matters of grave urgency make it advisable that discussion be opened between a representative of the UN forces and themselves.”

He held the message up to the screen for the general to scan. Thompson’s eyes moved.

“What should we do?” Hendricks said.

“Send a man out.”

“You don’t think it’s a trap?”

“It might be. But the location they give for their forward command is correct. It’s worth a try, at any rate.”

“I’ll send an officer out. And report the results to you as soon as he returns.”

“All right, Major.” Thompson broke the connection. The screen died. Up above, the antenna came slowly down.

Hendricks rolled up the paper, deep in thought.

“I’ll go,” Leone said.

“They want somebody at policy level.” Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Policy level. I haven’t been outside in months. Maybe I could use a little air.”

“Don’t you think it’s risky?”

Hendricks lifted the view sight and gazed into it. The remains of the Russian were gone. Only a single claw was in sight. It was folding itself back, disappearing into the ash, like a crab. Like some hideous metal crab…“That’s the only thing that bothers me.” Hendricks rubbed his wrist. “I know I’m safe as long as I have this on me. But there’s something about them. I hate the damn things. I wish we’d never invented them. There’s something wrong with them. Relentless little—”

“If we hadn’t invented them, the Ivans would have.”

Hendricks pushed the sight back. “Anyhow, it seems to be winning the war. I guess that’s good.”

“Sounds like you’re getting the same jitters as the Ivans.”

Hendricks examined his wristwatch. “I guess I had better get started, if I want to be there before dark.”

HE TOOK A deep breath and then stepped out onto the gray rubbled ground. After a minute he lit a cigarette and stood gazing around him. The landscape was dead. Nothing stirred. He could see for miles, endless ash and slag, ruins of buildings. A few trees without leaves or branches, only the trunks. Above him the eternal rolling clouds of gray, drifting between Terra and the sun.

Major Hendricks went on. Off to the right something scuttled, something round and metallic. A claw, going lickety-split after something. Probably after a small animal, a rat. They got rats, too. As a sort of sideline.

He came to the top of the little hill and lifted his field glasses. The Russian lines were a few miles ahead of him. They had a forward command post there. The runner had come from it.

A squat robot with undulating arms passed by him, its arms weaving inquiringly. The robot went on its way, disappearing under some debris. Hendricks watched it go. He had never seen that type before. There were getting to be more and more types he had never seen, new varieties and sizes coming up from the underground factories.

Hendricks put out his cigarette and hurried on. It was interesting, the use of artificial forms in warfare. How had they got started? Necessity. The Soviet Union had gained great initial success, usual with the side that got the war going. Most of North America had been blasted off the map. Retaliation was quick in coming, of course. The sky was full of circling diskbombers long before the war began; they had been up there for years. The disks began sailing down all over Russia within hours after Washington got it.

But that hadn’t helped Washington.

The American bloc governments moved to the Moon Base the first year. There was not much else to do. Europe was gone, a slag heap with dark weeds growing from the ashes and bones. Most of North America was useless, nothing could be planted, no one could live. A few million people kept going up in Canada and down in South America. But during the second year Soviet parachutists began to drop, a few at first, then more and more. They wore the first really effective antiradiation equipment; what was left of American production moved to the Moon along with the governments.

All but the troops. The remaining troops stayed behind as best they could, a few thousand here, a platoon there. No one knew exactly where they were; they stayed where they could, moving around at night, hiding in ruins, in sewers, cellars, with the rats and snakes. It looked as if the Soviet Union had the war almost won. Except for a handful of projectiles fired off from the Moon daily, there was almost no weapon in use against them. They came and went as they pleased. The war, for all practical purposes, was over. Nothing effective opposed them.

And then the first claws appeared. And overnight the complexion of the war changed.

The claws were awkward, at first. Slow. The Ivans knocked them off almost as fast as they crawled out of their underground tunnels. But then they got better, faster and more cunning. Factories, all on Terra, turned them out. Factories a long way underground, behind the Soviet lines, factories that had once made atomic projectiles, now almost forgotten.

The claws got faster, and they got bigger. New types appeared, some with feelers, some that flew. There were a few jumping kinds. The best technicians on the Moon were working on designs, making them more and more intricate, more flexible. They became uncanny; the Ivans were having a lot of trouble with them. Some of the little claws were learning to hide themselves, burrowing down into the ash, lying in wait.

And then they started getting into the Russian bunkers, slipping down when the lids were raised for air and a look around. One claw inside a bunker, a churning sphere of blades and metal—that was enough. And when one got in others followed. With a weapon like that the war couldn’t go on much longer.

Maybe it was already over.

Maybe he was going to hear the news. Maybe the Politburo had decided to throw in the sponge. Too bad it had taken so long. Six years. A long time for war like that, the way they had waged it. The automatic retaliation disks, spinning down all over Russia, hundreds of thousands of them. Bacteria crystals. The Soviet guided missiles, whistling through the air. The chain bombs. And now this, the robots, the claws—

The claws weren’t like other weapons. They were alive, from any practical standpoint, whether the Governments wanted to admit it or not. They were not machines. They were living things, spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward a man, climbing up him, rushing for his throat. And that was what they had been designed to do. Their job.

They did their job well. Especially lately, with the new designs coming up. Now they repaired themselves. They were on their own. Radiation tabs protected the UN troops, but if a man lost his tab he was fair game for the claws, no matter what his uniform. Down below the surface automatic machinery stamped them out. Human beings stayed a long way off. It was too risky; nobody wanted to be around them. They were left to themselves. And they seemed to be doing all right. The new designs were faster, more complex. More efficient.

Apparently they had won the war.

MAJOR HENDRICKS LIT a second cigarette. The landscape depressed him. Nothing but ash and ruins. He seemed to be alone, the only living thing in the whole world. To the right the ruins of a town rose up, a few walls and heaps of debris. He tossed the dead match away, increasing his pace. Suddenly he stopped, jerking up his gun, his body tense. For a minute it looked like—

From behind the shell of a ruined building a figure came, walking slowly toward him, walking hesitantly.

Hendricks blinked. “Stop!”

The boy stopped. Hendricks lowered his gun. The boy stood silently, looking at him. He was small, not very old. Perhaps eight. But it was hard to tell. Most of the kids who remained were stunted. He wore a faded blue sweater ragged with dirt, and short pants. His hair was long and matted. Brown hair. It hung over his face and around his ears. He held something in his arms.

“What’s that you have?” Hendricks said sharply.

The boy held it out. It was a toy, a bear. A teddy bear. The boy’s eyes were large, but without expression.

Hendricks relaxed. “I don’t want it. Keep it.”

The boy hugged the bear again.

“Where do you live?” Henricks said.

“In there.”

“The ruins?”

“Yes.”

“Underground?”

“Yes.”

“How many are there?”

“How—how many?”

“How many of you. How big’s your settlement?”

The boy did not answer.

Hendricks frowned. “You’re not all by yourself, are you?”

The boy nodded.

“How do you stay alive?”

“There’s food.”

“What kind of food?”

“Different.”

Hendricks studied him. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

It wasn’t possible. Or was it? The boy was thin, stunted. And probably sterile. Radiation exposure, years straight. No wonder he was so small. His arms and legs were like pipe cleaners, knobby and thin. Hendricks touched the boy’s arm. His skin was dry and rough; radiation skin. He bent down, looking into the boy’s face. There was no expression. Big eyes, big and dark.

“Are you blind?” Henricks said.

“No. I can see some.”

“How do you get away from the claws?”

“The claws?”

“The round things. That run and burrow.”

“I don’t understand.”

Maybe there weren’t any claws around. A lot of areas were free. They collected mostly around bunkers, where there were people. The claws had been designed to sense warmth, warmth of living things.

“You’re lucky.” Hendricks straightened up. “Well? Which way are you going? Back—back there?”

“Can I come with you?”

“With me?” Hendricks folded his arms. “I’m going a long way. Miles. I have to hurry.” He looked at his watch. “I have to get there by nightfall.”

“I want to come.”

Hendricks fumbled in his pack. “It isn’t worth it. Here.” He tossed down the food cans he had with him. “You take these and go back. Okay?”

The boy said nothing.

“I’ll be coming back this way. In a day or so. If you’re around here when I come back you can come along with me. All right?”

“I want to go with you now.”

“It’s a long walk.”

“I can walk.”

Hendricks shifted uneasily. It made too good a target, two people walking along. And the boy would slow him down. But he might not come back this way. And if the boy were really all alone—

“Okay. Come along.”

The boy fell in beside him. Hendricks strode along. The boy walked silently, clutching his teddy bear.

“What’s your name?” Hendricks said, after a time.

“David Edward Derring.”

“David? What—what happened to your mother and father?”

“They died.”

“How?”

“In the blast.”

“How long ago?”

“Six years.”

Hendricks slowed down. “You’ve been alone six years?”

“No. There were other people for a while. They went away.”

“And you’ve been alone since?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks glanced down. The boy was strange, saying very little. Withdrawn. But that was the way they were, the children who had survived. Quiet. Stoic. A strange kind of fatalism gripped them. Nothing came as a surprise. They accepted anything that came along. There was no longer any normal, any natural course of things, moral or physical, for them to expect. Custom, habit, all the determining forces of learning were gone; only brute experience remained.

“Am I walking too fast?” Hendricks said.

“No.”

“How did you happen to see me?”

“I was waiting.”

“Waiting?” Hendricks was puzzled. “What were you waiting for?”

“To catch things.”

“What kind of things?”

“Things to eat.”

“Oh.” Hendricks set his lips grimly. A thirteen-year-old boy, living on rats and gophers and half-rotten canned food. Down in a hole under the ruins of a town. With radiation pools and claws, and Russian dive-mines up above, coasting around in the sky.

“Where are we going?” David asked.

“To the Russian lines.”

“Russian?”

“The enemy. The people who started the war. They dropped the first radiation bombs. They began all this.”

The boy nodded. His face showed no expression.

“I’m an American,” Hendricks said.

There was no comment. On they went, the two of them, Hendricks walking a little ahead, David trailing behind him, hugging his dirty teddy bear against his chest.

About four in the afternoon they stopped to eat. Hendricks built a fire in a hollow between some slabs of concrete. He cleared the weeds away and heaped up bits of wood. The Russians’ lines were not very far ahead. Around him was what had once been a long valley, acres of fruit trees and grapes. Nothing remained now but a few bleak stumps and the mountains that stretched across the horizon at the far end. And the clouds of rolling ash that blew and drifted with the wind, settling over the weeds and remains of buildings, walls here and there, once in a while what had been a road.

Hendricks made coffee and heated up some boiled mutton and bread. “Here.” He handed bread and mutton to David. David squatted by the edge of the fire, his knees knobby and white. He examined the food and then passed it back, shaking his head.

“No.”

“No? Don’t you want any?”

“No.”

Hendricks shrugged. Maybe the boy was a mutant, used to special food. It didn’t matter. When he was hungry he would find something to eat. The boy was strange. But there were many strange changes coming over the world. Life was not the same anymore. It would never be the same again. The human race was going to have to realize that.

“Suit yourself,” Hendricks said. He ate the bread and mutton by himself, washing it down with coffee. He ate slowly, finding the food hard to digest. When he was done he got to his feet and stamped the fire out.

David rose slowly, watching him with his young-old eyes.

“We’re going,” Hendricks said.

“All right.”

Hendricks walked along, his gun in his arms. They were close; he was tense, ready for anything. The Russians should be expecting a runner, an answer to their own runner, but they were tricky. There was always the possibility of a slip-up. He scanned the landscape around him. Nothing but slag and ash, a few hills, charred trees. Concrete walls. But some place ahead was the first bunker of the Russian lines, the forward command. Underground, buried deep, with only a periscope showing, a few gun muzzles. Maybe an antenna.

“Will we be there soon?” David asked.

“Yes. Getting tired?”

“No.”

“Why, then?”

David did not answer. He plodded carefully along behind, picking his way over the ash. His legs and shoes were gray with dust. His pinched face was streaked, lines of gray ash in riverlets down the pale white of his skin. There was no color to his face. Typical of the new children, growing up in cellars and sewers and underground shelters.

Hendricks slowed down. He lifted his field glasses and studied the ground ahead of him. Were they there, some place, waiting for him? Watching him, the way his men had watched the Russian runner? A chill went up his back. Maybe they were getting their guns ready, preparing to fire, the way his men had prepared, made ready to kill.

Hendricks stopped, wiping perspiration from his face. “Damn.” It made him uneasy. But he should be expected. The situation was different.

He strode over the ash, holding his gun tightly with both hands. Behind him came David. Hendricks peered around, tight-lipped. Any second it might happen. A burst of white light, a blast, carefully aimed from inside a deep concrete bunker.

He raised his arm and waved it around in a circle.

Nothing moved. To the right a long ridge ran, topped with dead tree trunks. A few wild vines had grown up around the trees, remains of arbors. And the eternal dark weeds. Hendricks studied the ridge. Was anything up there? Perfect place for a lookout. He approached the ridge warily, David coming silently behind. If it were his command he’d have a sentry up there, watching for troops trying to infiltrate into the command area. Of course, if it were his command there would be the claws around the area for full protection.

He stopped, feet apart, hands on his hips.

“Are we there?” David said.

“Almost.”

“Why have we stopped?”

“I don’t want to take any chances.” Hendricks advanced slowly. Now the ridge lay directly beside him, along his right. Overlooking him. His uneasy feeling increased. If an Ivan was up there he wouldn’t have a chance. He waved his arm again. They should be expecting someone in the UN uniform, in response to the note capsule. Unless the whole thing was a trap.

“Keep up with me.” He turned toward David. “Don’t drop behind.”

“With you?”

“Up beside me! We’re close. We can’t take any chances. Come on.”

“I’ll be all right.” David remained behind him, in the rear, a few paces away, still clutching his teddy bear.

“Have it your way.” Hendricks raised his glasses again, suddenly tense. For a moment—had something moved? He scanned the ridge carefully. Everything was silent. Dead. No life up there, only tree trunks and ash. Maybe a few rats. The big black rats that had survived the claws. Mutants—built their own shelters out of saliva and ash. Some kind of plaster. Adaptation. He started forward again.

A tall figure came out on the ridge above him, cloak flapping. Gray-green. A Russian. Behind him a second soldier appeared, another Russian. Both lifted their guns, aiming.

Hendricks froze. He opened his mouth. The soldiers were kneeling, sighting down the side of the slope. A third figure had joined them on the ridge top, a smaller figure in gray-green. A woman. She stood behind the other two.

Hendricks found his voice. “Stop!” He waved up at them frantically. “I’m—”

The two Russians fired. Behind Hendricks there was a faint pop. Waves of heat lapped against him, throwing him to the ground. Ash tore at his face, grinding into his eyes and nose. Choking, he pulled himself to his knees. It was all a trap. He was finished. He had come to be killed, like a steer. The soldiers and the woman were coming down the side of the ridge toward him, sliding down through the soft ash. Hendricks was numb. His head throbbed. Awkwardly, he got his rifle up and took aim. It weighed a thousand tons; he could hardly hold it. His nose and cheeks stung. The air was full of the blast smell, a bitter acrid stench.

“Don’t fire,” the first Russian said, in heavily accented English.

The three of them came up to him, surrounding him. “Put down your rifle, Yank,” the other said.

Hendricks was dazed. Everything had happened so fast. He had been caught. And they had blasted the boy. He turned his head. David was gone. What remained of him was strewn across the ground.

The three Russians studied him curiously. Hendricks sat, wiping blood from his nose, picking out bits of ash. He shook his head, trying to clear it. “Why did you do it?” he murmured thickly. “The boy.”

“Why?” One of the soldiers helped him roughly to his feet. He turned Hendricks around. “Look.”

Hendricks closed his eyes.

“Look!” The two Russians pulled him forward. “See. Hurry up. There isn’t much time to spare, Yank!”

Hendricks looked. And gasped.

“See now? Now do you understand?”

From the remains of David a metal wheel rolled. Relays, glinting metal. Parts, wiring. One of the Russians kicked at the heap of remains. Parts popped out, rolling away, wheels and springs and rods. A plastic section fell in, half charred. Hendricks bent shakily down. The front of the head had come off. He could make out the intricate brain, wires and relays, tiny tubes and switches, thousands of minute studs—

“A robot,” the soldier holding his arm said. “We watched it tagging you.”

“Tagging me?”

“That’s their way. They tag along with you. Into the bunker. That’s how they get in.”

Hendricks blinked, dazed. “But—”

“Come on.” They led him toward the ridge. “We can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. There must be hundreds of them all around here.”

The three of them pulled him up the side of the ridge, sliding and slipping on the ash. The woman reached the top and stood waiting for them.

“The forward command,” Hendricks muttered. “I came to negotiate with the Soviet—”

“There is no more forward command. They got in. We’ll explain.” They reached the top of the ridge. “We’re all that’s left. The three of us. The rest were down in the bunker.”

“This way. Down this way.” The woman unscrewed a lid, a gray manhole cover set in the ground. “Get in.”

Hendricks lowered himself. The two soldiers and the woman came behind him, following him down the ladder. The woman closed the lid after them, bolting it tightly into place.

“Good thing we saw you,” one of the two soldiers grunted. “It had tagged you about as far as it was going to.”

“Give me one of your cigarettes,” the woman said. “I haven’t had an American cigarette for weeks.”

Hendricks pushed the pack to her. She took a cigarette and passed the pack to the two soldiers. In the corner of the small room the lamp gleamed fitfully. The room was low-ceilinged, cramped. The four of them sat around a small wood table. A few dirty dishes were stacked to one side. Behind a ragged curtain a second room was partly visible. Hendricks saw the corner of a coat, some blankets, clothes hung on a hook.

“We were here,” the soldier beside him said. He took off his helmet, pushing his blond hair back. “I’m Corporal Rudi Maxer. Polish. Impressed in the Soviet Army two years ago.” He held out his hand.

Hendricks hesitated and then shook. “Major Joseph Hendricks.”

“Klaus Epstein.” The other soldier shook with him, a small dark man with thinning hair. Epstein plucked nervously at his ear. “Austrian. Impressed God knows when. I don’t remember. The three of us were here, Rudi and I, with Tasso.” He indicated the woman. “That’s how we escaped. All the rest were down in the bunker.”

“And—and they got in?”

Epstein lit a cigarette. “First just one of them. The kind that tagged you. Then it let others in.”

Hendricks became alert. “The kind? Are there more than one kind?”

“The little boy. David. David holding his teddy bear. That’s Variety Three. The most effective.”

“What are the other types?”

Epstein reached into his coat. “Here.” He tossed a packet of photographs onto the table, tied with a string. “Look for yourself.”

Hendricks untied the string.

“You see,” Rudi Maxer said, “that was why we wanted to talk terms. The Russians, I mean. We found out about a week ago. Found out that your claws were beginning to make up new designs on their own. New types of their own. Better types. Down in your underground factories behind our lines. You let them stamp themselves, repair themselves. Made them more and more intricate. It’s your fault this happened.”

Hendricks examined the photos. They had been snapped hurriedly; they were blurred and indistinct. The first few showed—David. David walking along a road, by himself. David and another David. Three Davids. All exactly alike. Each with a ragged teddy bear.

All pathetic.

“Look at the others,” Tasso said.

The next pictures, taken at a great distance, showed a towering wounded soldier sitting by the side of a path, his arm in a sling, the stump of one leg extended, a crude crutch on his lap. Then two wounded soldiers, both the same, standing side by side.

“That’s Variety One. The Wounded Soldier.” Klaus reached out and took the pictures. “You see, the claws were designed to get to human beings. To find them. Each kind was better than the last. They got farther, closer, past most of our defenses, into our lines. But as long as they were merely machines, metal spheres with claws and horns, feelers, they could be picked off like any other object. They could be detected as lethal robots as soon as they were seen. Once we caught sight of them—”

“Variety One subverted our whole north wing,” Rudi said. “It was a long time before anyone caught on. Then it was too late. They came in, wounded soldiers, knocking and begging to be let in. So we let them in. And as soon as they were in they took over. We were watching out for machines….”

“At that time it was thought there was only the one type,” Klaus Epstein said. “No one suspected there were other types. The pictures were flashed to us. When the runner was sent to you, we knew of just one type. Variety One. The big Wounded Soldier. We thought that was all.”

“Your line fell to—”

“To Variety Three. David and his bear. That worked even better.” Klaus smiled bitterly. “Soldiers are suckers for children. We brought them in and tried to feed them. We found out the hard way what they were after. At least, those who were in the bunker.”

“The three of us were lucky,” Rudi said. “Klaus and I were—were visiting Tasso when it happened. This is her place.” He waved a big hand around. “This little cellar. We finished and climbed the ladder to start back. From the ridge we saw that they were all around the bunker. Fighting was still going on. David and his bear. Hundreds of them. Klaus took the pictures.”

Klaus tied up the photographs again.

“And it’s going on all along your line?” Hendricks said.

“Yes.”

“How about our lines?” Without thinking, he touched the tab on his arm. “Can they—”

“They’re not bothered by your radiation tabs. It makes no difference to them, Russian, American, Pole, German. It’s all the same. They’re doing what they were designed to do. Carrying out the original idea. They track down life, wherever they find it.”

“They go by warmth,” Klaus said. “That was the way you constructed them from the very start. Of course, those you designed were kept back by the radiation tabs you wear. Now they’ve got around that. These new varieties are lead-lined.”

“What’s the other variety?” Hendricks asked. “The David type, the Wounded Soldier—what’s the other?”

“We don’t know.” Klaus pointed up at the wall. On the wall were two metal plates, ragged at the edges. Hendricks got up and studied them. They were bent and dented.

“The one on the left came off a Wounded Soldier,” Rudi said. “We got one of them. It was going along toward our old bunker. We got it from the ridge, the same way we got the David tagging you.”

The plate was stamped: I-V. Hendricks touched the other plate. “And this came from the David type?”

“Yes.” The plate was stamped: III-V.

Klaus took a look at them, leaning over Hendricks’s broad shoulder. “You can see what we’re up against. There’s another type. Maybe it was abandoned. Maybe it didn’t work. But there must be a Second Variety. There’s One and Three.”

“You were lucky,” Rudi said. “The David tagged you all the way here and never touched you. Probably thought you’d get it into a bunker, somewhere.”

“One gets in and it’s all over,” Klaus said. “They move fast. One lets all the rest inside. They’re inflexible. Machines with one purpose. They were built for only one thing.” He rubbed sweat from his lip. “We saw.”

They were silent.

“Let me have another cigarette, Yank,” Tasso said. “They are good. I almost forgot how they were.”

IT WAS NIGHT. The sky was black. No stars were visible through the rolling clouds of ash. Klaus lifted the lid cautiously so that Hendricks could look out.

Rudi pointed into the darkness. “Over that way are the bunkers. Where we used to be. Not over half a mile from us. It was just chance Klaus and I were not there when it happened. Weakness. Saved by our lusts.”

“All the rest must be dead,” Klaus said in a low voice. “It came quickly. This morning the Politburo reached their decision. They notified us—forward command. Our runner was sent out at once. We saw him start toward the direction of your lines. We covered him until he was out of sight.”

“Alex Radrivsky. We both knew him. He disappeared about six o’clock. The sun had just come up. About noon Klaus and I had an hour relief. We crept off, away from the bunkers. No one was watching. We came here. There used to be a town here, a few houses, a street. This cellar was part of a big farmhouse. We knew Tasso would be here, hiding down in her little place. We had come here before. Others from the bunkers came here. Today happened to be our turn.”

“So we were saved,” Klaus said. “Chance. It might have been others. We—we finished, and then we came up to the surface and started back along the ridge. That was when we saw them, the Davids. We understood right away. We had seen the photos of the First Variety, the Wounded Soldier. Our Commissar distributed them to us with an explanation. If we had gone another step they would have seen us. As it was we had to blast two Davids before we got back. There were hundreds of them, all around. Like ants. We took pictures and slipped back here, bolting the lid tight.”

“They’re not so much when you catch them alone. We moved faster than they did. But they’re inexorable. Not like living things. They came right at us. And we blasted them.”

Major Hendricks rested against the edge of the lid, adjusting his eyes to the darkness. “Is it safe to have the lid up at all?”

“If we’re careful. How else can you operate your transmitter?”

Hendricks lifted the small belt transmitter slowly. He pressed it against his ear. The metal was cold and damp. He blew against the mike, raising up the short antenna. A faint hum sounded in his ear. “That’s true, I suppose.”

But he still hesitated.

“We’ll pull you under if anything happens,” Klaus said.

“Thanks.” Hendricks waited a moment, resting the transmitter against his shoulder. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“This, the new types. The new varieties of claws. We’re completely at their mercy, aren’t we? By now they’ve probably gotten into the UN lines, too. It makes me wonder if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.”

Rudi grunted. “There is no race after man.”

“No? Why not? Maybe we’re seeing it now, the end of human beings, the beginning of the new society.”

“They’re not a race. They’re mechanical killers. You made them to destroy. That’s all they can do. They’re machines with a job.”

“So it seems now. But how about later on? After the war is over. Maybe, when there aren’t any humans to destroy, their real potentialities will begin to show.”

“You talk as if they were alive!”

“Aren’t they?”

There was silence. “They’re machines,” Rudi said. “They look like people, but they’re machines.”

“Use your transmitter, Major,” Klaus said. “We can’t stay up here forever.”

Holding the transmitter tightly, Hendricks called the code of the command bunker. He waited, listening. No response. Only silence. He checked the leads carefully. Everything was in place.

“Scott!” he said into the mike. “Can you hear me?”

Silence. He raised the gain up full and tried again. Only static.

“I don’t get anything. They may hear me but they may not want to answer.”

“Tell them it’s an emergency.”

“They’ll think I’m being forced to call. Under your direction.” He tried again, outlining briefly what he had learned. But still the phone was silent, except for the faint static.

“Radiation pools kill most transmission,” Klaus said, after a while. “Maybe that’s it.”

Hendricks shut the transmitter up. “No use. No answer. Radiation pools? Maybe. Or they hear me, but won’t answer. Frankly, that’s what I would do, if a runner tried to call from the Soviet lines. They have no reason to believe such a story. They may hear everything I say—”

“Or maybe it’s too late.”

Hendricks nodded.

“We better get the lid down,” Rudi said nervously. “We don’t want to take unnecessary chances.”

They climbed slowly back down the tunnel. Klaus bolted the lid carefully into place. They descended into the kitchen. The air was heavy and close around them.

“Could they work that fast?” Hendricks said. “I left the bunker this noon. Ten hours ago. How could they move so quickly?”

“It doesn’t take them long. Not after the first one gets in. It goes wild. You know what the little claws can do. Even one of these is beyond belief. Razors, each finger. Maniacal.”

“All right.” Hendricks moved away impatiently. He stood with his back to them.

“What’s the matter?” Rudi said.

“The Moon Base. God, if they’ve gotten there—”

“The Moon Base?”

Hendricks turned around. “They couldn’t have got to the Moon Base. How would they get there? It isn’t possible. I can’t believe it.”

“What is this Moon Base? We’ve heard rumors, but nothing definite. What is the actual situation? You seem concerned.”

“We’re supplied from the Moon. The governments are there, under the lunar surface. All our people and industries. That’s what keeps us going. If they should find some way of getting off Terra, onto the Moon—”

“It only takes one of them. Once the first one gets in it admits the others. Hundreds of them, all alike. You should have seen them. Identical. Like ants.”

“Perfect socialism,” Tasso said. “The ideal of the communist state. All citizens interchangeable.”

Klaus grunted angrily. “That’s enough. Well? What next?”

Hendricks paced back and forth, around the small room. The air was full of smells of food and perspiration. The others watched him. Presently Tasso pushed through the curtain, into the other room. “I’m going to take a nap.”

The curtain closed behind her. Rudi and Klaus sat down at the table, still watching Hendricks. “It’s up to you,” Klaus said. “We don’t know your situation.”

Hendricks nodded.

“It’s a problem.” Rudi drank some coffee, filling his cup from a rusty pot. “We’re safe here for a while, but we can’t stay here forever. Not enough food or supplies.”

“But if we go outside—”

“If we go outside they’ll get us. Or probably they’ll get us. We couldn’t go very far. How far is your command bunker, Major?”

“Three or four miles.”

“We might make it. The four of us. Four of us could watch all sides. They couldn’t slip up behind us and start tagging us. We have three rifles, three blast rifles. Tasso can have my pistol.” Rudi tapped his belt. “In the Soviet army we didn’t have shoes always, but we had guns. With all four of us armed one of us might get to your command bunker. Preferably you, Major.”

“What if they’re already there?” Klaus said.

Rudi shrugged. “Well, then we come back here.”

Hendricks stopped pacing. “What do you think the chances are they’re already in the American lines?”

“Hard to say. Fairly good. They’re organized. They know exactly what they’re doing. Once they start they go like a horde of locusts. They have to keep moving, and fast. It’s secrecy and speed they depend on. Surprise. They push their way in before anyone has any idea.”

“I see,” Hendricks murmured.

From the other room Tasso stirred. “Major?”

Hendricks pushed the curtain back. “What?”

Tasso looked up at him lazily from the cot. “Have you any more American cigarettes left?”

Hendricks went into the room and sat down across from her, on a wood stool. He felt in his pockets. “No. All gone.”

“Too bad.”

“What nationality are you?” Hendricks asked her after a while.

“Russian.”

“How did you get here?”

“Here?”

“This used to be France. This was part of Normandy. Did you come with the Soviet army?”

“Why?”

“Just curious.” He studied her. She had taken off her coat, tossing it over the end of the cot. She was young, about twenty. Slim. Her long hair stretched out over the pillow. She was staring at him silently, her eyes dark and large.

“What’s on your mind?” Tasso said.

“Nothing. How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She continued to watch him, unblinking, her arms behind her head. She had on Russian army pants and shirt. Gray-green. Thick leather belt with counter and cartridges. Medicine kit.

“You’re in the Soviet army?”

“No.”

“Where did you get the uniform?”

She shrugged. “It was given to me,” she told him.

“How—how old were you when you came here?”

“Sixteen.”

“That young?”

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Your life would have been a lot different if there had been no war. Sixteen. You came here at sixteen. To live this way.”

“I had to survive.”

“I’m not moralizing.”

“Your life would have been different, too,” Tasso murmured. She reached down and unfastened one of her boots. She kicked the boot off, onto the floor. “Major, do you want to go in the other room? I’m sleepy.”

“It’s going to be a problem, the four of us here. It’s going to be hard to live in these quarters. Are there just the two rooms?”

“Yes.”

“How big was the cellar originally? Was it larger than this? Are there other rooms filled up with debris? We might be able to open one of them.”

“Perhaps. I really don’t know.” Tasso loosened her belt. She made herself comfortable on the cot, unbuttoning her shirt. “You’re sure you have no more cigarettes?”

“I had only one pack.”

“Too bad. Maybe if we get back to your bunker we can find some.” The other boot fell. Tasso reached up for the light cord. “Good night.”

“You’re going to sleep?”

“That’s right.”

The room plunged into darkness. Hendricks got up and made his way past the curtain, into the kitchen. And stopped, rigid.

Rudi stood against the wall, his face white and gleaming. His mouth opened and closed but no sounds came. Klaus stood in front of him, the muzzle of his pistol in Rudi’s stomach. Neither of them moved. Klaus, his hand tight around the gun, his features set. Rudi, pale and silent, spread-eagled against the wall.

“What—” Hendricks muttered, but Klaus cut him off.

“Be quiet, Major, Come over here. Your gun. Get out your gun.”

Hendricks drew his pistol. “What is it?”

“Cover him.” Klaus motioned him forward. “Beside me. Hurry!”

Rudi moved a little, lowering his arms. He turned to Hendricks, licking his lips. The whites of his eyes shone wildly. Sweat dripped from his forehead, down his cheeks. He fixed his gaze on Hendricks. “Major, he’s gone insane. Stop him.” Rudi’s voice was thin and hoarse, almost inaudible.

“What’s going on?” Hendricks demanded.

Without lowering his pistol Klaus answered. “Major, remember our discussion? The Three Varieties? We knew about One and Three. But we didn’t know about Two. At least, we didn’t know before.” Klaus’s fingers tightened around the gun butt. “We didn’t know before, but we know now.”

He pressed the trigger. A burst of white heat rolled out of the gun, licking around Rudi.

“Major, this is the Second Variety.”

Tasso swept the curtain aside. “Klaus! What did you do?”

Klaus turned from the charred form, gradually sinking down the wall onto the floor. “The Second Variety, Tasso. Now we know. We have all three types identified. The danger is less. I—”

Tasso stared past him at the remains of Rudi, at the blackened, smoldering fragments and bits of cloth. “You killed him.”

“Him? It, you mean. I was watching. I had a feeling but I wasn’t sure. At least, I wasn’t sure before. But this evening I was certain.” Klaus rubbed his pistol butt nervously. “We’re lucky. Don’t you understand? Another hour and it might—”

“You were certain?” Tasso pushed past him and bent down, over the steaming remains on the floor. Her face became hard. “Major, see for yourself. Bones. Flesh.”

Hendricks bent down beside her. The remains were human remains. Seared flesh, charred bone fragments, part of a skull. Ligaments, viscera, blood. Blood forming a pool against the wall.

“No wheels,” Tasso said calmly. She straightened up. “No wheels, no parts, no relays. Not a claw. Not the Second Variety.” She folded her arms. “You’re going to have to be able to explain this.”

Klaus sat down at the table, all the color drained suddenly from his face. He put his head in his hands and rocked back and forth.

“Snap out of it.” Tasso’s fingers closed over his shoulder. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?”

“He was frightened,” Hendricks said. “All this, the whole thing, building up around us.”

“Maybe.”

“What, then? What do you think?”

“I think he may have had a reason for killing Rudi. A good reason.”

“What reason?”

“Maybe Rudi learned something.”

Hendricks studied her bleak face. “About what?” he asked.

“About him. About Klaus.”

Klaus looked up quickly. “You can see what she’s trying to say. She thinks I’m the Second Variety. Don’t you see, Major? Now she wants you to believe I killed him on purpose. That I’m—”

“Why did you kill him, then?” Tasso said.

“I told you.” Klaus shook his head wearily. “I thought he was a claw. I thought I knew.”

“Why?”

“I had been watching him. I was suspicious.”

“Why?”

“I thought I had seen something. Heard something. I thought I—” He stopped.

“Go on.”

“We were sitting at the table. Playing cards. You two were in the other room. It was silent. I thought I heard him—whirr.”

There was silence.

“Do you believe that?” Tasso said to Hendricks.

“Yes. I believe what he says.”

“I don’t. I think he killed Rudi for a good purpose.” Tasso touched the rifle resting in the corner of the room. “Major—”

“No.” Hendricks shook his head. “Let’s stop it right now. One is enough. We’re afraid, the way he was. If we kill him we’ll be doing what he did to Rudi.”

Klaus looked gratefully up at him. “Thanks. I was afraid. You understand, don’t you? Now she’s afraid, the way I was. She wants to kill me.”

“No more killing.” Hendricks moved toward the end of the ladder. “I’m going above and try the transmitter once more. If I can’t get them we’re moving back toward my lines tomorrow morning.”

Klaus rose quickly. “I’ll come up with you and give you a hand.”

THE NIGHT AIR was cold. The earth was cooling off. Klaus took a deep breath, filling his lungs. He and Hendricks stepped onto the ground, out of the tunnel. Klaus planted his feet wide apart, the rifle up, watching and listening. Hendricks crouched by the tunnel mouth, tuning the small transmitter.

“Any luck?” Klaus asked presently.

“Not yet.”

“Keep trying. Tell them what happened.”

Hendricks kept trying. Without success. Finally he lowered the antenna. “It’s useless. They can’t hear me. Or they hear me and won’t answer. Or—”

“Or they don’t exist.”

“I’ll try once more.” Hendricks raised the antenna. “Scott, can you hear me? Come in!”

He listened. There was only static. Then, still very faintly—

“This is Scott.”

His fingers tightened. “Scott! Is it you?”

“This is Scott.”

Klaus squatted down. “Is it your command?”

“Scott, listen. Do you understand? About them, the claws. Did you get my message? Did you hear me?”

“Yes.” Faintly. Almost inaudible. He could hardly make out the word.

“You got my message? Is everything all right at the bunker? None of them have got in?”

“Everything is all right.”

“Have they tried to get in?”

The voice was weaker.

“No.”

Hendricks turned to Klaus. “They’re all right.”

“Have they been attacked?”

“No.” Hendricks pressed the phone tighter to his ear. “Scott, I can hardly hear you. Have you notified the Moon Base? Do they know? Are they alerted?”

No answer.

“Scott! Can you hear me?”

Silence.

Hendricks relaxed, sagging. “Faded out. Must be radiation pools.”

Hendricks and Klaus looked at each other. Neither of them said anything. After a time Klaus said, “Did it sound like any of your men? Could you identify the voice?”

“It was too faint.”

“You couldn’t be certain?”

“No.”

“Then it could have been—”

“I don’t know. Now I’m not sure. Let’s go back down and get the lid closed.”

They climbed back down the ladder slowly, into the warm cellar. Klaus bolted the lid behind them. Tasso waited for them, her face expressionless.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Neither of them answered. “Well?” Klaus said at last. “What do you think, Major? Was it your officer, or was it one of them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then we’re just where we were before.”

Hendricks stared down at the floor, his jaw set. “We’ll have to go. To be sure.”

“Anyhow, we have food here for only a few weeks. We’d have to go up after that, in any case.”

“Apparently so.”

“What’s wrong?” Tasso demanded. “Did you get across to your bunker? What’s the matter?”

“It may have been one of my men,” Hendricks said slowly. “Or it may have been one of them. But we’ll never know standing here.” He examined his watch. “Let’s turn in and get some sleep. We want to be up early tomorrow.”

“Early?”

“Our best chance to get through the claws should be early in the morning,” Hendricks said.

THE MORNING WAS crisp and clear. Major Hendricks studied the countryside through his field glasses.

“See anything?” Klaus said.

“No.”

“Can you make out our bunkers?”

“Which way?”

“Here.” Klaus took the glasses and adjusted them. “I know where to look.” He looked a long time, silently.

Tasso came to the top of the tunnel and stepped up onto the ground. “Anything?”

“No.” Klaus passed the glasses back to Hendricks. “They’re out of sight. Come on. Let’s not stay here.”

The three of them made their way down the side of the ridge, sliding in the soft ash. Across a flat rock a lizard scuttled. They stopped instantly, rigid.

“What was it?” Klaus muttered.

“A lizard.”

The lizard ran on, hurrying through the ash. It was exactly the same color as the ash.

“Perfect adaptation,” Klaus said. “Proves we were right. Lysenko, I mean.”

They reached the bottom of the ridge and stopped, standing close together, looking around them.

“Let’s go.” Hendricks started off. “It’s a good long trip, on foot.”

Klaus fell in beside him. Tasso walked behind, her pistol held alertly. “Major, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Klaus said. “How did you run across the David? The one that was tagging you.”

“I met it along the way. In some ruins.”

“What did it say?”

“Not much. It said it was alone. By itself.”

“You couldn’t tell it was a machine? It talked like a living person? You never suspected?”

“It didn’t say much. I noticed nothing unusual.”

“It’s strange, machines so much like people that you can be fooled. Almost alive. I wonder where it’ll end.”

“They’re doing what you Yanks designed them to do,” Tasso said. “You designed them to hunt out life and destroy. Human life. Wherever they find it.”

Hendricks was watching Klaus intently. “Why did you ask me? What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” Klaus answered.

“Klaus thinks you’re the Second Variety,” Tasso said calmly, from behind them. “Now he’s got his eye on you.”

Klaus flushed. “Why not? We sent a runner to the Yank lines and he comes back. Maybe he thought he’d find some good game here.”

Hendricks laughed harshly. “I came from the UN bunkers. There were human beings all around me.”

“Maybe you saw an opportunity to get into the Soviet lines. Maybe you saw your chance. Maybe you—”

“The Soviet lines had already been taken over. Your lines had been invaded before I left my command bunker. Don’t forget that.”

Tasso came up beside him. “That proves nothing at all, Major.”

“Why not?”

“There appears to be little communication between the varieties. Each is made in a different factory. They don’t seem to work together. You might have started for the Soviet lines without knowing anything about the work of the other varieties. Or even what the other varieties were like.”

“How do you know so much about the claws?” Hendricks said.

“I’ve seen them. I’ve observed them take over the Soviet bunkers.”

“You know quite a lot,” Klaus said. “Actually, you saw very little. Strange that you should have been such an acute observer.”

Tasso laughed. “Do you suspect me, now?”

“Forget it,” Hendricks said. They walked on in silence.

“Are we going the whole way on foot?” Tasso said, after a while. “I’m not used to walking.” She gazed around at the plain of ash, stretching out on all sides of them, as far as they could see. “How dreary.”

“It’s like this all the way,” Klaus said.

“In a way I wish you had been in your bunker when the attack came.”

“Somebody else would have been with you, if not me,” Klaus muttered.

Tasso laughed, putting her hands in her pockets. “I suppose so.”

They walked on, keeping their eyes on the vast plain of silent ash around them.

THE SUN WAS setting. Hendricks made his way forward slowly, waving Tasso and Klaus back. Klaus squatted down, resting his gun butt against the ground.

Tasso found a concrete slab and sat down with a sigh. “It’s good to rest.”

“Be quiet,” Klaus said sharply.

Hendricks pushed up to the top of the rise ahead of them. The same rise the Russian runner had come up, the day before. Hendricks dropped down, stretching himself out, peering through his glasses at what lay beyond.

Nothing was visible. Only ash and occasional trees. But there, not more than fifty yards ahead, was the entrance of the forward command bunker. The bunker from which he had come. Hendricks watched silently. No motion. No sign of life. Nothing stirred.

Klaus slithered up beside him. “Where is it?”

“Down there.” Hendricks passed him the glasses. Clouds of ash rolled across the evening sky. The world was darkening. They had a couple of hours of light left, at the most. Probably not that much.

“I don’t see anything,” Klaus said.

“That tree there. The stump. By the pile of bricks. The entrance is to the right of the bricks.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“You and Tasso cover me from here. You’ll be able to sight all the way to the bunker entrance.”

“You’re going down alone?”

“With my wrist tab I’ll be safe. The ground around the bunker is a living field of claws. They collect down in the ash. Like crabs. Without tabs you wouldn’t have a chance.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“I’ll walk slowly all the way. As soon as I know for certain—”

“If they’re down inside the bunker you won’t be able to get back up here. They go fast. You don’t realize.”

“What do you suggest?”

Klaus considered. “I don’t know. Get them to come up to the surface. So you can see.”

Hendricks brought his transmitter from his belt, raising the antenna. “Let’s get started.”

Klaus signaled to Tasso. She crawled expertly up the side of the rise to where they were sitting.

“He’s going down alone,” Klaus said. “We’ll cover him from here. As soon as you see him start back, fire past him at once. They come quick.”

“You’re not very optimistic,” Tasso said.

“No, I’m not.”

Hendricks opened the breech of his gun, checking it carefully. “Maybe things are all right.”

“You didn’t see them. Hundreds of them. All the same. Pouring out like ants.”

“I should be able to find out without going down all the way.” Hendricks locked his gun, gripping it in one hand, the transmitter in the other. “Well, wish me luck.”

Klaus put out his hand. “Don’t go down until you’re sure. Talk to them from up here. Make them show themselves.”

Hendricks stood up. He stepped down the side of the rise.

A moment later he was walking slowly toward the pile of bricks and debris beside the dead tree stump. Toward the entrance of the forward command bunker.

Nothing stirred. He raised the transmitter, clicking it on. “Scott? Can you hear me?”

Silence.

“Scott! This is Hendricks. Can you hear me? I’m standing outside the bunker. You should be able to see me in the view sight.”

He listened, the transmitter gripped tightly. No sound. Only static. He walked forward. A claw burrowed out of the ash and raced toward him. It halted a few feet away and then slunk off. A second claw appeared, one of the big ones with feelers. It moved toward him, studied him intently, and then fell in behind him, dogging respectfully after him, a few paces away. A moment later a second big claw joined it. Silently, the claws trailed him as he walked slowly toward the bunker.

Hendricks stopped, and behind him, the claws came to a halt. He was close now. Almost to the bunker steps.

“Scott! Can you hear me? I’m standing right above you. Outside. On the surface. Are you picking me up?”

He waited, holding his gun against his side, the transmitter tightly to his ear. Time passed. He strained to hear, but there was only silence. Silence, and faint static.

Then, distantly, metallically—

“This is Scott.”

The voice was neutral. Cold. He could not identify it. But the earphone was minute.

“Scott! Listen. I’m standing right above you. I’m on the surface, looking down into the bunker entrance.”

“Yes.”

“Can you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Through the view sight? You have the sight trained on me?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks pondered. A circle of claws waited quietly around him, gray-metal bodies on all sides of him. “Is everything all right in the bunker? Nothing unusual has happened?”

“Everything is all right.”

“Will you come up to the surface? I want to see you for a moment.” Hendricks took a deep breath. “Come up here with me. I want to talk to you.”

“Come down.”

“I’m giving you an order.”

Silence.

“Are you coming?” Hendricks listened. There was no response. “I order you to come to the surface.”

“Come down.”

Hendricks set his jaw. “Let me talk to Leone.”

There was a long pause. He listened to the static. Then a voice came, hard, thin, metallic. The same as the other. “This is Leone.”

“Hendricks. I’m on the surface. At the bunker entrance. I want one of you to come up here.”

“Come down.”

“Why come down? I’m giving you an order!”

Silence. Hendricks lowered the transmitter. He looked carefully around him. The entrance was just ahead. Almost at his feet. He lowered the antenna and fastened the transmitter to his belt. Carefully, he gripped his gun with both hands. He moved forward, a step at a time. If they could see him they knew he was starting toward the entrance. He closed his eyes a moment.

Then he put his foot on the first step that led downward.

Two Davids came up at him, their faces identical and expressionless. He blasted them into particles. More came rushing silently up, a whole pack of them. All exactly the same.

Hendricks turned and raced back, away from the bunker, back toward the rise.

At the top of the rise Tasso and Klaus were firing down. The small claws were already streaking up toward them, shining metal spheres going fast, racing frantically through the ash. But he had no time to think about that. He knelt down, aiming at the bunker entrance, gun against his cheek. The Davids were coming out in groups, clutching their teddy bears, their thin knobby legs pumping as they ran up the steps to the surface. Hendricks fired into the main body of them. They burst apart, wheels and springs flying in all directions. He fired again, through the mist of particles.

A giant lumbering figure rose up in the bunker entrance, tall and swaying. Hendricks paused, amazed. A man, a soldier. With one leg, supporting himself with a crutch.

“Major!” Tasso’s voice came. More firing. The huge figure moved forward, Davids swarming around it. Hendricks broke out of his freeze. The First Variety. The Wounded Soldier. He aimed and fired. The soldier burst into bits, parts and relays flying. Now many Davids were out on the flat ground, away from the bunker. He fired again and again, moving slowly back, half-crouching and aiming.

From the rise, Klaus fired down. The side of the rise was alive with claws making their way up. Hendricks retreated toward the rise, running and crouching. Tasso had left Klaus and was circling slowly to the right, moving away from the rise.

A David slipped up toward him, its small white face expressionless, brown hair hanging down in its eyes. It bent over suddenly, opening its arms. Its teddy bear hurtled down and leaped across the ground, bounding toward him. Hendricks fired. The bear and the David both dissolved. He grinned, blinking. It was like a dream.

“Up here!” Tasso’s voice. Hendricks made his way toward her. She was over by some columns of concrete, walls of a ruined building. She was firing past him, with the hand pistol Klaus had given her.

“Thanks.” He joined her, gasping for breath. She pulled him back, behind the concrete, fumbling at her belt.

“Close your eyes!” She unfastened a globe from her waist. Rapidly, she unscrewed the cap, locking it into place. “Close your eyes and get down.”

She threw the bomb. It sailed in an arc, an expert, rolling and bouncing to the entrance of the bunker. Two Wounded Soldiers stood uncertainly by the brick pile. More Davids poured from behind them, out onto the plain. One of the Wounded Soldiers moved toward the bomb, stooping awkwardly down to pick it up.

The bomb went off. The concussion whirled Hendricks around, throwing him on his face. A hot wind rolled over him. Dimly he saw Tasso standing behind the columns, firing slowly and methodically at the Davids coming out of the raging clouds of white fire.

Back along the rise Klaus struggled with a ring of claws circling around him. He retreated, blasting at them and moving back, trying to break through the ring.

Hendricks struggled to his feet. His head ached. He could hardly see. Everything was licking at him, raging and whirling. His right arm would not move.

Tasso pulled back toward him. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Klaus—he’s still up there.”

“Come on!” Tasso dragged Hendricks back, away from the columns. Hendricks shook his head, trying to clear it. Tasso led him rapidly away, her eyes intense and bright, watching for claws that had escaped the blast.

One David came out of the rolling clouds of flame. Tasso blasted it. No more appeared.

“But Klaus. What about him?” Hendricks stopped, standing unsteadily. “He—”

“Come on!”

They retreated, moving farther and farther away from the bunker. A few small claws followed them for a little while and then gave up, turning back and going off.

At last Tasso stopped. “We can stop here and get our breaths.”

Hendricks sat down on some heaps of debris. He wiped his neck, gasping. “We left Klaus back there.”

Tasso said nothing. She opened her gun, sliding a fresh round of blast cartridges into place.

Hendricks stared at her, dazed. “You left him back there on purpose.”

Tasso snapped the gun together. She studied the heaps of rubble around them, her face expressionless. As if she were watching for something.

“What is it?” Hendricks demanded. “What are you looking for? Is something coming?” He shook his head, trying to understand. What was she doing? What was she waiting for? He could see nothing. Ash lay all around them, ash and ruins. Occasional stark tree trunks, without leaves or branches. “What—”

Tasso cut him off. “Be still.” Her eyes narrowed. Suddenly her gun came up. Hendricks turned, following her gaze.

Back the way they had come a figure appeared. The figure walked unsteadily toward them. Its clothes were torn. It limped as it made its way along, going very slowly and carefully. Stopping now and then, resting and getting its strength. Once it almost fell. It stood for a moment, trying to steady itself. Then it came on.

Klaus.

Hendricks stood up. “Klaus!” He started toward him. “How the hell did you—”

Tasso fired. Hendricks swung back. She fired again, the blast passing him, a searing line of heat. The beam caught Klaus in the chest. He exploded, gears and wheels flying. For a moment he continued to walk. Then he swayed back and forth. He crashed to the ground, his arms flung out. A few more wheels rolled away.

Silence.

Tasso turned to Hendricks. “Now you understand why he killed Rudi.”

Hendricks sat down again slowly. He shook his head. He was numb. He could not think.

“Do you see?” Tasso said. “Do you understand?”

Hendricks said nothing. Everything was slipping away from him, faster and faster. Darkness, rolling and plucking at him.

He closed his eyes.

HENDRICKS OPENED HIS eyes slowly. His body ached all over. He tried to sit up but needles of pain shot through his arm and shoulder. He gasped.

“Don’t try to get up,” Tasso said. She bent down, putting her cold hand against his forehead.

It was night. A few stars glinted above, shining through the drifting clouds of ash. Hendricks lay back, his teeth locked. Tasso watched him impassively. She had built a fire with some wood and weeds. The fire licked feebly, hissing at a metal cup suspended over it. Everything was silent. Unmoving darkness, beyond the fire.

“So he was the Second Variety,” Hendricks murmured.

“I had always thought so.”

“Why didn’t you destroy him sooner?” He wanted to know.

“You held me back.” Tasso crossed to the fire to look into the metal cup. “Coffee. It’ll be ready to drink in a while.”

She came back and sat down beside him. Presently she opened her pistol and began to disassemble the firing mechanism, studying it intently.

“This is a beautiful gun,” Tasso said, half aloud. “The construction is superb.”

“What about them? The claws.”

“The concussion from the bomb put most of them out of action. They’re delicate. Highly organized, I suppose.”

“The Davids, too?”

“Yes.”

“How did you happen to have a bomb like that?”

Tasso shrugged. “We designed it. You shouldn’t underestimate our technology, Major. Without such a bomb you and I would no longer exist.”

“Very useful.”

Tasso stretched out her legs, warming her feet in the heat of the fire. “It surprised me that you did not seem to understand, after he killed Rudi. Why did you think he—”

“I told you. I thought he was afraid.”

“Really? You know, Major, for a little while I suspected you. Because you wouldn’t let me kill him. I thought you might be protecting him.” She laughed.

“Are we safe here?” Hendricks asked presently.

“For a while. Until they get reinforcements from some other area.” Tasso began to clear the interior of the gun with a bit of rag. She finished and pushed the mechanism back into place. She closed the gun, running her finger along the barrel.

“We were lucky,” Hendricks murmured.

“Yes. Very lucky.”

“Thanks for pulling me away.”

Tasso did not answer. She glanced up at him, her eyes bright in the firelight. Hendricks examined his arm. He could not move his fingers. His whole side seemed numb. Down inside him was a dull steady ache.

“How do you feel?” Tasso asked.

“My arm is damaged.”

“Anything else?”

“Internal injuries.”

“You didn’t get down when the bomb went off.”

Hendricks said nothing. He watched Tasso pour the coffee from the cup into a flat metal pan. She brought it over to him.

“Thanks.” He struggled up enough to drink. It was hard to swallow. His insides turned over and he pushed the pan away. “That’s all I can drink now.”

Tasso drank the rest. Time passed. The clouds of ash moved across the dark sky above them. Hendricks rested, his mind blank. After a while he became aware that Tasso was standing over him, gazing down at him.

“What is it?” he murmured.

“Do you feel any better?”

“Some.”

“You know, Major, if I hadn’t dragged you away they would have got you. You would be dead. Like Rudi.”

“I know.”

“Do you want to know why I brought you out? I could have left you. I could have left you there.”

“Why did you bring me out?”

“Because we have to get away from here.” Tasso stirred the fire with a stick, peering calmly down into it. “No human being can live here. When their reinforcements come we won’t have a chance. I’ve pondered about it while you were unconscious. We have perhaps three hours before they come.”

“And you expect me to get us away?”

“That’s right. I expect you to get us out of here.”

“Why me?”

“Because I don’t know any way.” Her eyes shone at him in the light, bright and steady. “If you can’t get us out of here they’ll kill us within three hours. I see nothing else ahead. Well, Major? What are you going to do? I’ve been waiting all night. While you were unconscious I sat here, waiting and listening. It’s almost dawn. The night is almost over.”

Hendricks considered. “It’s curious,” he said at last.

“Curious?”

“That you should think I can get us out of here. I wonder what you think I can do.”

“Can you get us to the Moon Base?”

“The Moon Base? How?”

“There must be some way.”

Hendricks shook his head. “No. There’s no way that I know of.”

Tasso said nothing. For a moment her steady gaze wavered. She ducked her head, turning abruptly away. She scrambled to her feet. “More coffee?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.” Tasso drank silently. He could not see her face. He lay back against the ground, deep in thought, trying to concentrate. It was hard to think. His head still hurt. And the numbing daze still hung over him.

“There might be one way,” he said suddenly.

“Oh?”

“How soon is dawn?”

“Two hours. The sun will be coming up shortly.”

“There’s supposed to be a ship near here. I’ve never seen it. But I know it exists.”

“What kind of a ship?” Her voice was sharp.

“A rocket cruiser.”

“Will it take us off? To the Moon Base?”

“It’s supposed to. In case of emergency.” He rubbed his forehead.

“What’s wrong?”

“My head. It’s hard to think. I can hardly—hardly concentrate. The bomb.”

“Is the ship near here?” Tasso slid over beside him, settling down on her haunches. “How far is it? Where is it?”

“I’m trying to think.”

Her fingers dug into his arm. “Nearby?” Her voice was like iron. “Where would it be? Would they store it underground? Hidden underground?”

“Yes. In a storage locker.”

“How do we find it? Is it marked? Is there a code marker to identify it?”

Hendricks concentrated. “No. No markings. No code symbol.”

“What, then?”

“A sign.”

“What sort of sign?”

Hendricks did not answer. In the flickering light his eyes were glazed, two sightless orbs. Tasso’s fingers dug into his arm.

“What sort of sign? What is it?”

“I—I can’t think. Let me rest.”

“All right.” She let go and stood up. Hendricks lay back against the ground, his eyes closed. Tasso walked away from him, her hands in her pockets. She kicked a rock out of her way and stood staring up at the sky. The night blackness was already beginning to fade into gray. Morning was coming.

Tasso gripped her pistol and walked around the fire in a circle, back and forth. On the ground Major Hendricks lay, his eyes closed, unmoving. The grayness rose in the sky, higher and higher. The landscape became visible, fields of ash stretching out in all directions. Ash and ruins of buildings, a wall here and there, heaps of concrete, the naked trunk of a tree.

The air was cold and sharp. Somewhere a long way off a bird made a few bleak sounds.

Hendricks stirred. He opened his eyes. “Is it dawn? Already?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks sat up a little. “You wanted to know something. You were asking me.”

“Do you remember now?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?” She tensed. “What?” she repeated sharply.

“A well. A ruined well. It’s in a storage locker under a well.”

“A well.” Tasso relaxed. “Then we’ll find a well.” She looked at her watch. “We have about an hour, Major. Do you think we can find it in an hour?”

“Give me a hand up,” Hendricks said.

Tasso put her pistol away and helped him to his feet. “This is going to be difficult.”

“Yes, it is.” Hendricks set his lips tightly. “I don’t think we’re going to go very far.”

They began to walk. The early sun cast a little warmth down on them. The land was flat and barren, stretching out gray and lifeless as far as they could see. A few birds sailed silently, far above them, circling slowly.

“See anything?” Hendricks said. “Any claws?”

“No. Not yet.”

They passed through some ruins, upright concrete and bricks. A cement foundation. Rats scuttled away. Tasso jumped back warily.

“This used to be a town,” Hendricks said. “A village. Provincial village. This was all grape country, once. Where we are now.”

They came onto a ruined street, weeds and cracks criss-crossing it. Over to the right a stone chimney stuck up.

“Be careful,” he warned her.

A pit yawned, an open basement. Ragged ends of pipes jutted up, twisted and bent. They passed part of a house, a bathtub turned on its side. A broken chair. A few spoons and bits of china dishes. In the center of the street the ground had sunk away. The depression was filled with weeds and debris and bones.

“Over here,” Hendricks murmured.

“This way?”

“To the right.”

They passed the remains of a heavy-duty tank. Hendricks’s belt counter clicked ominously. The tank had been radiation-blasted. A few feet from the tank a mumified body lay sprawled out, mouth open. Beyond the road was a flat field. Stones and weeds, and bits of broken glass.

“There,” Hendricks said.

A stone well jutted up, sagging and broken. A few boards lay across it. Most of the well had sunk into rubble. Hendricks walked unsteadily toward it, Tasso beside him.

“Are you certain about this?” Tasso said. “This doesn’t look like anything.”

“I’m sure.” Hendricks sat down at the edge of the well, his teeth locked. His breath came quickly. He wiped perspiration from his face. “This was arranged so the senior command officer could get away. If anything happened. If the bunker fell.”

“That was you?”

“Yes.”

“Where is the ship? Is it here?”

“We’re standing on it.” Hendricks ran his hands over the surface of the well stones. “The eye-lock responds to me, not to anybody else. It’s my ship. Or it was supposed to be.”

There was a sharp click. Presently they heard a low grating sound from below them.

“Step back,” Hendricks said. He and Tasso moved away from the well.

A section of the ground slid back. A metal frame pushed slowly up through the ash, shoving bricks and weeds out of the way. The action ceased as the ship nosed into view.

“There it is,” Hendricks said.

The ship was small. It rested quietly, suspended in its mesh frame like a blunt needle. A rain of ash sifted down into the dark cavity from which the ship had been raised. Hendricks made his way over to it. He mounted the mesh and unscrewed the hatch, pulling it back. Inside the ship the control banks and the pressure seat were visible.

Tasso came and stood beside him, gazing into the ship. “I’m not accustomed to rocket piloting,” she said after a while.

Hendricks glanced at her. “I’ll do the piloting.”

“Will you? There’s only one seat, Major, I can see it’s built to carry only a single person.”

Hendricks’s breathing changed. He studied the interior of the ship intently. Tasso was right. There was only one seat. The ship was built to carry only one person. “I see,” he said slowly. “And the one person is you.”

She nodded. “Of course.”

“Why?”

You can’t go. You might not live through the trip. You’re injured. You probably wouldn’t get there.”

“An interesting point. But you see, I know where the Moon Base is. And you don’t. You might fly around for months and not find it. It’s well hidden. Without knowing what to look for—”

“I’ll have to take my chances. Maybe I won’t find it. Not by myself. But I think you’ll give me all the information I need. Your life depends on it.”

“How?”

“If I find the Moon Base in time, perhaps I can get them to send a ship back to pick you up. If I find the Base in time. If not, then you haven’t a chance. I imagine there are supplies on the ship. They will last me long enough—”

Hendricks moved quickly. But his injured arm betrayed him. Tasso ducked, sliding lithely aside. Her hand came up, lightning fast. Hendricks saw the gun butt coming. He tried to ward off the blow, but she was too fast. The metal butt struck against the side of his head, just above his ear. Numbing pain rushing through him. Pain and rolling clouds of blackness. He sank down, sliding to the ground.

Dimly, he was aware that Tasso was standing over him, kicking him with her toe.

“Major! Wake up.”

He opened his eyes, groaning.

“Listen to me.” She bent down, the gun pointed at his face. “I have to hurry. There isn’t much time left. The ship is ready to go, but you must give me the information I need before I leave.”

Hendricks shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Hurry up! Where is the Moon Base? How do I find it? What do I look for?”

Hendricks said nothing.

“Answer me!”

“Sorry.”

“Major, the ship is loaded with provisions. I can coast for weeks. I’ll find the Base eventually. And in a half-hour you’ll be dead. Your only chance of survival—” She broke off.

Along the slope, by some crumbling ruins, something moved. Something in the ash. Tasso turned quickly, aiming. She fired. A puff of flame leaped. Something scuttled away, rolling across the ash. She fired again. The claw burst apart, wheels flying.

“See?” Tasso said. “A scout. It won’t be long.”

“You’ll bring them back here to get me?”

“Yes. As soon as possible.”

Hendricks looked up at her. He studied her intently. “You’re telling the truth?” A strange expression had come over his face, an avid hunger. “You will come back for me? You’ll get me to the Moon Base?”

“I’ll get you to the Moon Base. But tell me where it is! There’s only a little time left.”

“All right.” Hendricks picked up a piece of rock, pulling himself to a sitting position. “Watch.”

Hendricks began to scratch in the ash. Tasso stood by him, watching the motion of the rock. Hendricks was sketching a crude lunar map.

“This is the Appenine range. Here is the Crater of Archimedes, the Moon Base is beyond the end of the Appenine, about two hundred miles. I don’t know exactly where. No one on Terra knows. But when you’re over the Appenine, signal with one red flare and a green flare, followed by two red flares in quick succession. The Base monitor will record your signal. The Base is under the surface, of course. They’ll guide you down with magnetic grapples.”

“And the controls? Can I operate them?”

“The controls are virtually automatic. All you have to do is give the right signal at the right time.”

“I will.”

“The seat absorbs most of the takeoff shock. Air and temperature are automatically controlled. The ship will leave Terra and pass out into free space. It’ll line itself up with the Moon, falling into an orbit around it, about a hundred miles above the surface. The orbit will carry you over the Base. When you’re in the region of the Appenine, release the signal rockets.”

Tasso slid into the ship and lowered herself into the pressure seat. The arm locks folded automatically around her. She fingered the controls. “Too bad you’re not going, Major. All this put here for you, and you can’t make the trip.”

“Leave me the pistol.”

Tasso pulled the pistol from her belt. She held it in her hand, weighing it thoughtfully. “Don’t go too far from this location. It’ll be hard to find you, as it is.”

“No. I’ll stay here by the well.”

Tasso gripped the takeoff switch, running her fingers over the smooth metal. “A beautiful ship, Major. Well built. I admire your workmanship. You people have always done good work. You build fine things. Your work, your creations, are your greatest achievement.”

“Give me the pistol,” Hendricks said impatiently, holding out his hand. He struggled to his feet.

“Good-bye, Major.” Tasso tossed the pistol past Hendricks. The pistol clattered against the ground, bouncing and rolling away. Hendricks hurried after it. He bent down, snatching it up.

The hatch of the ship clanged shut. The bolts fell into place. Hendricks made his way back. The inner door was being sealed. He raised the pistol unsteadily.

There was a shattering roar. The ship burst up from its metal cage, fusing the mesh behind it. Hendricks cringed, pulling back. The ship shot up into the rolling clouds of ash, disappearing into the sky.

Hendricks stood watching a long time, until even the streamer had dissipated. Nothing stirred. The morning air was chill and silent. He began to walk aimlessly back the way they had come. Better to keep moving around. It would be a long time before help came—if it came at all.

He searched his pockets until he found a package of cigarettes. He lit one grimly. They had all wanted cigarettes from him. But cigarettes were scarce.

A lizard slithered by him, through the ash. He halted, rigid. The lizard disappeared. Above, the sun rose higher in the sky. Some flies landed on a flat rock to one side of him. Hendricks kicked at them with his foot.

It was getting hot. Sweat trickled down his face, into his collar. His mouth was dry.

Presently he stopped walking and sat down on some debris. He unfastened his medicine kit and swallowed a few narcotic capsules. He looked around him. Where was he?

Something lay ahead. Stretched out on the ground. Silent and unmoving.

Hendricks drew his gun quickly. It looked like a man. Then he remembered. It was the remains of Klaus. The Second Variety. Where Tasso had blasted him. He could see wheels and relays and metal parts, strewn around on the ash. Glittering and sparkling in the sunlight.

Hendricks got to his feet and walked over. He nudged the inert form with his foot, turning it over a little. He could see the metal hull, the aluminum ribs and struts. More wiring fell out. Like viscera. Heaps of wiring, switches and relays. Endless motors and rods.

He bent down. The brain was visible. He gazed at it. A maze of circuits. Miniature tubes. Wires as fine as hair. He touched the brain cage. It swung aside. The type plate was visible. Hendricks studied the plate.

And blanched.

IV—IV.

For a long time he stared at the plate. Fourth Variety. Not the Second. They had been wrong. There were more types. Not just three. Many more, perhaps. At least four. And Klaus wasn’t the Second Variety.

But if Klaus wasn’t the Second Variety—

Suddenly he tensed. Something was coming, walking through the ash beyond the hill. What was it? He strained to see. Figures coming slowly along, making their way through the ash.

Coming toward him.

Hendricks crouched quickly, raising his gun. Sweat dripped down into his eyes. He fought down rising panic, as the figures neared.

The first was a David. The David saw him and increased its pace. The others hurried behind it. A second David. A third. Three Davids, all alike, coming toward him silently, without expression, their thin legs rising and falling. Clutching their teddy bears.

He aimed and fired. The first two Davids dissolved into particles. The third came on. And the figure behind it. Climbing silently toward him across the gray ash. A Wounded Soldier, towering over the David. And—

AND BEHIND THE Wounded Soldier came two Tassos, walking side by side. Heavy belt, Russian army pants, shirt, long hair. The familiar figure, as he had seen her only a little while before. Sitting in the pressure seat of the ship. Two slim, silent figures, both identical.

They were very near. The David bent down suddenly, dropping its teddy bear. The bear raced across the ground. Automatically, Hendricks’s fingers tightened around the trigger. The bear was gone, dissolved into mist. The two Tasso Types moved on, expressionless, walking side by side, through the gray ash.

When they were almost to him, Hendricks raised the pistol waist high and fired.

The two Tassos dissolved. But already a new group was starting up the rise, five or six Tassos, all identical, a line of them coming rapidly toward him.

And he had given her the ship and the signal code. Because of him she was on her way to the moon, to the Moon Base. He had made it possible.

He had been right about the bomb, after all. It had been designed with knowledge of the other types, the David Type and the Wounded Soldier Type. And the Klaus Type. Not designed by human beings. It had been designed by one of the underground factories, apart from all human contact.

The line of Tassos came up to him. Hendricks braced himself, watching them calmly. The familiar face, the belt, the heavy shirt, the bomb carefully in place.

The bomb—

As the Tassos reached for him, a last ironic thought drifted through Hendricks’s mind. He felt a little better, thinking about it. The bomb. Made by the Second Variety to destroy the other varieties. Made for that end alone.

They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.

<p><emphasis>Philip K. Dick</emphasis></p>

Regarded as one of the most important writers of science fiction in the twentieth century, Philip K. Dick built his reputation on subtly complex tales of intersecting alternate realities. His novel The Man in the High Castle, set in a future where Japan and Germany emerged victorious from World War II, won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1963 and is regarded as one of the best alternate history tales in science fiction. Dr. Bloodmoney offers a vision of American society in the aftermath of nuclear war. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, both set in worlds where time slips and reality shifts are the norm, crystallize the mood of paranoia and often comically chaotic instability that characterizes much of his writing. His Valis trilogy, comprised of the novels Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has been praised for its use of science fiction and fantasy tropes in the service of philosophic and cosmologic inquiry. Several of his best-known stories have been successfully adapted for the screen: his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was filmed as the blockbuster movie Blade Runner in 1982, and his short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” was adapted as Total Recall in 1990. Revival of interest in Dick’s work after his death in 1982 led to the publication of his many mainstream novels, several volumes of his collected letters, and the five-volume Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick.


THE RUSSIAN SOLDIER made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready. He glanced around him, licking his dry lips, his face set. From time to time he reached up a gloved hand and wiped perspiration from his neck, pushing down his coat collar.

Eric turned to Corporal Leone. “Want him? Or can I have him?” He adjusted the view sight so the Russian’s features squarely filled the glass, the lines cutting across his hard, somber features.

Leone considered. The Russian was close, moving rapidly, almost running. “Don’t fire. Wait.” Leone tensed. “I don’t think we’re needed.”

The Russian increased his pace, kicking ash and piles of debris out of his way. He reached the top of the hill and stopped, panting, staring around him. The sky was overcast, with drifting clouds of gray particles. Bare trunks of trees jutted up occasionally; the ground was level and bare, rubble-strewn, with the ruins of buildings standing out here and there like yellowing skulls.

The Russian was uneasy. He knew something was wrong. He started down the hill. Now he was only a few paces from the bunker. Eric was getting fidgety. He played with his pistol, glancing at Leone.

“Don’t worry,” Leone said. “He won’t get here. They’ll take care of him.”

“Are you sure? He’s got damn far.”

“They hang around close to the bunker. He’s getting into the bad part. Get set!”

The Russian began to hurry, sliding down the hill, his boots sinking into the heaps of gray ash, trying to keep his gun up. He stopped for a moment, lifting his field glasses to his face.

“He’s looking right at us,” Eric said.

The Russian came on. They could see his eyes, like two blue stones. His mouth was open a little. He needed a shave; his chin was stubbled. On one bony cheek was a square of tape, showing blue at the edge. A fungoid spot. His coat was muddy and torn. One glove was missing. As he ran, his belt counter bounced up and down against him.

Leone touched Eric’s arm. “Here one comes.”

Across the ground something small and metallic came, flashing in the dull sunlight of midday. A metal sphere. It raced up the hill after the Russian, its treads flying. It was small, one of the baby ones. Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur of white steel. The Russian heard it. He turned instantly, firing. The sphere dissolved into particles. But already a second had emerged and was following the first. The Russian fired again.

A third sphere leaped up the Russian’s leg, clicking and whirring. It jumped to the shoulder. The spinning blades disappeared into the Russian’s throat.

Eric relaxed. “Well, that’s that. God, those damn things give me the creeps. Sometimes I think we were better off before.”

“If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.” Leone lit a cigarette shakily. “I wonder why a Russian would come all this way alone. I didn’t see anyone covering him.”

Lieutenant Scott came slipping up the tunnel, into the bunker. “What happened? Something entered the screen.”

“An Ivan.”

“Just one?”

Eric brought the viewscreen around. Scott peered into it. Now there were numerous metal spheres crawling over the prostrate body, dull metal globes clicking and whirring, sawing up the Russian into small parts to be carried away.

“What a lot of claws,” Scott murmured.

“They come like flies. Not much game for them anymore.”

Scott pushed the sight away, disgusted. “Like flies. I wonder why he was out there. They know we have claws all around.”

A larger robot had joined the smaller spheres. A long blunt tube with projecting eyepieces, it was directing operations. There was not much left of the soldier. What remained was being brought down the hillside by the host of claws.

“Sir,” Leone said. “If it’s all right, I’d like to go out there and take a look at him.”

“Why?”

“Maybe he came with something.”

Scott considered. He shrugged. “All right. But be careful.”

“I have my tab.” Leone patted the metal band at his wrist. “I’ll be out of bounds.”

He picked up his rifle and stepped carefully up to the mouth of the bunker, making his way between blocks of concrete and steel prongs, twisted and bent. The air was cold at the top. He crossed over the ground toward the remains of the soldier, striding across the soft ash. A wind blew around him, swirling gray particles up in his face. He squinted and pushed on.

The claws retreated as he came close, some of them stiffening into immobility. He touched his tab. The Ivan would have given something for that! Short hard radiation emitted from the tab neutralized the claws, put them out of commission. Even the big robot with its two waving eyestalks retreated respectfully as he approached.

He bent down over the remains of the soldier. The gloved hand was closed tightly. There was something in it. Leone pried the fingers apart. A sealed container, aluminum. Still shiny.

He put it in his pocket and made his way back to the bunker. Behind him the claws came back to life, moving into operation again. The procession resumed, metal spheres moving through the gray ash with their loads. He could hear their treads scrabbling against the ground. He shuddered.

Scott watched intently as he brought the shiny tube out of his pocket. “He had that?”

“In his hand.” Leone unscrewed the top. “Maybe you should look at it, sir.”

Scott took it. He emptied the contents out in the palm of his hand. A small piece of silk paper, carefully folded. He sat down by the light and unfolded it.

“What’s it say, sir?” Eric said. Several officers came up the tunnel. Major Hendricks appeared.

“Major,” Scott said. “Look at this.”

Hendricks read the slip. “This just come?”

“A single runner. Just now.”

“Where is he?” Hendricks asked sharply.

“The claws got him.”

Major Hendricks grunted. “Here.” He passed it to his companions. “I think this is what we’ve been waiting for. They certainly took their time about it.”

“So they want to talk terms,” Scott said. “Are we going along with them?”

“That’s not for us to decide.” Hendricks sat down. “Where’s the communications officer? I want the Moon Base.”

Leone pondered as the communications officer raised the outside antenna cautiously, scanning the sky above the bunker for any sign of a watching Russian ship.

“Sir,” Scott said to Hendricks. “It’s sure strange they suddenly came around. We’ve been using the claws for almost a year. Now all of a sudden they start to fold.”

“Maybe claws have been getting down in their bunkers.”

“One of the big ones, the kind with stalks, got into an Ivan bunker last week,” Eric said. “It got a whole platoon of them before they got their lid shut.”

“How do you know?”

“A buddy told me. The thing came back with—with remains.”

“Moon Base, sir,” the communications officer said.

On the screen the face of the lunar monitor appeared. His crisp uniform contrasted to the uniforms in the bunker. And he was cleanshaven. “Moon Base.”

“This is forward command L-Whistle. On Terra. Let me have General Thompson.”

The monitor faded. Presently General Thompson’s heavy features came into focus. “What is it, Major?”

“Our claws got a single Russian runner with a message. We don’t know whether to act on it—there have been tricks like this in the past.”

“What’s the message?”

“The Russians want us to send a single officer on policy level over to their lines. For a conference. They don’t state the nature of the conference. They say that matters of—” He consulted the slip: “—matters of grave urgency make it advisable that discussion be opened between a representative of the UN forces and themselves.”

He held the message up to the screen for the general to scan. Thompson’s eyes moved.

“What should we do?” Hendricks said.

“Send a man out.”

“You don’t think it’s a trap?”

“It might be. But the location they give for their forward command is correct. It’s worth a try, at any rate.”

“I’ll send an officer out. And report the results to you as soon as he returns.”

“All right, Major.” Thompson broke the connection. The screen died. Up above, the antenna came slowly down.

Hendricks rolled up the paper, deep in thought.

“I’ll go,” Leone said.

“They want somebody at policy level.” Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Policy level. I haven’t been outside in months. Maybe I could use a little air.”

“Don’t you think it’s risky?”

Hendricks lifted the view sight and gazed into it. The remains of the Russian were gone. Only a single claw was in sight. It was folding itself back, disappearing into the ash, like a crab. Like some hideous metal crab…“That’s the only thing that bothers me.” Hendricks rubbed his wrist. “I know I’m safe as long as I have this on me. But there’s something about them. I hate the damn things. I wish we’d never invented them. There’s something wrong with them. Relentless little—”

“If we hadn’t invented them, the Ivans would have.”

Hendricks pushed the sight back. “Anyhow, it seems to be winning the war. I guess that’s good.”

“Sounds like you’re getting the same jitters as the Ivans.”

Hendricks examined his wristwatch. “I guess I had better get started, if I want to be there before dark.”

HE TOOK A deep breath and then stepped out onto the gray rubbled ground. After a minute he lit a cigarette and stood gazing around him. The landscape was dead. Nothing stirred. He could see for miles, endless ash and slag, ruins of buildings. A few trees without leaves or branches, only the trunks. Above him the eternal rolling clouds of gray, drifting between Terra and the sun.

Major Hendricks went on. Off to the right something scuttled, something round and metallic. A claw, going lickety-split after something. Probably after a small animal, a rat. They got rats, too. As a sort of sideline.

He came to the top of the little hill and lifted his field glasses. The Russian lines were a few miles ahead of him. They had a forward command post there. The runner had come from it.

A squat robot with undulating arms passed by him, its arms weaving inquiringly. The robot went on its way, disappearing under some debris. Hendricks watched it go. He had never seen that type before. There were getting to be more and more types he had never seen, new varieties and sizes coming up from the underground factories.

Hendricks put out his cigarette and hurried on. It was interesting, the use of artificial forms in warfare. How had they got started? Necessity. The Soviet Union had gained great initial success, usual with the side that got the war going. Most of North America had been blasted off the map. Retaliation was quick in coming, of course. The sky was full of circling diskbombers long before the war began; they had been up there for years. The disks began sailing down all over Russia within hours after Washington got it.

But that hadn’t helped Washington.

The American bloc governments moved to the Moon Base the first year. There was not much else to do. Europe was gone, a slag heap with dark weeds growing from the ashes and bones. Most of North America was useless, nothing could be planted, no one could live. A few million people kept going up in Canada and down in South America. But during the second year Soviet parachutists began to drop, a few at first, then more and more. They wore the first really effective antiradiation equipment; what was left of American production moved to the Moon along with the governments.

All but the troops. The remaining troops stayed behind as best they could, a few thousand here, a platoon there. No one knew exactly where they were; they stayed where they could, moving around at night, hiding in ruins, in sewers, cellars, with the rats and snakes. It looked as if the Soviet Union had the war almost won. Except for a handful of projectiles fired off from the Moon daily, there was almost no weapon in use against them. They came and went as they pleased. The war, for all practical purposes, was over. Nothing effective opposed them.

And then the first claws appeared. And overnight the complexion of the war changed.

The claws were awkward, at first. Slow. The Ivans knocked them off almost as fast as they crawled out of their underground tunnels. But then they got better, faster and more cunning. Factories, all on Terra, turned them out. Factories a long way underground, behind the Soviet lines, factories that had once made atomic projectiles, now almost forgotten.

The claws got faster, and they got bigger. New types appeared, some with feelers, some that flew. There were a few jumping kinds. The best technicians on the Moon were working on designs, making them more and more intricate, more flexible. They became uncanny; the Ivans were having a lot of trouble with them. Some of the little claws were learning to hide themselves, burrowing down into the ash, lying in wait.

And then they started getting into the Russian bunkers, slipping down when the lids were raised for air and a look around. One claw inside a bunker, a churning sphere of blades and metal—that was enough. And when one got in others followed. With a weapon like that the war couldn’t go on much longer.

Maybe it was already over.

Maybe he was going to hear the news. Maybe the Politburo had decided to throw in the sponge. Too bad it had taken so long. Six years. A long time for war like that, the way they had waged it. The automatic retaliation disks, spinning down all over Russia, hundreds of thousands of them. Bacteria crystals. The Soviet guided missiles, whistling through the air. The chain bombs. And now this, the robots, the claws—

The claws weren’t like other weapons. They were alive, from any practical standpoint, whether the Governments wanted to admit it or not. They were not machines. They were living things, spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward a man, climbing up him, rushing for his throat. And that was what they had been designed to do. Their job.

They did their job well. Especially lately, with the new designs coming up. Now they repaired themselves. They were on their own. Radiation tabs protected the UN troops, but if a man lost his tab he was fair game for the claws, no matter what his uniform. Down below the surface automatic machinery stamped them out. Human beings stayed a long way off. It was too risky; nobody wanted to be around them. They were left to themselves. And they seemed to be doing all right. The new designs were faster, more complex. More efficient.

Apparently they had won the war.

MAJOR HENDRICKS LIT a second cigarette. The landscape depressed him. Nothing but ash and ruins. He seemed to be alone, the only living thing in the whole world. To the right the ruins of a town rose up, a few walls and heaps of debris. He tossed the dead match away, increasing his pace. Suddenly he stopped, jerking up his gun, his body tense. For a minute it looked like—

From behind the shell of a ruined building a figure came, walking slowly toward him, walking hesitantly.

Hendricks blinked. “Stop!”

The boy stopped. Hendricks lowered his gun. The boy stood silently, looking at him. He was small, not very old. Perhaps eight. But it was hard to tell. Most of the kids who remained were stunted. He wore a faded blue sweater ragged with dirt, and short pants. His hair was long and matted. Brown hair. It hung over his face and around his ears. He held something in his arms.

“What’s that you have?” Hendricks said sharply.

The boy held it out. It was a toy, a bear. A teddy bear. The boy’s eyes were large, but without expression.

Hendricks relaxed. “I don’t want it. Keep it.”

The boy hugged the bear again.

“Where do you live?” Henricks said.

“In there.”

“The ruins?”

“Yes.”

“Underground?”

“Yes.”

“How many are there?”

“How—how many?”

“How many of you. How big’s your settlement?”

The boy did not answer.

Hendricks frowned. “You’re not all by yourself, are you?”

The boy nodded.

“How do you stay alive?”

“There’s food.”

“What kind of food?”

“Different.”

Hendricks studied him. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

It wasn’t possible. Or was it? The boy was thin, stunted. And probably sterile. Radiation exposure, years straight. No wonder he was so small. His arms and legs were like pipe cleaners, knobby and thin. Hendricks touched the boy’s arm. His skin was dry and rough; radiation skin. He bent down, looking into the boy’s face. There was no expression. Big eyes, big and dark.

“Are you blind?” Henricks said.

“No. I can see some.”

“How do you get away from the claws?”

“The claws?”

“The round things. That run and burrow.”

“I don’t understand.”

Maybe there weren’t any claws around. A lot of areas were free. They collected mostly around bunkers, where there were people. The claws had been designed to sense warmth, warmth of living things.

“You’re lucky.” Hendricks straightened up. “Well? Which way are you going? Back—back there?”

“Can I come with you?”

“With me?” Hendricks folded his arms. “I’m going a long way. Miles. I have to hurry.” He looked at his watch. “I have to get there by nightfall.”

“I want to come.”

Hendricks fumbled in his pack. “It isn’t worth it. Here.” He tossed down the food cans he had with him. “You take these and go back. Okay?”

The boy said nothing.

“I’ll be coming back this way. In a day or so. If you’re around here when I come back you can come along with me. All right?”

“I want to go with you now.”

“It’s a long walk.”

“I can walk.”

Hendricks shifted uneasily. It made too good a target, two people walking along. And the boy would slow him down. But he might not come back this way. And if the boy were really all alone—

“Okay. Come along.”

The boy fell in beside him. Hendricks strode along. The boy walked silently, clutching his teddy bear.

“What’s your name?” Hendricks said, after a time.

“David Edward Derring.”

“David? What—what happened to your mother and father?”

“They died.”

“How?”

“In the blast.”

“How long ago?”

“Six years.”

Hendricks slowed down. “You’ve been alone six years?”

“No. There were other people for a while. They went away.”

“And you’ve been alone since?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks glanced down. The boy was strange, saying very little. Withdrawn. But that was the way they were, the children who had survived. Quiet. Stoic. A strange kind of fatalism gripped them. Nothing came as a surprise. They accepted anything that came along. There was no longer any normal, any natural course of things, moral or physical, for them to expect. Custom, habit, all the determining forces of learning were gone; only brute experience remained.

“Am I walking too fast?” Hendricks said.

“No.”

“How did you happen to see me?”

“I was waiting.”

“Waiting?” Hendricks was puzzled. “What were you waiting for?”

“To catch things.”

“What kind of things?”

“Things to eat.”

“Oh.” Hendricks set his lips grimly. A thirteen-year-old boy, living on rats and gophers and half-rotten canned food. Down in a hole under the ruins of a town. With radiation pools and claws, and Russian dive-mines up above, coasting around in the sky.

“Where are we going?” David asked.

“To the Russian lines.”

“Russian?”

“The enemy. The people who started the war. They dropped the first radiation bombs. They began all this.”

The boy nodded. His face showed no expression.

“I’m an American,” Hendricks said.

There was no comment. On they went, the two of them, Hendricks walking a little ahead, David trailing behind him, hugging his dirty teddy bear against his chest.

About four in the afternoon they stopped to eat. Hendricks built a fire in a hollow between some slabs of concrete. He cleared the weeds away and heaped up bits of wood. The Russians’ lines were not very far ahead. Around him was what had once been a long valley, acres of fruit trees and grapes. Nothing remained now but a few bleak stumps and the mountains that stretched across the horizon at the far end. And the clouds of rolling ash that blew and drifted with the wind, settling over the weeds and remains of buildings, walls here and there, once in a while what had been a road.

Hendricks made coffee and heated up some boiled mutton and bread. “Here.” He handed bread and mutton to David. David squatted by the edge of the fire, his knees knobby and white. He examined the food and then passed it back, shaking his head.

“No.”

“No? Don’t you want any?”

“No.”

Hendricks shrugged. Maybe the boy was a mutant, used to special food. It didn’t matter. When he was hungry he would find something to eat. The boy was strange. But there were many strange changes coming over the world. Life was not the same anymore. It would never be the same again. The human race was going to have to realize that.

“Suit yourself,” Hendricks said. He ate the bread and mutton by himself, washing it down with coffee. He ate slowly, finding the food hard to digest. When he was done he got to his feet and stamped the fire out.

David rose slowly, watching him with his young-old eyes.

“We’re going,” Hendricks said.

“All right.”

Hendricks walked along, his gun in his arms. They were close; he was tense, ready for anything. The Russians should be expecting a runner, an answer to their own runner, but they were tricky. There was always the possibility of a slip-up. He scanned the landscape around him. Nothing but slag and ash, a few hills, charred trees. Concrete walls. But some place ahead was the first bunker of the Russian lines, the forward command. Underground, buried deep, with only a periscope showing, a few gun muzzles. Maybe an antenna.

“Will we be there soon?” David asked.

“Yes. Getting tired?”

“No.”

“Why, then?”

David did not answer. He plodded carefully along behind, picking his way over the ash. His legs and shoes were gray with dust. His pinched face was streaked, lines of gray ash in riverlets down the pale white of his skin. There was no color to his face. Typical of the new children, growing up in cellars and sewers and underground shelters.

Hendricks slowed down. He lifted his field glasses and studied the ground ahead of him. Were they there, some place, waiting for him? Watching him, the way his men had watched the Russian runner? A chill went up his back. Maybe they were getting their guns ready, preparing to fire, the way his men had prepared, made ready to kill.

Hendricks stopped, wiping perspiration from his face. “Damn.” It made him uneasy. But he should be expected. The situation was different.

He strode over the ash, holding his gun tightly with both hands. Behind him came David. Hendricks peered around, tight-lipped. Any second it might happen. A burst of white light, a blast, carefully aimed from inside a deep concrete bunker.

He raised his arm and waved it around in a circle.

Nothing moved. To the right a long ridge ran, topped with dead tree trunks. A few wild vines had grown up around the trees, remains of arbors. And the eternal dark weeds. Hendricks studied the ridge. Was anything up there? Perfect place for a lookout. He approached the ridge warily, David coming silently behind. If it were his command he’d have a sentry up there, watching for troops trying to infiltrate into the command area. Of course, if it were his command there would be the claws around the area for full protection.

He stopped, feet apart, hands on his hips.

“Are we there?” David said.

“Almost.”

“Why have we stopped?”

“I don’t want to take any chances.” Hendricks advanced slowly. Now the ridge lay directly beside him, along his right. Overlooking him. His uneasy feeling increased. If an Ivan was up there he wouldn’t have a chance. He waved his arm again. They should be expecting someone in the UN uniform, in response to the note capsule. Unless the whole thing was a trap.

“Keep up with me.” He turned toward David. “Don’t drop behind.”

“With you?”

“Up beside me! We’re close. We can’t take any chances. Come on.”

“I’ll be all right.” David remained behind him, in the rear, a few paces away, still clutching his teddy bear.

“Have it your way.” Hendricks raised his glasses again, suddenly tense. For a moment—had something moved? He scanned the ridge carefully. Everything was silent. Dead. No life up there, only tree trunks and ash. Maybe a few rats. The big black rats that had survived the claws. Mutants—built their own shelters out of saliva and ash. Some kind of plaster. Adaptation. He started forward again.

A tall figure came out on the ridge above him, cloak flapping. Gray-green. A Russian. Behind him a second soldier appeared, another Russian. Both lifted their guns, aiming.

Hendricks froze. He opened his mouth. The soldiers were kneeling, sighting down the side of the slope. A third figure had joined them on the ridge top, a smaller figure in gray-green. A woman. She stood behind the other two.

Hendricks found his voice. “Stop!” He waved up at them frantically. “I’m—”

The two Russians fired. Behind Hendricks there was a faint pop. Waves of heat lapped against him, throwing him to the ground. Ash tore at his face, grinding into his eyes and nose. Choking, he pulled himself to his knees. It was all a trap. He was finished. He had come to be killed, like a steer. The soldiers and the woman were coming down the side of the ridge toward him, sliding down through the soft ash. Hendricks was numb. His head throbbed. Awkwardly, he got his rifle up and took aim. It weighed a thousand tons; he could hardly hold it. His nose and cheeks stung. The air was full of the blast smell, a bitter acrid stench.

“Don’t fire,” the first Russian said, in heavily accented English.

The three of them came up to him, surrounding him. “Put down your rifle, Yank,” the other said.

Hendricks was dazed. Everything had happened so fast. He had been caught. And they had blasted the boy. He turned his head. David was gone. What remained of him was strewn across the ground.

The three Russians studied him curiously. Hendricks sat, wiping blood from his nose, picking out bits of ash. He shook his head, trying to clear it. “Why did you do it?” he murmured thickly. “The boy.”

“Why?” One of the soldiers helped him roughly to his feet. He turned Hendricks around. “Look.”

Hendricks closed his eyes.

“Look!” The two Russians pulled him forward. “See. Hurry up. There isn’t much time to spare, Yank!”

Hendricks looked. And gasped.

“See now? Now do you understand?”

From the remains of David a metal wheel rolled. Relays, glinting metal. Parts, wiring. One of the Russians kicked at the heap of remains. Parts popped out, rolling away, wheels and springs and rods. A plastic section fell in, half charred. Hendricks bent shakily down. The front of the head had come off. He could make out the intricate brain, wires and relays, tiny tubes and switches, thousands of minute studs—

“A robot,” the soldier holding his arm said. “We watched it tagging you.”

“Tagging me?”

“That’s their way. They tag along with you. Into the bunker. That’s how they get in.”

Hendricks blinked, dazed. “But—”

“Come on.” They led him toward the ridge. “We can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. There must be hundreds of them all around here.”

The three of them pulled him up the side of the ridge, sliding and slipping on the ash. The woman reached the top and stood waiting for them.

“The forward command,” Hendricks muttered. “I came to negotiate with the Soviet—”

“There is no more forward command. They got in. We’ll explain.” They reached the top of the ridge. “We’re all that’s left. The three of us. The rest were down in the bunker.”

“This way. Down this way.” The woman unscrewed a lid, a gray manhole cover set in the ground. “Get in.”

Hendricks lowered himself. The two soldiers and the woman came behind him, following him down the ladder. The woman closed the lid after them, bolting it tightly into place.

“Good thing we saw you,” one of the two soldiers grunted. “It had tagged you about as far as it was going to.”

“Give me one of your cigarettes,” the woman said. “I haven’t had an American cigarette for weeks.”

Hendricks pushed the pack to her. She took a cigarette and passed the pack to the two soldiers. In the corner of the small room the lamp gleamed fitfully. The room was low-ceilinged, cramped. The four of them sat around a small wood table. A few dirty dishes were stacked to one side. Behind a ragged curtain a second room was partly visible. Hendricks saw the corner of a coat, some blankets, clothes hung on a hook.

“We were here,” the soldier beside him said. He took off his helmet, pushing his blond hair back. “I’m Corporal Rudi Maxer. Polish. Impressed in the Soviet Army two years ago.” He held out his hand.

Hendricks hesitated and then shook. “Major Joseph Hendricks.”

“Klaus Epstein.” The other soldier shook with him, a small dark man with thinning hair. Epstein plucked nervously at his ear. “Austrian. Impressed God knows when. I don’t remember. The three of us were here, Rudi and I, with Tasso.” He indicated the woman. “That’s how we escaped. All the rest were down in the bunker.”

“And—and they got in?”

Epstein lit a cigarette. “First just one of them. The kind that tagged you. Then it let others in.”

Hendricks became alert. “The kind? Are there more than one kind?”

“The little boy. David. David holding his teddy bear. That’s Variety Three. The most effective.”

“What are the other types?”

Epstein reached into his coat. “Here.” He tossed a packet of photographs onto the table, tied with a string. “Look for yourself.”

Hendricks untied the string.

“You see,” Rudi Maxer said, “that was why we wanted to talk terms. The Russians, I mean. We found out about a week ago. Found out that your claws were beginning to make up new designs on their own. New types of their own. Better types. Down in your underground factories behind our lines. You let them stamp themselves, repair themselves. Made them more and more intricate. It’s your fault this happened.”

Hendricks examined the photos. They had been snapped hurriedly; they were blurred and indistinct. The first few showed—David. David walking along a road, by himself. David and another David. Three Davids. All exactly alike. Each with a ragged teddy bear.

All pathetic.

“Look at the others,” Tasso said.

The next pictures, taken at a great distance, showed a towering wounded soldier sitting by the side of a path, his arm in a sling, the stump of one leg extended, a crude crutch on his lap. Then two wounded soldiers, both the same, standing side by side.

“That’s Variety One. The Wounded Soldier.” Klaus reached out and took the pictures. “You see, the claws were designed to get to human beings. To find them. Each kind was better than the last. They got farther, closer, past most of our defenses, into our lines. But as long as they were merely machines, metal spheres with claws and horns, feelers, they could be picked off like any other object. They could be detected as lethal robots as soon as they were seen. Once we caught sight of them—”

“Variety One subverted our whole north wing,” Rudi said. “It was a long time before anyone caught on. Then it was too late. They came in, wounded soldiers, knocking and begging to be let in. So we let them in. And as soon as they were in they took over. We were watching out for machines….”

“At that time it was thought there was only the one type,” Klaus Epstein said. “No one suspected there were other types. The pictures were flashed to us. When the runner was sent to you, we knew of just one type. Variety One. The big Wounded Soldier. We thought that was all.”

“Your line fell to—”

“To Variety Three. David and his bear. That worked even better.” Klaus smiled bitterly. “Soldiers are suckers for children. We brought them in and tried to feed them. We found out the hard way what they were after. At least, those who were in the bunker.”

“The three of us were lucky,” Rudi said. “Klaus and I were—were visiting Tasso when it happened. This is her place.” He waved a big hand around. “This little cellar. We finished and climbed the ladder to start back. From the ridge we saw that they were all around the bunker. Fighting was still going on. David and his bear. Hundreds of them. Klaus took the pictures.”

Klaus tied up the photographs again.

“And it’s going on all along your line?” Hendricks said.

“Yes.”

“How about our lines?” Without thinking, he touched the tab on his arm. “Can they—”

“They’re not bothered by your radiation tabs. It makes no difference to them, Russian, American, Pole, German. It’s all the same. They’re doing what they were designed to do. Carrying out the original idea. They track down life, wherever they find it.”

“They go by warmth,” Klaus said. “That was the way you constructed them from the very start. Of course, those you designed were kept back by the radiation tabs you wear. Now they’ve got around that. These new varieties are lead-lined.”

“What’s the other variety?” Hendricks asked. “The David type, the Wounded Soldier—what’s the other?”

“We don’t know.” Klaus pointed up at the wall. On the wall were two metal plates, ragged at the edges. Hendricks got up and studied them. They were bent and dented.

“The one on the left came off a Wounded Soldier,” Rudi said. “We got one of them. It was going along toward our old bunker. We got it from the ridge, the same way we got the David tagging you.”

The plate was stamped: I-V. Hendricks touched the other plate. “And this came from the David type?”

“Yes.” The plate was stamped: III-V.

Klaus took a look at them, leaning over Hendricks’s broad shoulder. “You can see what we’re up against. There’s another type. Maybe it was abandoned. Maybe it didn’t work. But there must be a Second Variety. There’s One and Three.”

“You were lucky,” Rudi said. “The David tagged you all the way here and never touched you. Probably thought you’d get it into a bunker, somewhere.”

“One gets in and it’s all over,” Klaus said. “They move fast. One lets all the rest inside. They’re inflexible. Machines with one purpose. They were built for only one thing.” He rubbed sweat from his lip. “We saw.”

They were silent.

“Let me have another cigarette, Yank,” Tasso said. “They are good. I almost forgot how they were.”

IT WAS NIGHT. The sky was black. No stars were visible through the rolling clouds of ash. Klaus lifted the lid cautiously so that Hendricks could look out.

Rudi pointed into the darkness. “Over that way are the bunkers. Where we used to be. Not over half a mile from us. It was just chance Klaus and I were not there when it happened. Weakness. Saved by our lusts.”

“All the rest must be dead,” Klaus said in a low voice. “It came quickly. This morning the Politburo reached their decision. They notified us—forward command. Our runner was sent out at once. We saw him start toward the direction of your lines. We covered him until he was out of sight.”

“Alex Radrivsky. We both knew him. He disappeared about six o’clock. The sun had just come up. About noon Klaus and I had an hour relief. We crept off, away from the bunkers. No one was watching. We came here. There used to be a town here, a few houses, a street. This cellar was part of a big farmhouse. We knew Tasso would be here, hiding down in her little place. We had come here before. Others from the bunkers came here. Today happened to be our turn.”

“So we were saved,” Klaus said. “Chance. It might have been others. We—we finished, and then we came up to the surface and started back along the ridge. That was when we saw them, the Davids. We understood right away. We had seen the photos of the First Variety, the Wounded Soldier. Our Commissar distributed them to us with an explanation. If we had gone another step they would have seen us. As it was we had to blast two Davids before we got back. There were hundreds of them, all around. Like ants. We took pictures and slipped back here, bolting the lid tight.”

“They’re not so much when you catch them alone. We moved faster than they did. But they’re inexorable. Not like living things. They came right at us. And we blasted them.”

Major Hendricks rested against the edge of the lid, adjusting his eyes to the darkness. “Is it safe to have the lid up at all?”

“If we’re careful. How else can you operate your transmitter?”

Hendricks lifted the small belt transmitter slowly. He pressed it against his ear. The metal was cold and damp. He blew against the mike, raising up the short antenna. A faint hum sounded in his ear. “That’s true, I suppose.”

But he still hesitated.

“We’ll pull you under if anything happens,” Klaus said.

“Thanks.” Hendricks waited a moment, resting the transmitter against his shoulder. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“This, the new types. The new varieties of claws. We’re completely at their mercy, aren’t we? By now they’ve probably gotten into the UN lines, too. It makes me wonder if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.”

Rudi grunted. “There is no race after man.”

“No? Why not? Maybe we’re seeing it now, the end of human beings, the beginning of the new society.”

“They’re not a race. They’re mechanical killers. You made them to destroy. That’s all they can do. They’re machines with a job.”

“So it seems now. But how about later on? After the war is over. Maybe, when there aren’t any humans to destroy, their real potentialities will begin to show.”

“You talk as if they were alive!”

“Aren’t they?”

There was silence. “They’re machines,” Rudi said. “They look like people, but they’re machines.”

“Use your transmitter, Major,” Klaus said. “We can’t stay up here forever.”

Holding the transmitter tightly, Hendricks called the code of the command bunker. He waited, listening. No response. Only silence. He checked the leads carefully. Everything was in place.

“Scott!” he said into the mike. “Can you hear me?”

Silence. He raised the gain up full and tried again. Only static.

“I don’t get anything. They may hear me but they may not want to answer.”

“Tell them it’s an emergency.”

“They’ll think I’m being forced to call. Under your direction.” He tried again, outlining briefly what he had learned. But still the phone was silent, except for the faint static.

“Radiation pools kill most transmission,” Klaus said, after a while. “Maybe that’s it.”

Hendricks shut the transmitter up. “No use. No answer. Radiation pools? Maybe. Or they hear me, but won’t answer. Frankly, that’s what I would do, if a runner tried to call from the Soviet lines. They have no reason to believe such a story. They may hear everything I say—”

“Or maybe it’s too late.”

Hendricks nodded.

“We better get the lid down,” Rudi said nervously. “We don’t want to take unnecessary chances.”

They climbed slowly back down the tunnel. Klaus bolted the lid carefully into place. They descended into the kitchen. The air was heavy and close around them.

“Could they work that fast?” Hendricks said. “I left the bunker this noon. Ten hours ago. How could they move so quickly?”

“It doesn’t take them long. Not after the first one gets in. It goes wild. You know what the little claws can do. Even one of these is beyond belief. Razors, each finger. Maniacal.”

“All right.” Hendricks moved away impatiently. He stood with his back to them.

“What’s the matter?” Rudi said.

“The Moon Base. God, if they’ve gotten there—”

“The Moon Base?”

Hendricks turned around. “They couldn’t have got to the Moon Base. How would they get there? It isn’t possible. I can’t believe it.”

“What is this Moon Base? We’ve heard rumors, but nothing definite. What is the actual situation? You seem concerned.”

“We’re supplied from the Moon. The governments are there, under the lunar surface. All our people and industries. That’s what keeps us going. If they should find some way of getting off Terra, onto the Moon—”

“It only takes one of them. Once the first one gets in it admits the others. Hundreds of them, all alike. You should have seen them. Identical. Like ants.”

“Perfect socialism,” Tasso said. “The ideal of the communist state. All citizens interchangeable.”

Klaus grunted angrily. “That’s enough. Well? What next?”

Hendricks paced back and forth, around the small room. The air was full of smells of food and perspiration. The others watched him. Presently Tasso pushed through the curtain, into the other room. “I’m going to take a nap.”

The curtain closed behind her. Rudi and Klaus sat down at the table, still watching Hendricks. “It’s up to you,” Klaus said. “We don’t know your situation.”

Hendricks nodded.

“It’s a problem.” Rudi drank some coffee, filling his cup from a rusty pot. “We’re safe here for a while, but we can’t stay here forever. Not enough food or supplies.”

“But if we go outside—”

“If we go outside they’ll get us. Or probably they’ll get us. We couldn’t go very far. How far is your command bunker, Major?”

“Three or four miles.”

“We might make it. The four of us. Four of us could watch all sides. They couldn’t slip up behind us and start tagging us. We have three rifles, three blast rifles. Tasso can have my pistol.” Rudi tapped his belt. “In the Soviet army we didn’t have shoes always, but we had guns. With all four of us armed one of us might get to your command bunker. Preferably you, Major.”

“What if they’re already there?” Klaus said.

Rudi shrugged. “Well, then we come back here.”

Hendricks stopped pacing. “What do you think the chances are they’re already in the American lines?”

“Hard to say. Fairly good. They’re organized. They know exactly what they’re doing. Once they start they go like a horde of locusts. They have to keep moving, and fast. It’s secrecy and speed they depend on. Surprise. They push their way in before anyone has any idea.”

“I see,” Hendricks murmured.

From the other room Tasso stirred. “Major?”

Hendricks pushed the curtain back. “What?”

Tasso looked up at him lazily from the cot. “Have you any more American cigarettes left?”

Hendricks went into the room and sat down across from her, on a wood stool. He felt in his pockets. “No. All gone.”

“Too bad.”

“What nationality are you?” Hendricks asked her after a while.

“Russian.”

“How did you get here?”

“Here?”

“This used to be France. This was part of Normandy. Did you come with the Soviet army?”

“Why?”

“Just curious.” He studied her. She had taken off her coat, tossing it over the end of the cot. She was young, about twenty. Slim. Her long hair stretched out over the pillow. She was staring at him silently, her eyes dark and large.

“What’s on your mind?” Tasso said.

“Nothing. How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She continued to watch him, unblinking, her arms behind her head. She had on Russian army pants and shirt. Gray-green. Thick leather belt with counter and cartridges. Medicine kit.

“You’re in the Soviet army?”

“No.”

“Where did you get the uniform?”

She shrugged. “It was given to me,” she told him.

“How—how old were you when you came here?”

“Sixteen.”

“That young?”

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

Hendricks rubbed his jaw. “Your life would have been a lot different if there had been no war. Sixteen. You came here at sixteen. To live this way.”

“I had to survive.”

“I’m not moralizing.”

“Your life would have been different, too,” Tasso murmured. She reached down and unfastened one of her boots. She kicked the boot off, onto the floor. “Major, do you want to go in the other room? I’m sleepy.”

“It’s going to be a problem, the four of us here. It’s going to be hard to live in these quarters. Are there just the two rooms?”

“Yes.”

“How big was the cellar originally? Was it larger than this? Are there other rooms filled up with debris? We might be able to open one of them.”

“Perhaps. I really don’t know.” Tasso loosened her belt. She made herself comfortable on the cot, unbuttoning her shirt. “You’re sure you have no more cigarettes?”

“I had only one pack.”

“Too bad. Maybe if we get back to your bunker we can find some.” The other boot fell. Tasso reached up for the light cord. “Good night.”

“You’re going to sleep?”

“That’s right.”

The room plunged into darkness. Hendricks got up and made his way past the curtain, into the kitchen. And stopped, rigid.

Rudi stood against the wall, his face white and gleaming. His mouth opened and closed but no sounds came. Klaus stood in front of him, the muzzle of his pistol in Rudi’s stomach. Neither of them moved. Klaus, his hand tight around the gun, his features set. Rudi, pale and silent, spread-eagled against the wall.

“What—” Hendricks muttered, but Klaus cut him off.

“Be quiet, Major, Come over here. Your gun. Get out your gun.”

Hendricks drew his pistol. “What is it?”

“Cover him.” Klaus motioned him forward. “Beside me. Hurry!”

Rudi moved a little, lowering his arms. He turned to Hendricks, licking his lips. The whites of his eyes shone wildly. Sweat dripped from his forehead, down his cheeks. He fixed his gaze on Hendricks. “Major, he’s gone insane. Stop him.” Rudi’s voice was thin and hoarse, almost inaudible.

“What’s going on?” Hendricks demanded.

Without lowering his pistol Klaus answered. “Major, remember our discussion? The Three Varieties? We knew about One and Three. But we didn’t know about Two. At least, we didn’t know before.” Klaus’s fingers tightened around the gun butt. “We didn’t know before, but we know now.”

He pressed the trigger. A burst of white heat rolled out of the gun, licking around Rudi.

“Major, this is the Second Variety.”

Tasso swept the curtain aside. “Klaus! What did you do?”

Klaus turned from the charred form, gradually sinking down the wall onto the floor. “The Second Variety, Tasso. Now we know. We have all three types identified. The danger is less. I—”

Tasso stared past him at the remains of Rudi, at the blackened, smoldering fragments and bits of cloth. “You killed him.”

“Him? It, you mean. I was watching. I had a feeling but I wasn’t sure. At least, I wasn’t sure before. But this evening I was certain.” Klaus rubbed his pistol butt nervously. “We’re lucky. Don’t you understand? Another hour and it might—”

“You were certain?” Tasso pushed past him and bent down, over the steaming remains on the floor. Her face became hard. “Major, see for yourself. Bones. Flesh.”

Hendricks bent down beside her. The remains were human remains. Seared flesh, charred bone fragments, part of a skull. Ligaments, viscera, blood. Blood forming a pool against the wall.

“No wheels,” Tasso said calmly. She straightened up. “No wheels, no parts, no relays. Not a claw. Not the Second Variety.” She folded her arms. “You’re going to have to be able to explain this.”

Klaus sat down at the table, all the color drained suddenly from his face. He put his head in his hands and rocked back and forth.

“Snap out of it.” Tasso’s fingers closed over his shoulder. “Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?”

“He was frightened,” Hendricks said. “All this, the whole thing, building up around us.”

“Maybe.”

“What, then? What do you think?”

“I think he may have had a reason for killing Rudi. A good reason.”

“What reason?”

“Maybe Rudi learned something.”

Hendricks studied her bleak face. “About what?” he asked.

“About him. About Klaus.”

Klaus looked up quickly. “You can see what she’s trying to say. She thinks I’m the Second Variety. Don’t you see, Major? Now she wants you to believe I killed him on purpose. That I’m—”

“Why did you kill him, then?” Tasso said.

“I told you.” Klaus shook his head wearily. “I thought he was a claw. I thought I knew.”

“Why?”

“I had been watching him. I was suspicious.”

“Why?”

“I thought I had seen something. Heard something. I thought I—” He stopped.

“Go on.”

“We were sitting at the table. Playing cards. You two were in the other room. It was silent. I thought I heard him—whirr.”

There was silence.

“Do you believe that?” Tasso said to Hendricks.

“Yes. I believe what he says.”

“I don’t. I think he killed Rudi for a good purpose.” Tasso touched the rifle resting in the corner of the room. “Major—”

“No.” Hendricks shook his head. “Let’s stop it right now. One is enough. We’re afraid, the way he was. If we kill him we’ll be doing what he did to Rudi.”

Klaus looked gratefully up at him. “Thanks. I was afraid. You understand, don’t you? Now she’s afraid, the way I was. She wants to kill me.”

“No more killing.” Hendricks moved toward the end of the ladder. “I’m going above and try the transmitter once more. If I can’t get them we’re moving back toward my lines tomorrow morning.”

Klaus rose quickly. “I’ll come up with you and give you a hand.”

THE NIGHT AIR was cold. The earth was cooling off. Klaus took a deep breath, filling his lungs. He and Hendricks stepped onto the ground, out of the tunnel. Klaus planted his feet wide apart, the rifle up, watching and listening. Hendricks crouched by the tunnel mouth, tuning the small transmitter.

“Any luck?” Klaus asked presently.

“Not yet.”

“Keep trying. Tell them what happened.”

Hendricks kept trying. Without success. Finally he lowered the antenna. “It’s useless. They can’t hear me. Or they hear me and won’t answer. Or—”

“Or they don’t exist.”

“I’ll try once more.” Hendricks raised the antenna. “Scott, can you hear me? Come in!”

He listened. There was only static. Then, still very faintly—

“This is Scott.”

His fingers tightened. “Scott! Is it you?”

“This is Scott.”

Klaus squatted down. “Is it your command?”

“Scott, listen. Do you understand? About them, the claws. Did you get my message? Did you hear me?”

“Yes.” Faintly. Almost inaudible. He could hardly make out the word.

“You got my message? Is everything all right at the bunker? None of them have got in?”

“Everything is all right.”

“Have they tried to get in?”

The voice was weaker.

“No.”

Hendricks turned to Klaus. “They’re all right.”

“Have they been attacked?”

“No.” Hendricks pressed the phone tighter to his ear. “Scott, I can hardly hear you. Have you notified the Moon Base? Do they know? Are they alerted?”

No answer.

“Scott! Can you hear me?”

Silence.

Hendricks relaxed, sagging. “Faded out. Must be radiation pools.”

Hendricks and Klaus looked at each other. Neither of them said anything. After a time Klaus said, “Did it sound like any of your men? Could you identify the voice?”

“It was too faint.”

“You couldn’t be certain?”

“No.”

“Then it could have been—”

“I don’t know. Now I’m not sure. Let’s go back down and get the lid closed.”

They climbed back down the ladder slowly, into the warm cellar. Klaus bolted the lid behind them. Tasso waited for them, her face expressionless.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Neither of them answered. “Well?” Klaus said at last. “What do you think, Major? Was it your officer, or was it one of them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then we’re just where we were before.”

Hendricks stared down at the floor, his jaw set. “We’ll have to go. To be sure.”

“Anyhow, we have food here for only a few weeks. We’d have to go up after that, in any case.”

“Apparently so.”

“What’s wrong?” Tasso demanded. “Did you get across to your bunker? What’s the matter?”

“It may have been one of my men,” Hendricks said slowly. “Or it may have been one of them. But we’ll never know standing here.” He examined his watch. “Let’s turn in and get some sleep. We want to be up early tomorrow.”

“Early?”

“Our best chance to get through the claws should be early in the morning,” Hendricks said.

THE MORNING WAS crisp and clear. Major Hendricks studied the countryside through his field glasses.

“See anything?” Klaus said.

“No.”

“Can you make out our bunkers?”

“Which way?”

“Here.” Klaus took the glasses and adjusted them. “I know where to look.” He looked a long time, silently.

Tasso came to the top of the tunnel and stepped up onto the ground. “Anything?”

“No.” Klaus passed the glasses back to Hendricks. “They’re out of sight. Come on. Let’s not stay here.”

The three of them made their way down the side of the ridge, sliding in the soft ash. Across a flat rock a lizard scuttled. They stopped instantly, rigid.

“What was it?” Klaus muttered.

“A lizard.”

The lizard ran on, hurrying through the ash. It was exactly the same color as the ash.

“Perfect adaptation,” Klaus said. “Proves we were right. Lysenko, I mean.”

They reached the bottom of the ridge and stopped, standing close together, looking around them.

“Let’s go.” Hendricks started off. “It’s a good long trip, on foot.”

Klaus fell in beside him. Tasso walked behind, her pistol held alertly. “Major, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Klaus said. “How did you run across the David? The one that was tagging you.”

“I met it along the way. In some ruins.”

“What did it say?”

“Not much. It said it was alone. By itself.”

“You couldn’t tell it was a machine? It talked like a living person? You never suspected?”

“It didn’t say much. I noticed nothing unusual.”

“It’s strange, machines so much like people that you can be fooled. Almost alive. I wonder where it’ll end.”

“They’re doing what you Yanks designed them to do,” Tasso said. “You designed them to hunt out life and destroy. Human life. Wherever they find it.”

Hendricks was watching Klaus intently. “Why did you ask me? What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” Klaus answered.

“Klaus thinks you’re the Second Variety,” Tasso said calmly, from behind them. “Now he’s got his eye on you.”

Klaus flushed. “Why not? We sent a runner to the Yank lines and he comes back. Maybe he thought he’d find some good game here.”

Hendricks laughed harshly. “I came from the UN bunkers. There were human beings all around me.”

“Maybe you saw an opportunity to get into the Soviet lines. Maybe you saw your chance. Maybe you—”

“The Soviet lines had already been taken over. Your lines had been invaded before I left my command bunker. Don’t forget that.”

Tasso came up beside him. “That proves nothing at all, Major.”

“Why not?”

“There appears to be little communication between the varieties. Each is made in a different factory. They don’t seem to work together. You might have started for the Soviet lines without knowing anything about the work of the other varieties. Or even what the other varieties were like.”

“How do you know so much about the claws?” Hendricks said.

“I’ve seen them. I’ve observed them take over the Soviet bunkers.”

“You know quite a lot,” Klaus said. “Actually, you saw very little. Strange that you should have been such an acute observer.”

Tasso laughed. “Do you suspect me, now?”

“Forget it,” Hendricks said. They walked on in silence.

“Are we going the whole way on foot?” Tasso said, after a while. “I’m not used to walking.” She gazed around at the plain of ash, stretching out on all sides of them, as far as they could see. “How dreary.”

“It’s like this all the way,” Klaus said.

“In a way I wish you had been in your bunker when the attack came.”

“Somebody else would have been with you, if not me,” Klaus muttered.

Tasso laughed, putting her hands in her pockets. “I suppose so.”

They walked on, keeping their eyes on the vast plain of silent ash around them.

THE SUN WAS setting. Hendricks made his way forward slowly, waving Tasso and Klaus back. Klaus squatted down, resting his gun butt against the ground.

Tasso found a concrete slab and sat down with a sigh. “It’s good to rest.”

“Be quiet,” Klaus said sharply.

Hendricks pushed up to the top of the rise ahead of them. The same rise the Russian runner had come up, the day before. Hendricks dropped down, stretching himself out, peering through his glasses at what lay beyond.

Nothing was visible. Only ash and occasional trees. But there, not more than fifty yards ahead, was the entrance of the forward command bunker. The bunker from which he had come. Hendricks watched silently. No motion. No sign of life. Nothing stirred.

Klaus slithered up beside him. “Where is it?”

“Down there.” Hendricks passed him the glasses. Clouds of ash rolled across the evening sky. The world was darkening. They had a couple of hours of light left, at the most. Probably not that much.

“I don’t see anything,” Klaus said.

“That tree there. The stump. By the pile of bricks. The entrance is to the right of the bricks.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“You and Tasso cover me from here. You’ll be able to sight all the way to the bunker entrance.”

“You’re going down alone?”

“With my wrist tab I’ll be safe. The ground around the bunker is a living field of claws. They collect down in the ash. Like crabs. Without tabs you wouldn’t have a chance.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“I’ll walk slowly all the way. As soon as I know for certain—”

“If they’re down inside the bunker you won’t be able to get back up here. They go fast. You don’t realize.”

“What do you suggest?”

Klaus considered. “I don’t know. Get them to come up to the surface. So you can see.”

Hendricks brought his transmitter from his belt, raising the antenna. “Let’s get started.”

Klaus signaled to Tasso. She crawled expertly up the side of the rise to where they were sitting.

“He’s going down alone,” Klaus said. “We’ll cover him from here. As soon as you see him start back, fire past him at once. They come quick.”

“You’re not very optimistic,” Tasso said.

“No, I’m not.”

Hendricks opened the breech of his gun, checking it carefully. “Maybe things are all right.”

“You didn’t see them. Hundreds of them. All the same. Pouring out like ants.”

“I should be able to find out without going down all the way.” Hendricks locked his gun, gripping it in one hand, the transmitter in the other. “Well, wish me luck.”

Klaus put out his hand. “Don’t go down until you’re sure. Talk to them from up here. Make them show themselves.”

Hendricks stood up. He stepped down the side of the rise.

A moment later he was walking slowly toward the pile of bricks and debris beside the dead tree stump. Toward the entrance of the forward command bunker.

Nothing stirred. He raised the transmitter, clicking it on. “Scott? Can you hear me?”

Silence.

“Scott! This is Hendricks. Can you hear me? I’m standing outside the bunker. You should be able to see me in the view sight.”

He listened, the transmitter gripped tightly. No sound. Only static. He walked forward. A claw burrowed out of the ash and raced toward him. It halted a few feet away and then slunk off. A second claw appeared, one of the big ones with feelers. It moved toward him, studied him intently, and then fell in behind him, dogging respectfully after him, a few paces away. A moment later a second big claw joined it. Silently, the claws trailed him as he walked slowly toward the bunker.

Hendricks stopped, and behind him, the claws came to a halt. He was close now. Almost to the bunker steps.

“Scott! Can you hear me? I’m standing right above you. Outside. On the surface. Are you picking me up?”

He waited, holding his gun against his side, the transmitter tightly to his ear. Time passed. He strained to hear, but there was only silence. Silence, and faint static.

Then, distantly, metallically—

“This is Scott.”

The voice was neutral. Cold. He could not identify it. But the earphone was minute.

“Scott! Listen. I’m standing right above you. I’m on the surface, looking down into the bunker entrance.”

“Yes.”

“Can you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Through the view sight? You have the sight trained on me?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks pondered. A circle of claws waited quietly around him, gray-metal bodies on all sides of him. “Is everything all right in the bunker? Nothing unusual has happened?”

“Everything is all right.”

“Will you come up to the surface? I want to see you for a moment.” Hendricks took a deep breath. “Come up here with me. I want to talk to you.”

“Come down.”

“I’m giving you an order.”

Silence.

“Are you coming?” Hendricks listened. There was no response. “I order you to come to the surface.”

“Come down.”

Hendricks set his jaw. “Let me talk to Leone.”

There was a long pause. He listened to the static. Then a voice came, hard, thin, metallic. The same as the other. “This is Leone.”

“Hendricks. I’m on the surface. At the bunker entrance. I want one of you to come up here.”

“Come down.”

“Why come down? I’m giving you an order!”

Silence. Hendricks lowered the transmitter. He looked carefully around him. The entrance was just ahead. Almost at his feet. He lowered the antenna and fastened the transmitter to his belt. Carefully, he gripped his gun with both hands. He moved forward, a step at a time. If they could see him they knew he was starting toward the entrance. He closed his eyes a moment.

Then he put his foot on the first step that led downward.

Two Davids came up at him, their faces identical and expressionless. He blasted them into particles. More came rushing silently up, a whole pack of them. All exactly the same.

Hendricks turned and raced back, away from the bunker, back toward the rise.

At the top of the rise Tasso and Klaus were firing down. The small claws were already streaking up toward them, shining metal spheres going fast, racing frantically through the ash. But he had no time to think about that. He knelt down, aiming at the bunker entrance, gun against his cheek. The Davids were coming out in groups, clutching their teddy bears, their thin knobby legs pumping as they ran up the steps to the surface. Hendricks fired into the main body of them. They burst apart, wheels and springs flying in all directions. He fired again, through the mist of particles.

A giant lumbering figure rose up in the bunker entrance, tall and swaying. Hendricks paused, amazed. A man, a soldier. With one leg, supporting himself with a crutch.

“Major!” Tasso’s voice came. More firing. The huge figure moved forward, Davids swarming around it. Hendricks broke out of his freeze. The First Variety. The Wounded Soldier. He aimed and fired. The soldier burst into bits, parts and relays flying. Now many Davids were out on the flat ground, away from the bunker. He fired again and again, moving slowly back, half-crouching and aiming.

From the rise, Klaus fired down. The side of the rise was alive with claws making their way up. Hendricks retreated toward the rise, running and crouching. Tasso had left Klaus and was circling slowly to the right, moving away from the rise.

A David slipped up toward him, its small white face expressionless, brown hair hanging down in its eyes. It bent over suddenly, opening its arms. Its teddy bear hurtled down and leaped across the ground, bounding toward him. Hendricks fired. The bear and the David both dissolved. He grinned, blinking. It was like a dream.

“Up here!” Tasso’s voice. Hendricks made his way toward her. She was over by some columns of concrete, walls of a ruined building. She was firing past him, with the hand pistol Klaus had given her.

“Thanks.” He joined her, gasping for breath. She pulled him back, behind the concrete, fumbling at her belt.

“Close your eyes!” She unfastened a globe from her waist. Rapidly, she unscrewed the cap, locking it into place. “Close your eyes and get down.”

She threw the bomb. It sailed in an arc, an expert, rolling and bouncing to the entrance of the bunker. Two Wounded Soldiers stood uncertainly by the brick pile. More Davids poured from behind them, out onto the plain. One of the Wounded Soldiers moved toward the bomb, stooping awkwardly down to pick it up.

The bomb went off. The concussion whirled Hendricks around, throwing him on his face. A hot wind rolled over him. Dimly he saw Tasso standing behind the columns, firing slowly and methodically at the Davids coming out of the raging clouds of white fire.

Back along the rise Klaus struggled with a ring of claws circling around him. He retreated, blasting at them and moving back, trying to break through the ring.

Hendricks struggled to his feet. His head ached. He could hardly see. Everything was licking at him, raging and whirling. His right arm would not move.

Tasso pulled back toward him. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Klaus—he’s still up there.”

“Come on!” Tasso dragged Hendricks back, away from the columns. Hendricks shook his head, trying to clear it. Tasso led him rapidly away, her eyes intense and bright, watching for claws that had escaped the blast.

One David came out of the rolling clouds of flame. Tasso blasted it. No more appeared.

“But Klaus. What about him?” Hendricks stopped, standing unsteadily. “He—”

“Come on!”

They retreated, moving farther and farther away from the bunker. A few small claws followed them for a little while and then gave up, turning back and going off.

At last Tasso stopped. “We can stop here and get our breaths.”

Hendricks sat down on some heaps of debris. He wiped his neck, gasping. “We left Klaus back there.”

Tasso said nothing. She opened her gun, sliding a fresh round of blast cartridges into place.

Hendricks stared at her, dazed. “You left him back there on purpose.”

Tasso snapped the gun together. She studied the heaps of rubble around them, her face expressionless. As if she were watching for something.

“What is it?” Hendricks demanded. “What are you looking for? Is something coming?” He shook his head, trying to understand. What was she doing? What was she waiting for? He could see nothing. Ash lay all around them, ash and ruins. Occasional stark tree trunks, without leaves or branches. “What—”

Tasso cut him off. “Be still.” Her eyes narrowed. Suddenly her gun came up. Hendricks turned, following her gaze.

Back the way they had come a figure appeared. The figure walked unsteadily toward them. Its clothes were torn. It limped as it made its way along, going very slowly and carefully. Stopping now and then, resting and getting its strength. Once it almost fell. It stood for a moment, trying to steady itself. Then it came on.

Klaus.

Hendricks stood up. “Klaus!” He started toward him. “How the hell did you—”

Tasso fired. Hendricks swung back. She fired again, the blast passing him, a searing line of heat. The beam caught Klaus in the chest. He exploded, gears and wheels flying. For a moment he continued to walk. Then he swayed back and forth. He crashed to the ground, his arms flung out. A few more wheels rolled away.

Silence.

Tasso turned to Hendricks. “Now you understand why he killed Rudi.”

Hendricks sat down again slowly. He shook his head. He was numb. He could not think.

“Do you see?” Tasso said. “Do you understand?”

Hendricks said nothing. Everything was slipping away from him, faster and faster. Darkness, rolling and plucking at him.

He closed his eyes.

HENDRICKS OPENED HIS eyes slowly. His body ached all over. He tried to sit up but needles of pain shot through his arm and shoulder. He gasped.

“Don’t try to get up,” Tasso said. She bent down, putting her cold hand against his forehead.

It was night. A few stars glinted above, shining through the drifting clouds of ash. Hendricks lay back, his teeth locked. Tasso watched him impassively. She had built a fire with some wood and weeds. The fire licked feebly, hissing at a metal cup suspended over it. Everything was silent. Unmoving darkness, beyond the fire.

“So he was the Second Variety,” Hendricks murmured.

“I had always thought so.”

“Why didn’t you destroy him sooner?” He wanted to know.

“You held me back.” Tasso crossed to the fire to look into the metal cup. “Coffee. It’ll be ready to drink in a while.”

She came back and sat down beside him. Presently she opened her pistol and began to disassemble the firing mechanism, studying it intently.

“This is a beautiful gun,” Tasso said, half aloud. “The construction is superb.”

“What about them? The claws.”

“The concussion from the bomb put most of them out of action. They’re delicate. Highly organized, I suppose.”

“The Davids, too?”

“Yes.”

“How did you happen to have a bomb like that?”

Tasso shrugged. “We designed it. You shouldn’t underestimate our technology, Major. Without such a bomb you and I would no longer exist.”

“Very useful.”

Tasso stretched out her legs, warming her feet in the heat of the fire. “It surprised me that you did not seem to understand, after he killed Rudi. Why did you think he—”

“I told you. I thought he was afraid.”

“Really? You know, Major, for a little while I suspected you. Because you wouldn’t let me kill him. I thought you might be protecting him.” She laughed.

“Are we safe here?” Hendricks asked presently.

“For a while. Until they get reinforcements from some other area.” Tasso began to clear the interior of the gun with a bit of rag. She finished and pushed the mechanism back into place. She closed the gun, running her finger along the barrel.

“We were lucky,” Hendricks murmured.

“Yes. Very lucky.”

“Thanks for pulling me away.”

Tasso did not answer. She glanced up at him, her eyes bright in the firelight. Hendricks examined his arm. He could not move his fingers. His whole side seemed numb. Down inside him was a dull steady ache.

“How do you feel?” Tasso asked.

“My arm is damaged.”

“Anything else?”

“Internal injuries.”

“You didn’t get down when the bomb went off.”

Hendricks said nothing. He watched Tasso pour the coffee from the cup into a flat metal pan. She brought it over to him.

“Thanks.” He struggled up enough to drink. It was hard to swallow. His insides turned over and he pushed the pan away. “That’s all I can drink now.”

Tasso drank the rest. Time passed. The clouds of ash moved across the dark sky above them. Hendricks rested, his mind blank. After a while he became aware that Tasso was standing over him, gazing down at him.

“What is it?” he murmured.

“Do you feel any better?”

“Some.”

“You know, Major, if I hadn’t dragged you away they would have got you. You would be dead. Like Rudi.”

“I know.”

“Do you want to know why I brought you out? I could have left you. I could have left you there.”

“Why did you bring me out?”

“Because we have to get away from here.” Tasso stirred the fire with a stick, peering calmly down into it. “No human being can live here. When their reinforcements come we won’t have a chance. I’ve pondered about it while you were unconscious. We have perhaps three hours before they come.”

“And you expect me to get us away?”

“That’s right. I expect you to get us out of here.”

“Why me?”

“Because I don’t know any way.” Her eyes shone at him in the light, bright and steady. “If you can’t get us out of here they’ll kill us within three hours. I see nothing else ahead. Well, Major? What are you going to do? I’ve been waiting all night. While you were unconscious I sat here, waiting and listening. It’s almost dawn. The night is almost over.”

Hendricks considered. “It’s curious,” he said at last.

“Curious?”

“That you should think I can get us out of here. I wonder what you think I can do.”

“Can you get us to the Moon Base?”

“The Moon Base? How?”

“There must be some way.”

Hendricks shook his head. “No. There’s no way that I know of.”

Tasso said nothing. For a moment her steady gaze wavered. She ducked her head, turning abruptly away. She scrambled to her feet. “More coffee?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.” Tasso drank silently. He could not see her face. He lay back against the ground, deep in thought, trying to concentrate. It was hard to think. His head still hurt. And the numbing daze still hung over him.

“There might be one way,” he said suddenly.

“Oh?”

“How soon is dawn?”

“Two hours. The sun will be coming up shortly.”

“There’s supposed to be a ship near here. I’ve never seen it. But I know it exists.”

“What kind of a ship?” Her voice was sharp.

“A rocket cruiser.”

“Will it take us off? To the Moon Base?”

“It’s supposed to. In case of emergency.” He rubbed his forehead.

“What’s wrong?”

“My head. It’s hard to think. I can hardly—hardly concentrate. The bomb.”

“Is the ship near here?” Tasso slid over beside him, settling down on her haunches. “How far is it? Where is it?”

“I’m trying to think.”

Her fingers dug into his arm. “Nearby?” Her voice was like iron. “Where would it be? Would they store it underground? Hidden underground?”

“Yes. In a storage locker.”

“How do we find it? Is it marked? Is there a code marker to identify it?”

Hendricks concentrated. “No. No markings. No code symbol.”

“What, then?”

“A sign.”

“What sort of sign?”

Hendricks did not answer. In the flickering light his eyes were glazed, two sightless orbs. Tasso’s fingers dug into his arm.

“What sort of sign? What is it?”

“I—I can’t think. Let me rest.”

“All right.” She let go and stood up. Hendricks lay back against the ground, his eyes closed. Tasso walked away from him, her hands in her pockets. She kicked a rock out of her way and stood staring up at the sky. The night blackness was already beginning to fade into gray. Morning was coming.

Tasso gripped her pistol and walked around the fire in a circle, back and forth. On the ground Major Hendricks lay, his eyes closed, unmoving. The grayness rose in the sky, higher and higher. The landscape became visible, fields of ash stretching out in all directions. Ash and ruins of buildings, a wall here and there, heaps of concrete, the naked trunk of a tree.

The air was cold and sharp. Somewhere a long way off a bird made a few bleak sounds.

Hendricks stirred. He opened his eyes. “Is it dawn? Already?”

“Yes.”

Hendricks sat up a little. “You wanted to know something. You were asking me.”

“Do you remember now?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?” She tensed. “What?” she repeated sharply.

“A well. A ruined well. It’s in a storage locker under a well.”

“A well.” Tasso relaxed. “Then we’ll find a well.” She looked at her watch. “We have about an hour, Major. Do you think we can find it in an hour?”

“Give me a hand up,” Hendricks said.

Tasso put her pistol away and helped him to his feet. “This is going to be difficult.”

“Yes, it is.” Hendricks set his lips tightly. “I don’t think we’re going to go very far.”

They began to walk. The early sun cast a little warmth down on them. The land was flat and barren, stretching out gray and lifeless as far as they could see. A few birds sailed silently, far above them, circling slowly.

“See anything?” Hendricks said. “Any claws?”

“No. Not yet.”

They passed through some ruins, upright concrete and bricks. A cement foundation. Rats scuttled away. Tasso jumped back warily.

“This used to be a town,” Hendricks said. “A village. Provincial village. This was all grape country, once. Where we are now.”

They came onto a ruined street, weeds and cracks criss-crossing it. Over to the right a stone chimney stuck up.

“Be careful,” he warned her.

A pit yawned, an open basement. Ragged ends of pipes jutted up, twisted and bent. They passed part of a house, a bathtub turned on its side. A broken chair. A few spoons and bits of china dishes. In the center of the street the ground had sunk away. The depression was filled with weeds and debris and bones.

“Over here,” Hendricks murmured.

“This way?”

“To the right.”

They passed the remains of a heavy-duty tank. Hendricks’s belt counter clicked ominously. The tank had been radiation-blasted. A few feet from the tank a mumified body lay sprawled out, mouth open. Beyond the road was a flat field. Stones and weeds, and bits of broken glass.

“There,” Hendricks said.

A stone well jutted up, sagging and broken. A few boards lay across it. Most of the well had sunk into rubble. Hendricks walked unsteadily toward it, Tasso beside him.

“Are you certain about this?” Tasso said. “This doesn’t look like anything.”

“I’m sure.” Hendricks sat down at the edge of the well, his teeth locked. His breath came quickly. He wiped perspiration from his face. “This was arranged so the senior command officer could get away. If anything happened. If the bunker fell.”

“That was you?”

“Yes.”

“Where is the ship? Is it here?”

“We’re standing on it.” Hendricks ran his hands over the surface of the well stones. “The eye-lock responds to me, not to anybody else. It’s my ship. Or it was supposed to be.”

There was a sharp click. Presently they heard a low grating sound from below them.

“Step back,” Hendricks said. He and Tasso moved away from the well.

A section of the ground slid back. A metal frame pushed slowly up through the ash, shoving bricks and weeds out of the way. The action ceased as the ship nosed into view.

“There it is,” Hendricks said.

The ship was small. It rested quietly, suspended in its mesh frame like a blunt needle. A rain of ash sifted down into the dark cavity from which the ship had been raised. Hendricks made his way over to it. He mounted the mesh and unscrewed the hatch, pulling it back. Inside the ship the control banks and the pressure seat were visible.

Tasso came and stood beside him, gazing into the ship. “I’m not accustomed to rocket piloting,” she said after a while.

Hendricks glanced at her. “I’ll do the piloting.”

“Will you? There’s only one seat, Major, I can see it’s built to carry only a single person.”

Hendricks’s breathing changed. He studied the interior of the ship intently. Tasso was right. There was only one seat. The ship was built to carry only one person. “I see,” he said slowly. “And the one person is you.”

She nodded. “Of course.”

“Why?”

You can’t go. You might not live through the trip. You’re injured. You probably wouldn’t get there.”

“An interesting point. But you see, I know where the Moon Base is. And you don’t. You might fly around for months and not find it. It’s well hidden. Without knowing what to look for—”

“I’ll have to take my chances. Maybe I won’t find it. Not by myself. But I think you’ll give me all the information I need. Your life depends on it.”

“How?”

“If I find the Moon Base in time, perhaps I can get them to send a ship back to pick you up. If I find the Base in time. If not, then you haven’t a chance. I imagine there are supplies on the ship. They will last me long enough—”

Hendricks moved quickly. But his injured arm betrayed him. Tasso ducked, sliding lithely aside. Her hand came up, lightning fast. Hendricks saw the gun butt coming. He tried to ward off the blow, but she was too fast. The metal butt struck against the side of his head, just above his ear. Numbing pain rushing through him. Pain and rolling clouds of blackness. He sank down, sliding to the ground.

Dimly, he was aware that Tasso was standing over him, kicking him with her toe.

“Major! Wake up.”

He opened his eyes, groaning.

“Listen to me.” She bent down, the gun pointed at his face. “I have to hurry. There isn’t much time left. The ship is ready to go, but you must give me the information I need before I leave.”

Hendricks shook his head, trying to clear it.

“Hurry up! Where is the Moon Base? How do I find it? What do I look for?”

Hendricks said nothing.

“Answer me!”

“Sorry.”

“Major, the ship is loaded with provisions. I can coast for weeks. I’ll find the Base eventually. And in a half-hour you’ll be dead. Your only chance of survival—” She broke off.

Along the slope, by some crumbling ruins, something moved. Something in the ash. Tasso turned quickly, aiming. She fired. A puff of flame leaped. Something scuttled away, rolling across the ash. She fired again. The claw burst apart, wheels flying.

“See?” Tasso said. “A scout. It won’t be long.”

“You’ll bring them back here to get me?”

“Yes. As soon as possible.”

Hendricks looked up at her. He studied her intently. “You’re telling the truth?” A strange expression had come over his face, an avid hunger. “You will come back for me? You’ll get me to the Moon Base?”

“I’ll get you to the Moon Base. But tell me where it is! There’s only a little time left.”

“All right.” Hendricks picked up a piece of rock, pulling himself to a sitting position. “Watch.”

Hendricks began to scratch in the ash. Tasso stood by him, watching the motion of the rock. Hendricks was sketching a crude lunar map.

“This is the Appenine range. Here is the Crater of Archimedes, the Moon Base is beyond the end of the Appenine, about two hundred miles. I don’t know exactly where. No one on Terra knows. But when you’re over the Appenine, signal with one red flare and a green flare, followed by two red flares in quick succession. The Base monitor will record your signal. The Base is under the surface, of course. They’ll guide you down with magnetic grapples.”

“And the controls? Can I operate them?”

“The controls are virtually automatic. All you have to do is give the right signal at the right time.”

“I will.”

“The seat absorbs most of the takeoff shock. Air and temperature are automatically controlled. The ship will leave Terra and pass out into free space. It’ll line itself up with the Moon, falling into an orbit around it, about a hundred miles above the surface. The orbit will carry you over the Base. When you’re in the region of the Appenine, release the signal rockets.”

Tasso slid into the ship and lowered herself into the pressure seat. The arm locks folded automatically around her. She fingered the controls. “Too bad you’re not going, Major. All this put here for you, and you can’t make the trip.”

“Leave me the pistol.”

Tasso pulled the pistol from her belt. She held it in her hand, weighing it thoughtfully. “Don’t go too far from this location. It’ll be hard to find you, as it is.”

“No. I’ll stay here by the well.”

Tasso gripped the takeoff switch, running her fingers over the smooth metal. “A beautiful ship, Major. Well built. I admire your workmanship. You people have always done good work. You build fine things. Your work, your creations, are your greatest achievement.”

“Give me the pistol,” Hendricks said impatiently, holding out his hand. He struggled to his feet.

“Good-bye, Major.” Tasso tossed the pistol past Hendricks. The pistol clattered against the ground, bouncing and rolling away. Hendricks hurried after it. He bent down, snatching it up.

The hatch of the ship clanged shut. The bolts fell into place. Hendricks made his way back. The inner door was being sealed. He raised the pistol unsteadily.

There was a shattering roar. The ship burst up from its metal cage, fusing the mesh behind it. Hendricks cringed, pulling back. The ship shot up into the rolling clouds of ash, disappearing into the sky.

Hendricks stood watching a long time, until even the streamer had dissipated. Nothing stirred. The morning air was chill and silent. He began to walk aimlessly back the way they had come. Better to keep moving around. It would be a long time before help came—if it came at all.

He searched his pockets until he found a package of cigarettes. He lit one grimly. They had all wanted cigarettes from him. But cigarettes were scarce.

A lizard slithered by him, through the ash. He halted, rigid. The lizard disappeared. Above, the sun rose higher in the sky. Some flies landed on a flat rock to one side of him. Hendricks kicked at them with his foot.

It was getting hot. Sweat trickled down his face, into his collar. His mouth was dry.

Presently he stopped walking and sat down on some debris. He unfastened his medicine kit and swallowed a few narcotic capsules. He looked around him. Where was he?

Something lay ahead. Stretched out on the ground. Silent and unmoving.

Hendricks drew his gun quickly. It looked like a man. Then he remembered. It was the remains of Klaus. The Second Variety. Where Tasso had blasted him. He could see wheels and relays and metal parts, strewn around on the ash. Glittering and sparkling in the sunlight.

Hendricks got to his feet and walked over. He nudged the inert form with his foot, turning it over a little. He could see the metal hull, the aluminum ribs and struts. More wiring fell out. Like viscera. Heaps of wiring, switches and relays. Endless motors and rods.

He bent down. The brain was visible. He gazed at it. A maze of circuits. Miniature tubes. Wires as fine as hair. He touched the brain cage. It swung aside. The type plate was visible. Hendricks studied the plate.

And blanched.

IV—IV.

For a long time he stared at the plate. Fourth Variety. Not the Second. They had been wrong. There were more types. Not just three. Many more, perhaps. At least four. And Klaus wasn’t the Second Variety.

But if Klaus wasn’t the Second Variety—

Suddenly he tensed. Something was coming, walking through the ash beyond the hill. What was it? He strained to see. Figures coming slowly along, making their way through the ash.

Coming toward him.

Hendricks crouched quickly, raising his gun. Sweat dripped down into his eyes. He fought down rising panic, as the figures neared.

The first was a David. The David saw him and increased its pace. The others hurried behind it. A second David. A third. Three Davids, all alike, coming toward him silently, without expression, their thin legs rising and falling. Clutching their teddy bears.

He aimed and fired. The first two Davids dissolved into particles. The third came on. And the figure behind it. Climbing silently toward him across the gray ash. A Wounded Soldier, towering over the David. And—

AND BEHIND THE Wounded Soldier came two Tassos, walking side by side. Heavy belt, Russian army pants, shirt, long hair. The familiar figure, as he had seen her only a little while before. Sitting in the pressure seat of the ship. Two slim, silent figures, both identical.

They were very near. The David bent down suddenly, dropping its teddy bear. The bear raced across the ground. Automatically, Hendricks’s fingers tightened around the trigger. The bear was gone, dissolved into mist. The two Tasso Types moved on, expressionless, walking side by side, through the gray ash.

When they were almost to him, Hendricks raised the pistol waist high and fired.

The two Tassos dissolved. But already a new group was starting up the rise, five or six Tassos, all identical, a line of them coming rapidly toward him.

And he had given her the ship and the signal code. Because of him she was on her way to the moon, to the Moon Base. He had made it possible.

He had been right about the bomb, after all. It had been designed with knowledge of the other types, the David Type and the Wounded Soldier Type. And the Klaus Type. Not designed by human beings. It had been designed by one of the underground factories, apart from all human contact.

The line of Tassos came up to him. Hendricks braced himself, watching them calmly. The familiar face, the belt, the heavy shirt, the bomb carefully in place.

The bomb—

As the Tassos reached for him, a last ironic thought drifted through Hendricks’s mind. He felt a little better, thinking about it. The bomb. Made by the Second Variety to destroy the other varieties. Made for that end alone.

They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.


Philip K. Dick

<p><emphasis>Philip K. Dick</emphasis></p>

Regarded as one of the most important writers of science fiction in the twentieth century, Philip K. Dick built his reputation on subtly complex tales of intersecting alternate realities. His novel The Man in the High Castle, set in a future where Japan and Germany emerged victorious from World War II, won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1963 and is regarded as one of the best alternate history tales in science fiction. Dr. Bloodmoney offers a vision of American society in the aftermath of nuclear war. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, both set in worlds where time slips and reality shifts are the norm, crystallize the mood of paranoia and often comically chaotic instability that characterizes much of his writing. His Valis trilogy, comprised of the novels Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has been praised for its use of science fiction and fantasy tropes in the service of philosophic and cosmologic inquiry. Several of his best-known stories have been successfully adapted for the screen: his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was filmed as the blockbuster movie Blade Runner in 1982, and his short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” was adapted as Total Recall in 1990. Revival of interest in Dick’s work after his death in 1982 led to the publication of his many mainstream novels, several volumes of his collected letters, and the five-volume Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick.


HERO

Joe W. Haldeman

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Joe Haldeman

<p>HERO</p> <p>Joe W. Haldeman</p>
<p>1</p>

“TONIGHT WE’RE GOING to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than I. Ergo, as they say, he couldn’t possibly ever have killed a man, not in combat, silently or otherwise.

I already knew eighty ways to kill people, though most of them were pretty noisy. I sat up straight in my chair and assumed a look of polite attention and fell asleep with my eyes open. So did most everybody else. We’d learned that they never schedule anything important for these after-chop classes.

The projector woke me up and I sat through a short movie showing the “eight silent ways.” Some of the actors must have been brainwipes, since they were actually killed.

After the movie a girl in the front row raised her hand. The sergeant nodded at her and she rose to parade rest. Not bad-looking, but kind of chunky about the neck and shoulders. Everybody gets that way after carrying a heavy pack around for a couple of months.

“Sir”—we had to call sergeants “sir” until graduation—“most of those methods, really, they looked…kind of silly.”

“For instance?”

“Like killing a man with a blow to the kidneys, from an entrenching tool. I mean, when would you actually just have an entrenching tool, and no gun or knife? And why not just bash him over the head with it?”

“He might have a helmet on,” he said reasonably.

“Besides, Taurans probably don’t even have kidneys!”

He shrugged. “Probably they don’t.” This was 1997, and we’d never seen a Tauran: hadn’t even found any pieces of Taurans bigger than a scorched chromosome. “But their body chemistry is similar to ours, and we have to assume they’re similarly complex creatures. They must have weaknesses, vulnerable spots. You have to find out where they are.

“That’s the important thing.” He stabbed a finger at the screen. “That’s why those eight convicts got caulked for your benefit…you’ve got to find out how to kill Taurans, and be able to do it whether you have a megawatt laser or just an emery board.”

She sat back down, not looking too convinced.

“Any more questions?” Nobody raised a hand.

“O.K.—tench-hut!” We staggered upright and he looked at us expectantly.

“Screw you, sir,” came the tired chorus.

“Louder!”

“SCREW YOU, SIR!”

One of the army’s less-inspired morale devices.

“That’s better. Don’t forget, predawn maneuvers tomorrow. Chop at 0330, first formation, 0400. Anybody sacked after 0340 gets one stripe. Dismissed.”

I zipped up my coverall and went across the snow to the lounge for a cup of soya and a joint. I’d always been able to get by on five or six hours of sleep, and this was the only time I could be by myself, out of the army for a while. Looked at the newsfax for a few minutes. Another ship got caulked, out by Aldebaran sector. That was four years ago. They were mounting a reprisal fleet, but it’ll take four years more for them to get out there. By then, the Taurans would have every portal planet sewed up tight.

Back at the billet, everybody else was sacked and the main lights were out. The whole company’d been dragging ever since we got back from the two-week lunar training. I dumped my clothes in the locker, checked the roster and found out I was in bunk 31. Damn it, right under the heater.

I slipped through the curtain as quietly as possible so as not to wake up my bunkmate. Couldn’t see who it was, but I couldn’t have cared less. I slipped under the blanket.

“You’re late, Mandella,” a voice yawned. It was Rogers.

“Sorry I woke you up,” I whispered.

“’Sallright.” She snuggled over and clasped me spoon-fashion. She was warm and reasonably soft. I patted her hip in what I hoped was a brotherly fashion. “Night, Rogers.”

“G’night, Stallion.” She returned the gesture, a good deal more pointedly.

Why do you always get the tired ones when you’re ready and the randy ones when you’re tired? I bowed to the inevitable.

<p>2</p>

“Awright, let’s get some back inta that! Stringer team! Move it up—move up!”

A warm front had come in about midnight and the snow had turned to sleet. The permaplast stringer weighed five hundred pounds and was a bitch to handle, even when it wasn’t covered with ice. There were four of us, two at each end, carrying the plastic girder with frozen fingertips. Rogers and I were partners.

“Steel!” the guy behind me yelled, meaning that he was losing his hold. It wasn’t steel, but it was heavy enough to break your foot. Everybody let go and hopped away. It splashed slush and mud all over us.

“Damn it, Petrov,” Rogers said, “why didn’t you go out for Star Fleet or maybe the Red Cross? This damn thing’s not that damn heavy.” Most of the girls were a little more circumspect in their speech.

“Awright, get a move on, stringers—Epoxy team! Dog ’em! Dog ’em!”

Our two epoxy people ran up, swinging their buckets. “Let’s go, Mandella. I’m freezin’.”

“Me, too,” the girl said earnestly.

“One—two—heave!” We got the thing up again and staggered toward the bridge. It was about three-quarters completed. Looked as if the Second Platoon was going to beat us. I wouldn’t give a damn, but the platoon that got their bridge built first got to fly home. Four miles of muck for the rest of us, and no rest before chop.

We got the stringer in place, dropped it with a clank, and fitted the static clamps that held it to the rise-beams. The female half of the epoxy team started slopping glue on it before we even had it secured. Her partner was waiting for the stringer on the other side. The floor team was waiting at the foot of the bridge, each one holding a piece of the light stressed permaplast over his head, like an umbrella. They were dry and clean. I wondered aloud what they had done to deserve it, and Rogers suggested a couple of colorful, but unlikely possibilities.

We were going back to stand by the next stringer when the Field First—he was named Dougelstein, but we called him “Awright”—blew a whistle and bellowed, “Awright, soldier boys and girls, ten minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” He reached into his pocket and turned on the control that heated our coveralls.

Rogers and I sat down on our end of the stringer and I took out my weed box. I had lots of joints, but we weren’t allowed to smoke them until after night-chop. The only tobacco I had was a cigarro butt about three inches long. I lit it on the side of the box; it wasn’t too bad after the first couple of puffs. Rogers took a puff to be sociable, but made a face and gave it back.

“Were you in school when you got drafted?” she asked.

“Yeah. Just got a degree in Physics. Was going after a teacher’s certificate.”

She nodded soberly. “I was in Biology….”

“Figures.” I ducked a handful of slush. “How far?”

“Six years, bachelor’s and technical.” She slid her boot along the ground, turning up a ridge of mud and slush the consistency of freezing ice milk. “Why the hell did this have to happen?”

I shrugged. It didn’t call for an answer, least of all the answer that the UNEF kept giving us. Intellectual and physical elite of the planet, going out to guard humanity against the Tauran menace. It was all just a big experience. See whether we could goad the Taurans into ground action.

Awright blew the whistle two minutes early, as expected, but Rogers and I and the other two stringers got to sit for a minute while the epoxy and floor teams finished covering our stringer. It got cold fast, sitting there with our suits turned off, but we remained inactive, on principle.

I really didn’t see the sense of us having to train in the cold. Typical army half-logic. Sure, it was going to be cold where we were going; but not ice-cold or snow-cold. Almost by definition, a portal planet remained within a degree or two of absolute zero all the time, since collapsars don’t shine—and the first chill you felt would mean that you were a dead man.

TWELVE YEARS BEFORE, when I was ten years old, they had discovered the collapsar jump. Just fling an object at a collapsar with sufficient speed, and it pops out in some other part of the galaxy. It didn’t take long to figure out the formula that predicted where it would come out; it just traveled along the same “line”—actually an Einsteinian geodesic—it would have followed if the collapsar hadn’t been in the way—until it reaches another collapsar field, whereupon it reappears, repelled with the same speed it had approaching the original collapsar. Travel time between the two collapsars is exactly zero.

It made a lot of work for mathematical physicists, who had to redefine simultaneity, then tear down general relativity and build it back up again. And it made the politicians very happy, because now they could send a shipload of colonists to Fomalhaut for less than it once cost to put a brace of men on the Moon. There were a lot of people the politicians would just love to see on Fomalhaut, implementing a glorious adventure instead of stirring up trouble at home.

The ships were always accompanied by an automated probe that followed a couple of million miles behind. We knew about the portal planets, little bits of flotsam that whirled around the collapsars; the purpose of the drone was to come back and tell us in the event that a ship had smacked into a portal planet at .999 of the speed of light.

That particular catastrophe never happened, but one day a drone did come limping back alone. Its data were analyzed, and it turned out that the colonists’ ship had been pursued by another vessel and destroyed. This happened near Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus, but since “Aldebaranian” is a little hard to handle, they named the enemy Taurans.

Colonizing vessels thenceforth went out protected by an armed guard. Often the armed guard went out alone, and finally the colonization effort itself slowed to a token trickle. The United Nations Exploratory and Colonization Group got shortened to UNEF, United Nations Exploratory Force, emphasis on the “force.”

Then some bright lad in the General Assembly decided that we ought to field an army of footsoldiers to guard the portal planets of the nearer collapsars. This led to the Elite Conscription Act of 1996 and the most rigorously selected army in the history of warfare.

So here we are, fifty men and fifty women, with IQ’s over 150 and bodies of unusual health and strength, slogging elitely through the mud and slush of central Missouri, reflecting on how useful our skill in building bridges will be, on worlds where the only fluid will be your occasional standing pool of liquid helium.

<p>3</p>

About a month later, we left for our final training exercise; maneuvers on the planet Charon. Though nearing perihelion, it was still more than twice as far from the sun as Pluto.

The troopship was a converted “cattlewagon,” made to carry two hundred colonists and assorted bushes and beasts. Don’t think it was roomy, though, just because there were half that many of us. Most of the excess space was taken up with extra reaction mass and ordnance.

The whole trip took three weeks, accelerating at 2 Gs halfway; decelerating the other half. Our top speed, as we roared by the orbit of Pluto, was around one twentieth of the speed of light—not quite enough for relativity to rear its complicated head.

Three weeks of carrying around twice as much weight as normal…it’s no picnic. We did some cautious exercises three times a day, and remained horizontal as much as possible. Still, we had several broken bones and serious dislocations. The men had to wear special supporters. It was almost impossible to sleep, what with nightmares of choking and being crushed, and the necessity of rolling over periodically to prevent blood pooling and bedsores. One girl got so fatigued that she almost slept through the experience of having a rib rub through to the open air.

I’d been in space several times before, so when we finally stopped decelerating and went into free fall, it was nothing but a relief. But some people had never been out, except for our training on the Moon, and succumbed to the sudden vertigo and disorientation. The rest of us cleaned up after them, floating through the quarters with sponges and inspirators to suck up globules of partly-digested “Concentrate, High-protein, Low-residue, Beef Flavor (Soya).”

A shuttle took us down to the surface in three trips. I waited for the last one, along with everybody else who wasn’t bothered by free fall.

We had a good view of Charon, coming down from orbit. There wasn’t much to see, though. It was just a dim, off-white sphere with a few smudges on it. We landed about two hundred meters from the base. A pressurized crawler came out and mated with the ferry, so we didn’t have to suit up. We clanked and squeaked up to the main building, a featureless box of grayish plastic.

Inside, the walls were the same inspired color. The rest of the company was sitting at desks, chattering away. There was a seat next to Freeland.

“Jeff—feeling better?” He still looked a little pale.

“If the gods had meant for man to survive in free fall, they would have given him a cast-iron glottis. Somewhat better. Dying for a smoke.”

“Yeah.”

You seemed to take it all right. Went up in school, didn’t you?”

“Senior thesis in vacuum welding, yeah, three weeks in Earth orbit.” I sat back and reached for my weed box, for the thousandth time. It still wasn’t there, of course. The Life Support Unit didn’t want to handle nicotine and THC.

“Training was bad enough,” Jeff groused, “but this crap—”

“I don’t know.” I’d been thinking about it. “It might just all be worth it.”

“Hell, no—this is a space war, let Star Fleet take care of it…they’re just going to send us out and either we sit for fifty years on some damn ice cube of a portal planet, or we get….”

“Well, Jeff, you’ve got to look at it the other way, too. Even if there’s only one chance in a thousand that we’ll be doing some good, keeping the Taurans….

“TENCH-HUT!” WE stood up in a raggety-ass fashion, by twos and threes. The door opened and a full major came in. I stiffened a little. He was the highest-ranking officer I’d ever seen. He had a row of ribbons stitched into his coveralls, including a purple strip meaning he’d been wounded in combat, fighting in the old American army. Must have been that Indochina thing, but it had fizzled out before I was born. He didn’t look that old.

“Sit, sit.” He made a patting motion with his hand. Then he put his hands on his hips and scanned the company with a small smile on his face. “Welcome to Charon. You picked a lovely day to land; the temperature outside is a summery eight point one five degrees Absolute. We expect little change for the next two centuries or so.” Some of us laughed half-heartedly.

“You’d best enjoy the tropical climate here at Miami Base, enjoy it while you can. We’re on the center of sunside here, and most of your training will be on darkside. Over there, the temperature drops to a chilly two point zero eight.

“You might as well regard all the training you got on Earth and the Moon as just a warm-up exercise, to give you a fair chance of surviving Charon. You’ll have to go through your whole repertory here: tools, weapons, maneuvers. And you’ll find that, at these temperatures, tools don’t work the way they should, weapons don’t want to fire. And people move v-e-r-y cautiously.”

He studied the clipboard in his hand. “Right now, you have forty-nine women and forty-eight men. Two deaths, one psychiatric release. Having read an outline of your training program, I’m frankly surprised that so many of you pulled through.

“But you might as well know that I won’t be displeased if as few as fifty of you graduate from this final phase. And the only way not to graduate is to die. Here. The only way anybody gets back to Earth—including me—is after a combat tour.

“You will complete your training in one month. From here you go to Stargate collapsar, a little over two lights away. You will stay at the settlement on Stargate I, the largest portal planet, until replacements arrive. Hopefully, that will be no more than a month; another group is due here as soon as you leave.

“When you leave Stargate, you will be going to a strategically important collapsar, set up a military base there, and fight the enemy, if attacked. Otherwise, maintain the base until further orders.

“The last two weeks of your training will consist of constructing such a base, on darkside. There you will be totally isolated from Miami Base: no communication, no medical evacuation, no resupply. Sometime before the two weeks are up, your defense facilities will be evaluated in an attack by guided drones. They will be armed.

“All of the permanent personnel here on Charon are combat veterans. Thus, all of us are forty to fifty years of age, but I think we can keep up with you. Two of us will be with you at all times, and will accompany you at least as far as Stargate. They are Captain Sherman Stott, your company commander, and Sergeant Octavio Cortez, your first sergeant. Gentlemen?”

Two men in the front row stood easily and turned to face us. Captain Stott was a little smaller than the major, but cut from the same mold; face hard and smooth as porcelain, cynical half-smile, a precise centimeter of beard framing a large chin, looking thirty at the most. He wore a large, gunpowder-type pistol on his hip.

Sergeant Cortez was another story. His head was shaved and the wrong shape; flattened out on one side where a large piece of skull had obviously been taken out. His face was very dark and seamed with wrinkles and scars. Half his left ear was missing and his eyes were as expressive as buttons on a machine. He had a moustache-and-beard combination that looked like a skinny white caterpillar taking a lap around his mouth. On anybody else, his schoolboy smile might look pleasant, but he was about the ugliest, meanest-looking creature I’d ever seen. Still, if you didn’t look at his head and considered the lower six feet or so, he could pose as the “after” advertisement for a body-building spa. Neither Stott nor Cortez wore any ribbons. Cortez had a small pocket-laser suspended in a magnetic rig, sideways, under his left armpit. It had wooden grips that were worn very smooth.

“Now, before I turn you over to the tender mercies of these two gentlemen, let me caution you again.

“Two months ago there was not a living soul on this planet, a working force of forty-five men struggled for a month to erect this base. Twenty-four of them, more than half, died in the construction of it. This is the most dangerous planet men have ever tried to live on, but the places you’ll be going will be this bad and worse. Your cadre will try to keep you alive for the next month. Listen to them…and follow their example; all of them have survived here for longer than you’ll have to. Captain?” The captain stood up as the major went out the door.

“Tench-hut!” The last syllable was like an explosion and we all jerked to our feet.

“Now, I’m only gonna say this once so you better listen,” he growled. “We are in a combat situation here and in a combat situation there is only one penalty for disobedience and insubordination.” He jerked the pistol from his hip and held it by the barrel, like a club. “This is an Army model 1911 automatic pistol caliber .45 and it is a primitive, but effective, weapon. The sergeant and I are authorized to use our weapons to kill to enforce discipline, don’t make us do it because we will. We will.” He put the pistol back. The holster snap made a loud crack in the dead quiet.

“Sergeant Cortez and I between us have killed more people than are sitting in this room. Both of us fought in Vietnam on the American side and both of us joined the United Nations International Guard more than ten years ago. I took a break in grade from major for the privilege of commanding this company, and First Sergeant Cortez took a break from sub-major, because we are both combat soldiers and this is the first combat situation since 1974.

“Keep in mind what I’ve said while the First Sergeant instructs you more specifically in what your duties will be under this command. Take over, Sergeant.” He turned on his heel and strode out of the room, with the little smile on his face that hadn’t changed one millimeter during the whole harangue.

The First Sergeant moved like a heavy machine with lots of ball bearings. When the door hissed shut he swiveled ponderously to face us and said, “At ease, siddown,” in a surprisingly gentle voice. He sat on a table in the front of the room. It creaked—but held.

“Now, the captain talks scary and I look scary, but we both mean well. You’ll be working pretty closely with me, so you better get used to this thing I’ve got hanging in front of my brain. You probably won’t see the captain much, except on maneuvers.”

He touched the flat part of his head. “And speaking of brains, I still have just about all mine, in spite of Chinese efforts to the contrary. All of us old vets who mustered into UNEF had to pass the same criteria that got you drafted by the Elite Conscription Act. So I suspect all of you are smart and tough—but just keep in mind that the captain and I are smart and tough and experienced.”

He flipped through the roster without really looking at it. “Now, as the captain said, there’ll be only one kind of disciplinary action on maneuvers. Capital punishment. But normally we won’t have to kill you for disobeying. Charon’ll save us the trouble.

“Back in the billeting area, it’ll be another story. We don’t much care what you do inside, but once you suit up and go outside, you’ve gotta have discipline that would shame a Centurian. There will be situations where one stupid act could kill us all.

“Anyhow, the first thing we’ve gotta do is get you fitted to your fighting suits. The armorer’s waiting at your billet; he’ll take you one at a time. Let’s go.”

<p>4</p>

“Now, I know you got lectured and lectured on what a fighting suit can do, back on Earth.” The armorer was a small man, partially bald, with no insignia of rank on his coveralls. Sergeant Cortez told us to call him “sir,” since he was a lieutenant.

“But I’d like to reinforce a couple of points, maybe add some things your instructors Earthside weren’t clear about, or couldn’t know. Your First Sergeant was kind enough to consent to being my visual aid. Sergeant?”

Cortez slipped out of his coveralls and came up to the little raised platform where a fighting suit was standing, popped open like a man-shaped clam. He backed into it and slipped his arms into the rigid sleeves. There was a click and the thing swung shut with a sigh. It was bright green with CORTEZ stenciled in white letters on the helmet.

“Camouflage, Sergeant.”

The green faded to white, then dirty gray. “This is good camouflage for Charon, and most of your portal planets,” said Cortez, from a deep well. “But there are several other combinations available.” The gray dappled and brightened to a combination of greens and browns: “Jungle.” Then smoothed out to a hard light ochre: “Desert.” Dark brown, darker, to a deep flat black: “Night or space.”

“Very good, Sergeant. To my knowledge, this is the only feature of the suit which was perfected after your training. The control is around your left wrist and is admittedly awkward. But once you find the right combination, it’s easy to lock in.

“Now, you didn’t get much in-suit training Earthside because we didn’t want you to get used to using the thing in a friendly environment. The fighting suit is the deadliest personal weapon ever built, and with no weapon it is easier for the user to kill himself through carelessness. Turn around, Sergeant.

“Case in point.” He tapped a square protuberance between the shoulders. “Exhaust fins. As you know, the suit tries to keep you at a comfortable temperature no matter what the weather’s like outside. The material of the suit is as near to a perfect insulator as we could get, consistent with mechanical demands. Therefore, these fins get hot—especially hot, compared to darkside temperatures—as they bleed off the body’s heat.

“All you have to do is lean up against a boulder of frozen gas; there’s lots of it around. The gas will sublime off faster than it can escape from the fins; in escaping, it will push against the surrounding ‘ice’ and fracture it…and in about one hundredth of a second, you have the equivalent of a hand grenade going off right below your neck. You’ll never feel a thing.

“Variations on this theme have killed eleven people in the past two months. And they were just building a bunch of huts.

“I assume you know how easily the waldo capabilities can kill you or your companions. Anybody want to shake hands with the sergeant?” He stepped over and clasped his glove. “He’s had lots of practice. Until you have, be extremely careful. You might scratch an itch and wind up bleeding to death. Remember, semi-logarithmic repose: two pounds’ pressure exerts five pounds’ force; three pounds gives ten; four pounds, twenty-three; five pounds, forty-seven. Most of you can muster up a grip of well over a hundred pounds. Theoretically, you could rip a steel girder in two with that, amplified. Actually, you’d destroy the material of your gloves and, at least on Charon, die very quickly. It’d be a race between decompression and flash-freezing. You’d be the loser.

“The leg waldos are also dangerous, even though the amplification is less extreme. Until you’re really skilled, don’t try to run, or jump. You’re likely to trip, and that means you’re likely to die.

“Charon’s gravity is three-fourths of Earth normal, so it’s not too bad. But on a really small world, like Luna, you could take a running jump and not come down for twenty minutes, just keep sailing over the horizon. Maybe bash into a mountain at eighty meters per second. On a small asteroid, it’d be no trick at all to run up to escape velocity and be off on an informal tour of intergalactic space. It’s a slow way to travel.

“Tomorrow morning, we’ll start teaching you how to stay alive inside of this infernal machine. The rest of the afternoon and evening, I’ll call you one at a time to be fitted. That’s all, Sergeant.”

Cortez went to the door and turned the stopcock that let air into the air lock. A bank of infrared lamps went on to keep the air from freezing inside it. When the pressures were equalized, he shut the stopcock, unclamped the door and stepped in, clamping it shut behind him. A pump hummed for about a minute, evacuating the air lock, then he stepped out and sealed the outside door. It was pretty much like the ones on Luna.

“First I want Private Omar Almizar. The rest of you can go find your bunks. I’ll call you over the squawker.”

“Alphabetical order, sir?”

“Yep. About ten minutes apiece. If your name begins with Z, you might as well get sacked.”

That was Rogers. She probably was thinking about getting sacked.

<p>5</p>

The sun was a hard white point directly overhead. It was a lot brighter than I had expected it to be; since we were eighty AUs out, it was only 1/6400th as bright as it is on Earth. Still, it was putting out about as much light as a powerful streetlamp.

“This is considerably more light than you’ll have on a portal planet,” Captain Stott’s voice crackled in our collective ear. “Be glad that you’ll be able to watch your step.”

We were lined up, single file, on a permaplast sidewalk connecting the billet and the supply hut. We’d practiced walking inside, all morning, and this wasn’t any different except for the exotic scenery. Though the light was rather dim, you could see all the way to the horizon quite clearly, with no atmosphere in the way. A black cliff that looked too regular to be natural stretched from one horizon to the other, passing within a kilometer of us. The ground was obsidian-black, mottled with patches of white, or bluish, ice. Next to the supply hut was a small mountain of snow in a bin marked OXYGEN.

The suit was fairly comfortable, but it gave you the odd feeling of being simultaneously a marionette and a puppeteer. You apply the impulse to move your leg and the suit picks it up and magnifies it and moves your leg for you.

“Today we’re only going to walk around the company area and nobody will leave the company area.” The captain wasn’t wearing his .45, but he had a laser-finger like the rest of us. And his was probably hooked up.

Keeping an interval of at least two meters between each person, we stepped off the permaplast and followed the captain over the smooth rock. We walked carefully for about an hour, spiraling out, and finally stopped at the far edge of the perimeter.

“Now everybody pay close attention. I’m going out to that blue slab of ice”—it was a big one, about twenty meters away—“and show you something that you’d better know if you want to live.”

He walked out a dozen confident steps. “First I have to heat up a rock—filters down.” I slapped the stud under my armpit and the filter slid into place over my image converter. The captain pointed his finger at a black rock the size of a basketball and gave it a short burst. The glare rolled a long shadow of the captain over us and beyond. The rock shattered into a pile of hazy splinters.

“It doesn’t take long for these to cool down.” He stooped and picked up a piece. “This one is probably twenty or twenty-five degrees. Watch.” He tossed the “warm” rock on the ice slab. It skittered around in a crazy pattern and shot off the side. He tossed another one, and it did the same.

“As you know, you are not quite perfectly insulated. These rocks are about the temperature of the soles of your boots. If you try to stand on a slab of hydrogen the same thing will happen to you. Except that the rock is already dead.

“The reason for this behavior is that the rock makes a slick interface with the ice—a little puddle of liquid hydrogen—and rides a few molecules above the liquid on a cushion of hydrogen vapor. This makes the rock, or you, a frictionless bearing as far as the ice is concerned and you can’t stand up without any friction under your boots.

“After you have lived in your suit for a month or so you should be able to survive falling down, but right now you just don’t know enough. Watch.”

The captain flexed and hopped up onto the slab. His feet shot out from under him and he twisted around in midair, landing on hands and knees. He slipped off and stood on the ground.

“The idea is to keep your exhaust fins from making contact with the frozen gas. Compared to the ice they are as hot as a blast furnace and contact with any weight behind it will result in an explosion.”

AFTER THAT DEMONSTRATION, we walked around for another hour or so, and returned to the billet. Once through the air lock, we had to mill around for a while, letting the suits get up to something like room temperature. Somebody came up and touched helmets with me.

“William?” She had MC COY stenciled above her faceplate.

“Hi, Sean. Anything special?”

“I just wondered if you had anyone to sleep with tonight.”

That’s right; I’d forgotten, there wasn’t any sleeping roster here. Everybody just chose his own partner. “Sure, I mean, uh, no…no, I haven’t asked anybody, sure, if you want to….”

“Thanks, William. See you later.” I watched her walk away and thought that if anybody could make a fighting suit look sexy, it’d be Sean. But even Sean couldn’t.

Cortez decided we were warm enough and led us to the suit room where we backed the things into place and hooked them up to the charging plates—each suit had a little chunk of plutonium that would power it for several years, but we were supposed to run on fuel cells as much as possible. After a lot of shuffling around, everybody finally got plugged in and we were allowed to unsuit, ninety-seven naked chickens squirming out of bright green eggs. It was cold—the air, the floor, and especially the suits—and we made a pretty disorderly exit toward the lockers.

I slipped on tunic, trousers and sandals and was still cold. I took my cup and joined the line for soya, everybody jumping up and down to keep warm.

“How c-cold, do you think, it is, M-Mandella?” That was McCoy.

“I don’t, even want, to think, about it.” I stopped jumping and rubbed myself as briskly as possible, while holding a cup in one hand. “At least as cold as Missouri was.”

“Ung…wish they’d, get some damn heat in, this place.” It always affects the small girls more than anybody else. McCoy was the littlest one in the company, a waspwaist doll barely five feet high.

“They’ve got the airco going. It can’t be long now.”

“I wish I, was a big, slab of, meat like, you.”

I was glad she wasn’t.

<p>6</p>

We had our first casualty on the third day, learning how to dig holes.

With such large amounts of energy stored in a soldier’s weapons, it wouldn’t be practical for him to hack out a hole in the frozen ground with the conventional pick and shovel. Still, you can launch grenades all day and get nothing but shallow depressions—so the usual method is to bore a hole in the ground with the hand laser, drop a timed charge in after it’s cooled down and, ideally, fill the hole with stuff. Of course, there’s not much loose rock on Charon, unless you’ve already blown a hole nearby.

The only difficult thing about the procedure is getting away. To be safe, we were told, you’ve got to either be behind something really solid, or be at least a hundred meters away. You’ve got about three minutes after setting the charge, but you can’t just spring away. Not on Charon.

The accident happened when we were making a really deep hole, the kind you want for a large underground bunker. For this, we had to blow a hole, then climb down to the bottom of the crater and repeat the procedure again and again until the hole was deep enough. Inside the crater we used charges with a five-minute delay, but it hardly seemed enough time—you really had to go slow, picking your way up the crater’s edge.

Just about everybody had blown a double hole; everybody but me and three others. I guess we were the only ones paying really close attention when Bovanovitch got into trouble. All of us were a good two hundred meters away. With my image converter turned up to about forty power, I watched her disappear over the rim of the crater. After that I could only listen in on her conversation with Cortez.

“I’m on the bottom, Sergeant.” Normal radio procedure was suspended for these maneuvers; only the trainee and Cortez could broadcast.

“O.K., move to the center and clear out the rubble. Take your time. No rush until you pull the pin.”

“Sure, Sergeant.” We could hear small echoes of rocks clattering; sound conduction through her boots. She didn’t say anything for several minutes.

“Found bottom.” She sounded a little out of breath.

“Ice, or rock?”

“Oh, it’s rock, Sergeant. The greenish stuff.”

“Use a low setting, then. One point two, dispersion four.”

“God darn it, Sergeant, that’ll take forever.”

“Yeah, but that stuff’s got hydrated crystals in it—heat it up too fast and you might make it fracture. And we’d just have to leave you there, girl.”

“O.K., one point two dee four.” The inside edge of the crater flickered red with reflected laser light.

“When you get about half a meter deep, squeeze it up to dee two.”

“Roger.” It took her exactly seventeen minutes, three of them at dispersion two. I could imagine how tired her shooting arm was.

“Now rest for a few minutes. When the bottom of the hole stops glowing, arm the charge and drop it in. Then walk out. Understand? You’ll have plenty of time.”

“I understand, Sergeant. Walk out.” She sounded nervous. Well, you don’t often have to tiptoe away from a twenty microton tachyon bomb. We listened to her breathing for a few minutes.

“Here goes.” Faint slithering sound of the bomb sliding down.

“Slow and easy now, you’ve got five minutes.”

“Y-yeah. Five.” Her footsteps started out slow and regular. Then, after she started climbing the side, the sounds were less regular; maybe a little frantic. And with four minutes to go—

“Crap!” A loud scraping noise, then clatters and bumps.

“What’s wrong, Private?”

“Oh, crap.” Silence. “Crap!”

“Private, you don’t wanna get shot, you tell me what’s wrong!”

“I…I’m stuck, damn rockslide…DO SOMETHING I can’t move. I can’t move I, I—”

“Shut up! How deep?”

“Can’t move my crap, my damn legs HELP ME—”

“Then damn it use your arms—push!—you can move a ton with each hand.” Three minutes.

Then she stopped cussing and started to mumble, in Russian, I guess, a low monotone. She was panting and you could hear rocks tumbling away.

“I’m free.” Two minutes.

“Go as fast as you can.” Cortez’s voice was flat, emotionless.

At ninety seconds she appeared crawling over the rim. “Run, girl…you better run.” She ran five or six steps and fell, skidded a few meters and got back up, running; fell again, got up again—

It looked like she was going pretty fast, but she had only covered about thirty meters when Cortez said, “All right, Bovanovitch, get down on your stomach and lie still.” Ten seconds, but she didn’t hear him, or she wanted to get just a little more distance, and she kept running, careless leaping strides and at the high point of one leap there was a flash and a rumble and something big hit her below the neck and her headless body spun off end over end through space, trailing a red-black spiral of flash-frozen blood that settled gracefully to the ground, a path of crystal powder that nobody disturbed while we gathered rocks to cover the juiceless thing at the end of it.

That night Cortez didn’t lecture us, didn’t even show up for night-chop. We were all very polite to each other and everybody was afraid to talk about it.

I sacked with Rogers; everybody sacked with a good friend, but all she wanted to do was cry, and she cried so long and so hard that she got me doing it, too.

<p>7</p>

“Fire team A—move out!” The twelve of us advanced in a ragged line toward the simulated bunker. It was about a kilometer away, across a carefully prepared obstacle course. We could move pretty fast, since all of the ice had been cleared from the field, but even with ten days’ experience we weren’t ready to do more than an easy jog.

I carried a grenade launcher, loaded with tenth-microton practice grenades. Everybody had their laser-fingers set at point oh eight dee one; not much more than a flashlight. This was a simulated attack—the bunker and its robot defender cost too much to be used once and thrown away.

“Team B follow. Team leaders, take over.”

We approached a clump of boulders at about the halfway mark, and Potter, my team leader, said “Stop and cover.” We clustered behind the rocks and waited for team B.

Barely visible in their blackened suits, the dozen men and women whispered by us. As soon as they were clear, they jogged left, out of our line of sight.

“Fire!” Red circles of light danced a half-click downrange, where the bunker was just visible. Five hundred meters was the limit for these practice grenades; but I might luck out, so I lined the launcher up on the image of the bunker, held it at a 45° angle and popped off a salvo of three.

Return fire from the bunker started before my grenades even landed. Its automatic lasers were no more powerful than the ones we were using, but a direct hit would deactivate your image converter, leaving you blind. It was setting down a random field of fire, not even coming close to the boulders we were hiding behind.

Three magnesium-bright flashes blinked simultaneously, about thirty meters short of the bunker. “Mandella! I thought you were supposed to be good with that thing.”

“Damn it, Potter—it only throws half a click. Once we get closer, I’ll lay ’em right on top, every time.”

Sure you will.” I didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t be team leader forever. Besides, she hadn’t been such a bad girl before the power went to her head.

Since the grenadier is the assistant team leader, I was slaved into Potter’s radio and could hear B team talk to her.

“Potter, this is Freeman. Losses?”

“Potter here—no, looks like they were concentrating on you.”

“Yeah, we lost three. Right now we’re in a depression about eighty, a hundred meters down from you. We can give cover whenever you’re ready.”

“O.K., start.” Soft click: “A team follow me.” She slid out from behind the rock and turned on the faint pink beacon beneath her powerpack. I turned on mine and moved out to run alongside of her and the rest of the team fanned out in a trailing wedge. Nobody fired while B team laid down a cover for us.

All I could hear was Potter’s breathing and the soft crunch-crunch of my boots. Couldn’t see much of anything, so I tongued the image converter up to a log two intensification. That made the image kind of blurry but adequately bright. Looked like the bunker had B team pretty well pinned down; they were getting quite a roasting. All of their return fire was laser; they must have lost their grenadier.

“Potter, this is Mandella. Shouldn’t we take some of the heat off B team?”

“Soon as I can find us good enough cover. Is that all right with you? Private?” She’d been promoted to corporal for the duration of the exercise.

We angled to the right and laid down behind a slab of rock. Most of the others found cover nearby, but a few had to just hug the ground.

“Freeman, this is Potter.”

“Potter, this is Smithy. Freeman’s out; Samuels is out. We only have five men left. Give us some cover so we can get….”

“Roger, Smithy.”—click—“Open up, A team. The B’s are really hurtin’.”

I PEEKED OUT over the edge of the rock. My rangefinder said that the bunker was about three hundred fifty meters away, still pretty far. I aimed just a smidgeon high and popped three, then down a couple of degrees and three more. The first ones overshot by about twenty meters, then the second salvo flared up directly in front of the bunker. I tried to hold on that angle and popped fifteen, the rest of the magazine, in the same direction.

I should have ducked down behind the rock to reload, but I wanted to see where the fifteen would land, so I kept my eyes on the bunker while I reached back to unclip another magazine….

When the laser hit my image converter there was a red glare so intense it seemed to go right through my eyes and bounce off the back of my skull. It must have been only a few milliseconds before the converter overloaded and went blind, but the bright green afterimage hurt my eyes for several minutes.

Since I was officially “dead,” my radio automatically cut off and I had to remain where I was until the mock battle was over. With no sensory input besides the feel of my own skin—and it ached where the image converter had shone on it—and the ringing in my ears, it seemed like an awfully long time. Finally, a helmet clanked against mine:

“You O.K., Mandella?” Potter’s voice.

“Sorry, I died of boredom twenty minutes ago.”

“Stand up and take my hand.” I did so and we shuffled back to the billet. It must have taken over an hour. She didn’t say anything more, all the way back—it’s a pretty awkward way to communicate—but after we’d cycled through the air lock and warmed up, she helped me undo my suit. I got ready for a mild tongue-lashing, but when the suit popped open, before I could even get my eyes adjusted to the light, she grabbed me around the neck and planted a wet kiss on my mouth.

“Nice shooting, Mandella.”

“Huh?”

“The last salvo before you got hit—four direct hits; the bunker decided it was knocked out, and all we had to do was walk the rest of the way.”

“Great.” I scratched my face under the eyes and some dry skin flaked off. She giggled.

“You should see yourself, you look like….”

“All personnel report to the assembly area.” That was the captain’s voice. Bad news.

She handed me a tunic and sandals. “Let’s go.”

The assembly area/chop hall was just down the corridor. There was a row of roll-call buttons at the door; I pressed the one beside my name. Four of the names were covered with black tape. That was good, we hadn’t lost anybody else during today’s maneuvers.

The captain was sitting on the raised dais, which at least meant we didn’t have to go through the tench-hut bullshit. The place filled up in less than a minute; a soft chime indicated the roll was complete.

Captain Stott didn’t stand up. “You did fairly well today, nobody got killed and I expected some to. In that respect you exceeded my expectations but in every other respect you did a poor job.

“I am glad you’re taking good care of yourselves because each of you represents an investment of over a million dollars and one-fourth of a human life.

“But in this simulated battle against a very stupid robot enemy, thirty-seven of you managed to walk into laser fire and be killed in a simulated way and since dead people require no food you will require no food, for the next three days. Each person who was a casualty in this battle will be allowed only two liters of water and a vitamin ration each day.”

We knew enough not to groan or anything, but there were some pretty disgusted looks, especially on the faces that had singed eyebrows and a pink rectangle of sunburn framing their eyes.

“Mandella.”

“Sir?”

“You are far and away the worst burned casualty. Was your image converter set on normal?”

Oh, crap. “No, sir. Log two.”

“I see. Who was your team leader for the exercise?”

“Acting Corporal Potter, sir.”

“Private Potter, did you order him to use image intensification?”

“Sir, I…I don’t remember.”

“You don’t. Well, as a memory exercise you may join the dead people. Is that satisfactory?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Dead people get one last meal tonight, and go on no rations starting tomorrow. Are there any questions?” He must have been kidding. “All right. Dismissed.”

I SELECTED THE meal that looked as if it had the most calories and took my tray over to sit by Potter.

“That was a quixotic damn thing to do. But thanks.”

“Nothing. I’ve been wanting to lose a few pounds anyway.” I couldn’t see where she was carrying any extra.

“I know a good exercise,” I said. She smiled without looking up from her tray. “Have anybody for tonight?”

“Kind of thought I’d ask Jeff….”

“Better hurry, then. He’s lusting after Uhuru.” Well, that was mostly true. Everybody did.

“I don’t know. Maybe we ought to save our strength. That third day….”

“Come on.” I scratched the back of her hand lightly with a fingernail. “We haven’t sacked since Missouri. Maybe I’ve learned something new.”

“Maybe you have.” She tilted her head up at me in a sly way. “O.K.”

Actually, she was the one with the new trick. The French corkscrew, she called it. She wouldn’t tell me who taught it to her, though. I’d like to shake his hand.

<p>8</p>

The two weeks’ training around Miami Base eventually cost us eleven lives. Twelve, if you count Dahlquist. I guess having to spend the rest of your life on Charon, with a hand and both legs missing, is close enough to dying.

Little Foster was crushed in a landslide and Freeland had a suit malfunction that froze him solid before we could carry him inside. Most of the other deaders were people I didn’t know all that well. But they all hurt. And they seemed to make us more scared rather than more cautious.

Now darkside. A flier brought us over in groups of twenty, and set us down beside a pile of building materials, thoughtfully immersed in a pool of helium II.

We used grapples to haul the stuff out of the pool. It’s not safe to go wading, since the stuff crawls all over you and it’s hard to tell what’s underneath; you could walk out onto a slab of hydrogen and be out of luck.

I’d suggested that we try to boil away the pool with our lasers, but ten minutes of concentrated fire didn’t drop the helium level appreciably. It didn’t boil, either; helium II is a “superfluid,” so what evaporation there was had to take place evenly, all over the surface. No hot spots, so no bubbling.

We weren’t supposed to use lights, to “avoid detection.” There was plenty of starlight, with your image converter cranked up to log three or four, but each stage of amplification meant some loss of detail. By log four, the landscape looked like a crude monochrome painting, and you couldn’t read the names on people’s helmets unless they were right in front of you.

The landscape wasn’t all that interesting, anyhow. There were half a dozen medium-sized meteor craters—all with exactly the same level of helium II in them—and the suggestion of some puny mountains just over the horizon. The uneven ground was the consistency of frozen spiderwebs; every time you put your foot down, you’d sink half an inch with a squeaking crunch. It could get on your nerves.

It took most of a day to pull all the stuff out of the pool. We took shifts napping, which you could do either standing up, sitting, or lying on your stomach. I didn’t do well in any of those positions, so I was anxious to get the bunker built and pressurized.

We could build the thing underground—it’d just fill up with helium II—so the first thing to do was to build an insulating platform, a permaplast-vacuum sandwich three layers tall.

I was an acting corporal, with a crew of ten people. We were carrying the permaplast layers to the building site—two people can carry one easily—when one of “my” men slipped and fell on his back.

“Damn it, Singer, watch your step.” We’d had a couple of deaders that way.

“Sorry, Corporal. I’m bushed, just got my feet tangled up.”

“Yeah, just watch it.” He got back up all right, and with his partner placed the sheet and went back to get another.

I kept my eye on him. In a few minutes he was practically staggering, not easy to do with that suit of cybernetic armor.

“Singer! After you set that plank, I want to see you.”

“O.K.” He labored through the task and mooched over.

“Let me check your readout.” I opened the door on his chest to expose the medical monitor. His temperature was two degrees high; blood pressure and heart rate both elevated. Not up to the red line, though.

“You sick or something?”

“Hell, Mandella, I feel O.K., just tired. Since I fell I’ve been a little dizzy.”

I CHINNED THE medic’s combination. “Doc, this is Mandella. You wanna come over here for a minute?”

“Sure, where are you?” I waved and he walked over from poolside.

“What’s the problem?” I showed him Singer’s readout.

He knew what all the other little dials and things meant, so it took him a while. “As far as I can tell, Mandella…he’s just hot.”

“Hell, I coulda told you that,” said Singer.

“Maybe you better have the armorer take a look at his suit.” We had two people who’d taken a crash course in suit maintenance; they were our “armorers.”

I chinned Sanchez and asked him to come over with his tool kit.

“Be a couple of minutes, Corporal. Carryin’ a plank.”

“Well, put it down and get on over here.” I was getting an uneasy feeling. Waiting for him, the medic and I looked over Singer’s suit.

“Uh-oh,” Doc Jones said. “Look at this.” I went around to the back and looked where he was pointing. Two of the fins on the heat exchanger were bent out of shape.

“What is wrong?” Singer asked.

“You fell on your heat exchanger, right?”

“Sure, Corporal—that’s it, it must not be working right.”

“I don’t think it’s working at all,” said Doc.

Sanchez came over with his diagnostic kit and we told him what had happened. He looked at the heat exchanger, then plugged a couple of jacks into it and got a digital readout from a little monitor in his kit. I didn’t know what it was measuring, but it came out zero to eight decimal places.

Heard a soft click, Sanchez chinning my private frequency. “Corporal, this guy’s a deader.”

“What? Can’t you fix the damn thing?”

“Maybe…maybe I could, if I could take it apart. But there’s no way….”

“Hey! Sanchez?” Singer was talking on the general freak. “Find out what’s wrong?” He was panting.

Click. “Keep your pants on, man, we’re working on it.” Click. “He won’t last long enough for us to get the bunker pressurized. And I can’t work on that heat exchanger from outside of the suit.”

“You’ve got a spare suit, haven’t you?”

“Two of ’em, the fit-anybody kind. But there’s no place…say….”

“Right. Go get one of the suits warmed up.” I chinned the general freak. “Listen, Singer, we’ve gotta get you out of that thing. Sanchez has a spare unit, but to make the switch, we’re gonna have to build a house around you. Understand?”

“Huh-uh.”

“Look, we’ll just make a box with you inside, and hook it up to the life-support unit. That way you can breathe while you make the switch.”

“Soun’s pretty compis…complicated t’me.”

“Look, just come along….”

“I’ll be all right, man, jus’ lemme res’….”

I grabbed his arm and led him to the building site. He was really weaving. Doc took his other arm, and between us we kept him from falling over.

“Corporal Ho, this is Corporal Mandella.” Ho was in charge of the life-support unit.

“Go away, Mandella, I’m busy.”

“You’re going to be busier.” I outlined the problem to her. While her group hurried to adapt the LSU—for this purpose, it need only be an air hose and heater—I got my crew to bring around six slabs of permaplast, so we could build a big box around Singer and the extra suit. It would look like a huge coffin, a meter square and six meters long.

We set the suit down on the slab that would be the floor of the coffin. “O.K., Singer, let’s go.”

No answer.

“Singer!” He was just standing there. Doc Jones checked his readout.

“He’s out, man, unconscious.”

MY MIND RACED. There might just be room for another person in the box. “Give me a hand here.” I took Singer’s shoulders and Doc took his feet, and we carefully laid him out at the feet of the empty suit.

Then I laid down myself, above the suit. “O.K., close ’er up.”

“Look, Mandella, if anybody goes in there, it oughta be me.”

“No, Doc. My job. My man.” That sounded all wrong. William Mandella, boy hero.

They stood a slab up on edge—it had two openings for the LSU input and exhaust—and proceeded to weld it to the bottom plank with a narrow laser beam. On Earth, we’d just use glue, but here the only fluid was helium, which has lots of interesting properties, but is definitely not sticky.

After about ten minutes we were completely walled up. I could feel the LSU humming. I switched on my suit light—the first time since we landed on darkside—and the glare made purple blotches dance in front of my eyes.

“Mandella, this is Ho. Stay in your suit at least two or three minutes. We’re putting hot air in, but it’s coming back just this side of liquid.” I lay and watched the purple fade.

“O.K., it’s still cold, but you can make it.” I popped my suit. It wouldn’t open all the way, but I didn’t have too much trouble getting out. The suit was still cold enough to take some skin off my fingers and butt as I wiggled out.

I had to crawl feet-first down the coffin to get to Singer. It got darker fast, moving away from my light. When I popped his suit a rush of hot stink hit me in the face. In the dim light his skin was dark red and splotchy. His breathing was very shallow and I could see his heart palpitating.

FIRST I UNHOOKED the relief tubes—an unpleasant business—then the bio sensors, and then I had the problem of getting his arms out of their sleeves.

It’s pretty easy to do for yourself. You twist this way and turn that way and the arm pops out. Doing it from the outside is a different matter: I had to twist his arm and then reach under and move the suit’s arm to match—and it takes muscle to move a suit around from the outside.

Once I had one arm out it was pretty easy: I just crawled forward, putting my feet on the suit’s shoulders, and pulled on his free arm. He slid out of the suit like an oyster slipping out of its shell.

I popped the spare suit and, after a lot of pulling and pushing, managed to get his legs in. Hooked up the bio sensors and the front relief tube. He’d have to do the other one himself, it’s too complicated. For the nth time I was glad not to have been born female; they have to have two of those damned plumber’s friends, instead of just one and a simple hose.

I left his arms out of the sleeves. The suit would be useless for any kind of work, anyhow; waldos have to be tailored to the individual.

His eyelids fluttered. “Man…della. Where…the hell….”

I explained, slowly, and he seemed to get most of it. “Now I’m gonna close you up and go get into my suit. I’ll have the crew cut the end off this thing and I’ll haul you out. Got it?”

He nodded. Strange to see that—when you nod or shrug in a suit, it doesn’t communicate anything.

I crawled into my suit, hooked up the attachments and chinned the general freak. “Doc, I think he’s gonna be O.K. Get us out of here now.”

“Will do.” Ho’s voice. The LSU hum was replaced by a chatter, then a throb; evacuating the box to prevent an explosion.

One corner of the seam grew red, then white, and a bright crimson beam lanced through, not a foot away from my head. I scrunched back as far as I could. The beam slid up the seam and around three corners, back to where it started. The end of the box fell away slowly, trailing filaments of melted ’plast.

“Wait for the stuff to harden, Mandella.”

“Sanchez, I’m not that stupid.”

“Here you go.” Somebody tossed a line to me. That would be smarter than dragging him out by myself. I threaded a long bight under his arms and tied it behind his neck. Then I scrambled out to help them pull, which was silly—they had a dozen people already lined up to haul.

Singer got out all right and was actually sitting up while Doc Jones checked his readout. People were asking me about it and congratulating me when suddenly Ho said “Look!” and pointed toward the horizon.

It was a black ship, coming in fast. I just had time to think it wasn’t fair, they weren’t supposed to attack until the last few days, and then the ship was right on top of us.

<p>9</p>

We all flopped to the ground instinctively, but the ship didn’t attack. It blasted braking rockets and dropped to land on skids. Then it skied around to come to a rest beside the building site.

Everybody had it figured out and was standing around sheepishly when the two suited figures stepped out of the ship.

A familiar voice crackled over the general freak. “Every one of you saw us coming in and not one of you responded with laser fire. It wouldn’t have done any good but it would have indicated a certain amount of fighting spirit. You have a week or less before the real thing and since the sergeant and I will be here I will insist that you show a little more will to live. Acting Sergeant Potter.”

“Here, sir.”

“Get me a detail of twelve men to unload cargo. We brought a hundred small robot drones for target practice so that you might have at least a fighting chance, when a live target comes over.

“Move now; we only have thirty minutes before the ship returns to Miami.”

I checked, and it was actually more like forty minutes.

HAVING THE CAPTAIN and sergeant there didn’t really make much difference; we were still on our own, they were just observing.

Once we got the floor down, it only took one day to complete the bunker. It was a gray oblong, featureless except for the air-lock blister and four windows. On top was a swivel-mounted bevawatt laser. The operator—you couldn’t call him a “gunner”—sat in a chair holding dead-man switches in both hands. The laser wouldn’t fire as long as he was holding one of those switches. If he let go, it would automatically aim for any moving aerial object and fire at will. Primary detection and aiming was by means of a kilometer-high antenna mounted beside the bunker.

It was the only arrangement that could really be expected to work, with the horizon so close and human reflexes so slow. You couldn’t have the thing fully automatic, because in theory, friendly ships might also approach.

The aiming computer could choose up to twelve targets, appearing simultaneously—firing at the largest ones first. And it would get all twelve in the space of half a second.

The installation was partly protected from enemy fire by an efficient ablative layer that covered everything except the human operator. But then they were dead-man switches. One man above guarding eighty inside. The army’s good at that kind of arithmetic.

Once the bunker was finished, half of us stayed inside at all times—feeling very much like targets—taking turns operating the laser, while the other half went on maneuvers.

About four clicks from the base was a large “lake” of frozen hydrogen; one of our most important maneuvers was to learn how to get around on the treacherous stuff.

It really wasn’t too difficult. You couldn’t stand up on it, so you had to belly down and slide.

If you had somebody to push you from the edge, getting started was no problem. Otherwise, you had to scrabble with your hands and feet, pushing down as hard as was practical, until you started moving, in a series of little jumps. Once started, you would keep going until you ran out of ice. You could steer a little bit by digging in, hand and foot, on the appropriate side, but you couldn’t slow to a stop that way. So it was a good idea not to go too fast, and to be positioned in such a way that your helmet didn’t absorb the shock of stopping.

We went through all the things we’d done on the Miami side; weapons practice, demolition, attack patterns. We also launched drones at irregular intervals, toward the bunker. Thus, ten or fifteen times a day, the operators got to demonstrate their skill in letting go of the handles as soon as the proximity light went on.

I had four hours of that, like everybody else. I was nervous until the first “attack,” when I saw how little there was to it. The light went on, I let go, the gun aimed and when the drone peeped over the horizon—zzt! Nice touch of color, the molten metal spraying through space. Otherwise not too exciting.

So none of us were worried about the upcoming “graduation exercise,” thinking it would be just more of the same.

MIAMI BASE ATTACKED on the thirteenth day with two simultaneous missiles streaking over opposite sides of the horizon at some forty kilometers per second. The laser vaporized the first one with no trouble, but the second got within eight clicks of the bunker before it was hit.

We were coming back from maneuvers, about a click away from the bunker. I wouldn’t have seen it happen if I hadn’t been looking directly at the bunker the moment of the attack.

The second missile sent a shower of molten debris straight toward the bunker. Eleven pieces hit, and, as we later reconstructed it, this is what happened.

The first casualty was Uhuru, pretty Uhuru inside the bunker, who was hit in the back and head and died instantly. With the drop in pressure, the LSU went into high gear. Friedman was standing in front of the main airco outlet and was blown into the opposite wall hard enough to knock him unconscious; he died of decompression before the others could get him to his suit.

Everybody else managed to stagger through the gale and get into their suits, but Garcia’s suit had been holed and didn’t do him any good.

By the time we got there, they had turned off the LSU and were welding up the holes in the wall. One man was trying to scrape up the unrecognizable mess that had been Uhuru. I could hear him sobbing and retching. They had already taken Garcia and Friedman outside for burial. The captain took over the repair detail from Potter. Sergeant Cortez led the sobbing man over to a corner and came back to work on cleaning up Uhuru’s remains, alone. He didn’t order anybody to help and nobody volunteered.

<p>10</p>

As a graduation exercise, we were unceremoniously stuffed into a ship—Earth’s Hope, the same one we rode to Charon—and bundled off to Stargate at a little more than 1 G.

The trip seemed endless, about six months subjective time, and boring, but not as hard on the carcass as going to Charon had been. Captain Stott made us review our training orally, day by day, and we did exercises every day until we were worn to a collective frazzle.

Stargate I was like Charon’s darkside, only more so. The base on Stargate I was smaller than Miami Base—only a little bigger than the one we constructed on darkside—and we were due to lay over a week to help expand the facilities. The crew there was very glad to see us; especially the two females, who looked a little worn around the edges.

We all crowded into the small dining hall, where Submajor Williamson, the man in charge of Stargate I, gave us some disconcerting news:

“Everybody get comfortable. Get off the tables, though, there’s plenty of floor.

“I have some idea of what you just went through, training on Charon. I won’t say it’s all been wasted. But where you’re headed, things will be quite different. Warmer.”

He paused to let that soak in.

“Aleph Aurigae, the first collapsar ever detected, revolves around the normal star Epsilon Aurigae, in a twenty-seven-year orbit. The enemy has a base of operations, not on a regular portal planet of Aleph, but on a planet in orbit around Epsilon. We don’t know much about the planet: just that it goes around Epsilon once every seven hundred forty-five days, is about three-fourths the size of Earth, and has an albedo of 0.8, meaning it’s probably covered with clouds. We can’t say precisely how hot it will be, but judging from its distance from Epsilon, it’s probably rather hotter than Earth. Of course, we don’t know whether you’ll be working…fighting on lightside or darkside, equator or poles. It’s highly unlikely that the atmosphere will be breathable—at any rate, you’ll stay inside your suits.

“Now you know exactly as much about where you’re going as I do. Questions?”

“Sir,” Stein drawled, “now we know where we’re goin’…anybody know what we’re goin’ to do when we get there?”

Williamson shrugged. “That’s up to your captain—and your sergeant, and the captain of Earth’s Hope, and Hope’s logistic computer. We just don’t have enough data yet, to project a course of action for you. It may be a long and bloody battle, it may be just a case of walking in to pick up the pieces. Conceivably, the Taurans might want to make a peace offer”—Cortez snorted—“in which case you would simply be part of our muscle, our bargaining power.” He looked at Cortez mildly. “No one can say for sure.”

THE ORGY THAT night was kind of amusing, but it was like trying to sleep in the middle of a raucous beach party. The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom—and law—but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.

The eighteen men acted as if they were compelled to try as many permutations as possible, and their performance was impressive—in a strictly quantitative sense, that is.

The next morning—and every other morning we were on Stargate I—we staggered out of bed and into our suits, to go outside and work on the “new wing.” Eventually, Stargate would be tactical and logistic headquarters for the war, with thousands of permanent personnel, guarded by half-a-dozen heavy cruisers in Hope’s class. When we started, it was two shacks and twenty people; when we left, it was four shacks and twenty people. The work was a breeze, compared to darkside, since we had all the light we needed, and got sixteen hours inside for every eight hours’ work. And no drone attacks for a final exam.

When we shuttled back up to the Hope, nobody was too happy about leaving—though some of the more popular females declared it’d be good to get some rest—Stargate was the last easy, safe assignment we’d have before taking up arms against the Taurans. And as Williamson had pointed out the first day, there was no way of predicting what that would be like.

Most of us didn’t feel too enthusiastic about making a collapsar jump, either. We’d been assured that we wouldn’t even feel it happen, just free fall all the way.

I wasn’t convinced. As a physics student, I’d had the usual courses in general relativity and theories of gravitation. We only had a little direct data at that time—Stargate was discovered when I was in grade school—but the mathematical model seemed clear enough.

The collapsar Stargate was a perfect sphere about three kilometers in radius. It was suspended forever in a state of gravitational collapse that should have meant its surface was dropping toward its center at nearly the speed of light. Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there…the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity, or Buddhism.

At any rate, there would be a theoretical point in spacetime when one end of our ship was just above the surface of the collapsar, and the other end was a kilometer away—in our frame of reference. In any sane universe, this would set up tidal stresses and tear the ship apart, and we would be just another million kilograms of degenerate matter on the theoretical surface, rushing headlong to nowhere for the rest of eternity; or dropping to the center in the next trillionth of a second. You pays your money and you takes your frame of reference.

But they were right. We blasted away from Stargate I, made a few course corrections and then just dropped, for about an hour.

Then a bell rang and we sank into our cushions under a steady two gravities of deceleration. We were in enemy territory.

<p>11</p>

We’d been decelerating at two gravities for almost nine days when the battle began. Lying on our couches being miserable, all we felt were two soft bumps, missiles being released. Some eight hours later, the squawk-box crackled: “Attention, all crew. This is the captain.” Quinsana, the pilot, was only a lieutenant, but was allowed to call himself captain aboard the vessel, where he outranked all of us, even Captain Stott. “You grunts in the cargo hold can listen, too.

“We just engaged the enemy with two fifty-bevaton tachyon missiles, and have destroyed both the enemy vessel and another object which it had launched approximately three microseconds before.

“The enemy has been trying to overtake us for the past one hundred seventy-nine hours, ship time. At the time of the engagement, the enemy was moving at a little over half the speed of light, relative to Aleph, and was only about thirty AU’s from Earth’s Hope. It was moving at .47c relative to us, and thus we would have been coincident in spacetime”—rammed!—“in a little more than nine hours. The missiles were launched at 0719 ship’s time, and destroyed the enemy at 1540, both tachyon bombs detonating within a thousand clicks of the enemy objects.”

The two missiles were a type whose propulsion system itself was only a barely-controlled tachyon bomb. They accelerated at a constant rate of 100 Gs, and were traveling at a relativistic speed by the time the nearby mass of the enemy ship detonated them.

“We expect no further interference from enemy vessels. Our velocity with respect to Aleph will be zero in another five hours; we will then begin to journey back. The return will take twenty-seven days.” General moans and dejected cussing. Everybody knew all that already, of course; but we didn’t care to be reminded of it.

SO AFTER ANOTHER month of logycalisthenics and drill, at a constant 2 Gs, we got our first look at the planet we were going to attack. Invaders from outer space, yes, sir.

It was a blinding white crescent basking two AU’s from Epsilon. The captain had pinned down the location of the enemy base from fifty AU’s out, and we had jockeyed in on a wide arc, keeping the bulk of the planet between them and us. That didn’t mean we were sneaking up on them—quite the contrary; they launched three abortive attacks—but it put us in a stronger defensive position. Until we had to go to the surface, that is. Then only the ship and its Star Fleet crew would be reasonably safe.

Since the planet rotated rather slowly—once every ten and one-half days—a “stationary” orbit for the ship had to be one hundred fifty thousand clicks out. This made the people in the ship feel quite secure, with six thousand miles of rock and ninety thousand miles of space between them and the enemy. But it meant a whole second’s time lag in communication between us on the ground and the ship’s battle computer. A person could get awful dead while that neutrino pulse crawled up and back.

Our vague orders were to attack the base and gain control while damaging a minimum of enemy equipment. We were to take at least one enemy alive. We were under no circumstances to allow ourselves to be taken alive, however. And the decision wasn’t up to us; one special pulse from the battle computer, and that speck of plutonium in your power plant would fission with all of .01% efficiency, and you’d be nothing but a rapidly expanding, very hot plasma.

They strapped us into six scoutships—one platoon of twelve people in each—and we blasted away from Earth’s Hope at 8 Gs. Each scoutship was supposed to follow its own carefully random path to our rendezvous point, one hundred eight clicks from the base. Fourteen drone ships were launched at the same time, to confound the enemy’s antispacecraft system.

The landing went off almost perfectly. One ship suffered minor damage, a near miss boiling away some of the ablative material on one side of the hull, but it’d still be able to make it and return, as long as it kept its speed down while in the atmosphere.

We zigged and zagged and wound up first ship at the rendezvous point. There was only one trouble. It was under four kilometers of water.

I could almost hear that machine, ninety thousand miles away, grinding its mental gears, adding this new bit of data. We proceeded just as if we were landing on solid ground: braking rockets, falling, skids out, hit the water, skip, hit the water, skip, hit the water, sink.

It would have made sense to go ahead and land on the bottom—we were streamlined, after all, and water just another fluid—but the hull wasn’t strong enough to hold up a four-kilometer column of water. Sergeant Cortez was in the scoutship with us.

“Sarge, tell that computer to do something! We’re gonna get….”

“Oh, shut up, Mandella. Trust in th’ lord.” “Lord” was definitely lower-case when Cortez said it.

There was a loud bubbly sigh, then another and a slight increase in pressure on my back that meant the ship was rising. “Flotation bags?” Cortez didn’t deign to answer, or didn’t know.

That must have been it. We rose to within ten or fifteen meters of the surface and stopped, suspended there. Through the port I could see the surface above, shimmering like a mirror of hammered silver. I wondered what it could be like, to be a fish and have a definite roof over your world.

I watched another ship splash in. It made a great cloud of bubbles and turbulence, then fell—slightly tailfirst—for a short distance before large bags popped out under each delta wing. Then it bobbed up to about our level and stayed.

Soon all of the ships were floating within a few hundred meters of us, like a school of ungainly fish.

“This is Captain Stott. Now listen carefully. There is a beach some twenty-eight clicks from your present position, in the direction of the enemy. You will be proceeding to this beach by scoutship and from there will mount your assault on the Tauran position.” That was some improvement; we’d only have to walk eighty clicks.

WE DEFLATED THE bags, blasted to the surface and flew in a slow, spread-out formation to the beach. It took several minutes. As the ship scraped to a halt I could hear pumps humming, making the cabin pressure equal to the air pressure outside. Before it had quite stopped moving, the escape slot beside my couch slid open. I rolled out onto the wing of the craft and jumped to the ground. Ten seconds to find cover—I sprinted across loose gravel to the “treeline,” a twisty bramble of tall sparse bluish-green shrubs. I dove into the briar path and turned to watch the ships leave. The drones that were left rose slowly to about a hundred meters, then took off in all directions with a bone-jarring roar. The real scoutships slid slowly back into the water. Maybe that was a good idea.

It wasn’t a terribly attractive world, but certainly would be easier to get around in than the cryogenic nightmare we were trained for. The sky was a uniform dull silver brightness that merged with the mist over the ocean so completely as to make it impossible to tell where water ended and air began. Small wavelets licked at the black gravel shore, much too slow and graceful in the three-quarters Earth normal gravity. Even from fifty meters away, the rattle of billions of pebbles rolling with the tide was loud in my ears.

The air temperature was 79° Centigrade, not quite hot enough for the sea to boil, even though the air pressure was low compared to Earth’s. Wisps of steam drifted quickly upward from the line where water met land. I wondered how long a man would survive, exposed here without a suit. Would the heat or the low oxygen—partial pressure one-eighth Earth normal—kill him first? Or was there some deadly microorganism that would beat them both….

“This is Cortez. Everybody come over and assemble by me.” He was standing on the beach a little to the left of me, waving his hand in a circle over his head. I walked toward him through the shrubs. They were brittle, unsubstantial, seemed paradoxically dried-out in the steamy air. They wouldn’t offer much in the way of cover.

“We’ll be advancing on a heading .05 radians east of north. I want Platoon One to take point. Two and Three follow about twenty meters behind, to the left and right. Seven, command platoon, is in the middle, twenty meters behind Two and Three. Five and Six, bring up the rear, in a semicircular closed flank. Everybody straight?” Sure, we could do that “arrowhead” maneuver in our sleep. “O.K., let’s move out.”

I was in Platoon Seven, the “command group.” Captain Stott put me there not because I was expected to give any commands, but because of my training in physics.

The command group was supposedly the safest place, buffered by six platoons: people were assigned to it because there was some tactical reason for them to survive at least a little longer than the rest. Cortez was there to give orders. Chavez was there to correct suit malfuncts. The senior medic, Doc Wilson—the only medic who actually had an MD—was there and so was Theodopolis, the radio engineer: our link with the captain, who had elected to stay in orbit.

The rest of us were assigned to the command group by dint of special training or aptitude that wouldn’t normally be considered of a “tactical” nature. Facing a totally unknown enemy, there was no way of telling what might prove important. Thus I was there because I was the closest the company had to a physicist. Rogers was biology. Tate was chemistry. He could crank out a perfect score on the Rhine extrasensory perception test, every time. Bohrs was a polyglot, able to speak twenty-one languages fluently, idiomatically. Petrov’s talent was that he had tested out to have not one molecule of xenophobia in his psyche. Keating was a skilled acrobat. Debby Hollister—“Lucky” Hollister—showed a remarkable aptitude for making money, and also had a consistently high Rhine potential.

<p>12</p>

When we first set out, we were using the “jungle” camouflage combination on our suits. But what passed for jungle in these anemic tropics was too sparse; we looked like a band of conspicuous harlequins trooping through the woods. Cortez had us switch to black, but that was just as bad, as the light from Epsilon came evenly from all parts of the sky, and there were no shadows except us. We finally settled on the dun-colored desert camouflage.

The nature of the countryside changed slowly as we walked north, away from the sea. The throned stalks, I guess you could call them trees, came in fewer numbers but were bigger around and less brittle; at the base of each was a tangled mass of vine with the same blue-green color, which spread out in a flattened cone some ten meters in diameter. There was a delicate green flower the size of a man’s head near the top of each tree.

Grass began to appear some five clicks from the sea. It seemed to respect the trees’ “property rights,” leaving a strip of bare earth around each cone of vine. At the edge of such a clearing, it would grow as timid blue-green stubble; then, moving away from the tree, would get thicker and taller until it reached shoulder-high in some places, where the separation between two trees was unusually large. The grass was a lighter, greener shade than the trees and vines. We changed the color of our suits to the bright green we had used for maximum visibility on Charon. Keeping to the thickest part of the grass, we were fairly inconspicuous.

I couldn’t help thinking that one week of training in a South American jungle would have been worth a hell of a lot more than all those weeks on Charon. We wouldn’t be so understrength, either.

We covered over twenty clicks each day, buoyant after months under 2 Gs. Until the second day, the only form of animal life we saw was a kind of black worm, finger-sized with hundreds of cilium legs like the bristles of a stiff brush. Rogers said that there obviously had to be some sort of larger creature around, or there would be no reason for the trees to have thorns. So we were doubly on guard, expecting trouble both from the Taurans and the unidentified “large creatures.”

Potter’s Second Platoon was on point; the general freak was reserved for her, since point would likely be the first platoon to spot any trouble.

“Sarge, this is Potter,” we all heard. “Movement ahead.”

“Get down, then!”

“We are. Don’t think they see us.”

“First Platoon, go up to the right of point. Keep down. Fourth, get up to the left. Tell me when you get in position. Sixth Platoon, stay back and guard the rear. Fifth and Third, close with the command group.”

Two dozen people whispered out of the grass, to join us. Cortez must have heard from the Fourth Platoon.

“Good. How about you, First…O.K., fine. How many are there?”

“Eight we can see.” Potter’s voice.

“Good. When I give the word, open fire. Shoot to kill.”

“Sarge…they’re just animals.”

“Potter—if you’ve known all this time what a Tauran looks like, you should’ve told us. Shoot to kill.”

“But we need….”

“We need a prisoner, but we don’t need to escort him forty clicks to his home base and keep an eye on him while we fight. Clear?”

“Yes. Sergeant.”

“O.K. Seventh, all you brains and weirds, we’re going up and watch. Fifth and Third, come along to guard.”

We crawled through the meter-high grass to where the Second Platoon had stretched out in a firing line.

“I don’t see anything,” Cortez said.

“Ahead and just to the left. Dark green.”

THEY WERE ONLY a shade darker than the grass. But after you saw the first one, you could see them all, moving slowly around some thirty meters ahead.

“Fire!” Cortez fired first, then twelve streaks of crimson leaped out and the grass wilted back, disappeared and the creatures convulsed and died trying to scatter.

“Hold fire, hold it!” Cortez stood up. “We want to have something left—Second Platoon, follow me.” He strode out toward the smoldering corpses, laser finger pointed out front, obscene divining rod pulling him toward the carnage…I felt my gorge rising and knew that all the lurid training tapes, all the horrible deaths in training accidents, hadn’t prepared me for this sudden reality…that I had a magic wand that I could point at a life and make it a smoking piece of half-raw meat; I wasn’t a soldier nor even wanted to be one nor ever would want….

“O.K., Seventh, come on up.”

While we were walking toward them, one of the creatures moved, a tiny shudder, and Cortez flicked the beam of his laser over it with an almost negligent gesture. It made a hand-deep gash across the creature’s middle. It died, like the others, without emitting a sound.

They were not quite as tall as humans, but wider in girth. They were covered with dark green, almost black fur; white curls where the laser had singed. They appeared to have three legs and an arm. The only ornament to their shaggy heads was a mouth, wet black orifice filled with flat black teeth. They were thoroughly repulsive but their worst feature was not a difference from human beings but a similarity…wherever the laser had opened a body cavity, milk-white glistening veined globes and coils of organs spilled out, and their blood was dark clotting red.

“Rogers, take a look. Taurans or not?”

Rogers knelt by one of the disemboweled creatures and opened a flat plastic box, filled with glistening dissecting tools. She selected a scalpel. “One way we might be able to find out.” Doc Wilson watched over her shoulder as she methodically slit the membrane covering several organs.

“Here.” She held up a blackish fibrous mass between two fingers, parody of daintiness through all that armor.

“So?”

“It’s grass, Sergeant. If the Taurans can eat grass and breathe the air, they certainly found a planet remarkably like their home.” She tossed it away. “They’re animals, Sergeant, just damn animals.”

“I don’t know,” Doc Wilson said. “Just because they walk around on all fours, threes maybe, and are able to eat grass….”

“Well, let’s check out the brain.” She found one that had been hit on the head and scraped the superficial black char from the wound. “Look at that.”

It was almost solid bone. She tugged and ruffled the hair all over the head of another one. “What the hell does it use for sensory organs? No eyes, or ears, or….” She stood up. “Nothing in that head but a mouth and ten centimeters of skull. To protect nothing, not a damn thing.”

“If I could shrug, I’d shrug,” the doctor said. “It doesn’t prove anything—a brain doesn’t have to look like a mushy walnut and it doesn’t have to be in the head. Maybe that skull isn’t bone, maybe that’s the brain, some crystal lattice….”

“Yeah, but the stomach’s in the right place, and if those aren’t intestines I’ll eat—”

“Look,” Cortez said, “this is all real interesting, but all we need to know is whether that thing’s dangerous, then we’ve gotta move on, we don’t have all….”

“They aren’t dangerous,” Rogers began. “They don’t….”

“MEDIC! DOC!” SOMEBODY was waving his arms, back at the firing line. Doc sprinted back to him, the rest of us following.

“What’s wrong?” He had reached back and unclipped his medical kit on the run.

“It’s Ho, she’s out.”

Doc swung open the door on Ho’s biomedical monitor. He didn’t have to look far. “She’s dead.”

“Dead?” Cortez said. “What the hell….”

“Just a minute.” Doc plugged a jack into the monitor and fiddled with some dials on his kit. “Everybody’s biomed readout is stored for twelve hours. I’m running it backwards, should be able to—there!”

“What?”

“Four and a half minutes ago—must have been when you opened fire….”

“Well?”

“Massive cerebral hemorrhage. No….” He watched the dials. “No…warning, no indication of anything out of the ordinary; blood pressure up, pulse up, but normal under the circumstances…nothing to…indicate….” He reached down and popped her suit. Her fine oriental features were distorted in a horrible grimace, both gums showing. Sticky fluid ran from under her collapsed eyelids and a trickle of blood still dripped from each ear. Doc Wilson closed the suit back up.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if a bomb went off in her skull.”

“Oh crap,” Rogers said, “she was Rhine-sensitive, wasn’t she.”

“That’s right.” Cortez sounded thoughtful. “All right, everybody listen. Platoon leaders, check your platoons and see if anybody’s missing, or hurt. Anybody else in Seventh?”

“I…I’ve got a splitting headache, Sarge,” Lucky said.

Four others had bad headaches. One of them affirmed that he was slightly Rhine-sensitive. The others didn’t know.

“Cortez, I think it’s obvious,” Doc Wilson said, “that we should give these…monsters wide berth, especially shouldn’t harm any more of them. Not with five people susceptible to whatever apparently killed Ho.”

“Of course, damn it, I don’t need anybody to tell me that. We’d better get moving. I just filled the captain in on what happened; he agrees that we’d better get as far away from here as we can, before we stop for the night.

“Let’s get back in formation and continue on the same bearing. Fifth Platoon, take over point; Second, come back to the rear. Everybody else, same as before.”

“What about Ho?” Lucky asked.

“She’ll be taken care of. From the ship.”

After we’d gone half a click, there was a flash and rolling thunder. Where Ho had been, came a wispy luminous mushroom cloud boiling up to disappear against the gray sky.

<p>13</p>

We stopped for the “night”—actually, the sun wouldn’t set for another seventy hours—atop a slight rise some ten clicks from where we had killed the aliens. But they weren’t aliens, I had to remind myself—we were.

Two platoons deployed in a ring around the rest of us, and we flopped down exhausted. Everybody was allowed four hours’ sleep and had two hours’ guard duty.

Potter came over and sat next to me. I chinned her frequency.

“Hi, Marygay.”

“Oh, William,” her voice over the radio was hoarse and cracking. “God, it’s so horrible.”

“It’s over now….”

“I killed one of them, the first instant, I shot it right in the, in the…”

I put my hand on her knee. The contact made a plastic click and I jerked it back, visions of machines embracing, copulating. “Don’t feel singled out, Marygay, whatever guilt there is belongs evenly to all of us…but a triple portion for Cor….”

“You privates quit jawin’ and get some sleep. You both pull guard in two hours.”

“O.K., Sarge.” Her voice was so sad and tired I couldn’t bear it. I felt if I could only touch her I could drain off the sadness like a ground wire draining current but we were each trapped in our own plastic world.

“G’night, William.”

“Night.” It’s almost impossible to get sexually excited inside a suit, with the relief tube and all the silver chloride sensors poking you, but somehow this was my body’s response to the emotional impotence, maybe remembering more pleasant sleeps with Marygay, maybe feeling that in the midst of all this death, personal death could be soon, cranking up the pro-creative derrick for one last try…lovely thoughts like this, and I fell asleep and dreamed that I was a machine, mimicking the functions of life, creaking and clanking my clumsy way through the world, people too polite to say anything but giggling behind my back, and the little man who sat inside my head pulling the levers and clutches and watching the dials, he was hopelessly mad and was storing up hurts for the day….

“Mandella—wake up, damn it, your shift!”

I shuffled over to my place on the perimeter to watch for God knows what…but I was so weary I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Finally I tongued a stimtab, knowing I’d pay for it later.

For over an hour I sat there, scanning my sector left, right, near, far; the scene never changing, not even a breath of wind to stir the grass.

Then suddenly the grass parted and one of the three-legged creatures was right in front of me. I raised my finger but didn’t squeeze.

“Movement!”

“Movement!”

“HOLD YOUR FIRE. Don’t shoot!”

“Movement.”

“Movement.” I looked left and right and as far as I could see, every perimeter guard had one of the blind dumb creatures standing right in front of him.

Maybe the drug I’d taken to stay awake made me more sensitive to whatever they did. My scalp crawled and I felt a formless thing in my mind, the feeling you get when somebody has said something and you didn’t quite hear it, want to respond but the opportunity to ask him to repeat it is gone.

The creature sat back on its haunches, leaning forward on the one front leg. Big green bear with a withered arm. Its power threaded through my mind, spiderwebs, echo of night terrors, trying to communicate, trying to destroy me, I couldn’t know.

“ALL RIGHT, EVERYBODY on the perimeter, fall back, slow. Don’t make any quick gestures…anybody got a headache or anything?”

“Sergeant, this is Hollister.” Lucky.

“They’re trying to say something…I can almost…no, just….”

“Well?”

“All I can get is that they think we’re…think we’re…well, funny. They aren’t afraid.”

“You mean the one in front of you isn’t….”

“No, the feeling comes from all of them, they’re all thinking the same thing. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do.”

“Maybe they thought it was funny, what they did to Ho.”

“Maybe. I don’t feel like they’re dangerous. Just curious about us.”

“Sergeant, this is Bohrs.”

“Yeah.”

“The Taurans have been here at least a year—maybe they’ve learned how to communicate with these…overgrown teddy-bears. They might be spying on us, might be sending back….”

“I don’t think they’d show themselves, if that were the case,” Lucky said. “They can obviously hide from us pretty well when they want to.”

“Anyhow,” Cortez said, “if they’re spies, the damage has been done. Don’t think it’d be smart to take any action against them. I know you’d all like to see ’em dead for what they did to Ho, so would I, but we’d better be careful.”

I didn’t want to see them dead, but I’d just as soon not see them in any condition. I was walking backwards slowly, toward the middle of camp. The creature didn’t seem disposed to follow. Maybe he just knew we were surrounded. He was pulling up grass with his arm and munching.

“O.K., all of you platoon leaders, wake everybody up, get a roll count. Let me know if anybody’s been hurt. Tell your people we’re moving out in one minute.”

I don’t know what Cortez expected, but of course the creatures just followed right along. They didn’t keep us surrounded; just had twenty or thirty following us all the time. Not the same ones, either. Individuals would saunter away, new ones would join the parade. It was pretty obvious that they weren’t going to tire out.

We were each allowed one stimtab. Without it, no one could have marched an hour. A second pill would have been welcome after the edge started to wear off, but the mathematics of the situation forbade it: we were still thirty clicks from the enemy base; fifteen hours’ marching at the least. And though one could stay awake and energetic for a hundred hours on the ’tabs, aberrations of judgment and perception snowballed after the second ’tab, until in extremis the most bizarre hallucinations would be taken at face value, and a person would fidget for hours, deciding whether to have breakfast.

Under artificial stimulation, the company traveled with great energy for the first six hours, was slowing by the seventh, and ground to an exhausted halt after nine hours and nineteen kilometers. The teddy-bears had never lost sight of us and, according to Lucky, had never stopped “broadcasting.” Cortez’s decision was that we would stop for seven hours, each platoon taking one hour of perimeter guard. I was never so glad to have been in the Seventh Platoon, as we stood guard the last shift and thus were the only ones to get six hours of uninterrupted sleep.

In the few moments I lay awake after finally lying down, the thought came to me that the next time I closed my eyes could well be the last. And partly because of the drug hangover, mostly because of the past day’s horrors, I found that I really just didn’t give a damn.

<p>14</p>

Our first contact with the Taurans came during my shift.

The teddy-bears were still there when I woke up and replaced Doc Jones on guard. They’d gone back to their original formation, one in front of each guard position. The one who was waiting for me seemed a little larger than normal, but otherwise looked just like all the others. All the grass had been cropped where he was sitting, so he occasionally made forays to the left or right. But he always returned to sit right in front of me, you would say staring if he had had anything to stare with.

We had been facing each other for about fifteen minutes when Cortez’s voice rumbled:

“Awright, everybody wake up and get hid!”

I followed instinct and flopped to the ground and rolled into a tall stand of grass.

“Enemy vessel overhead.” His voice was almost laconic.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really overhead, but rather passing somewhat east of us. It was moving slowly, maybe a hundred clicks per hour, and looked like a broomstick surrounded by a dirty soap bubble. The creature riding it was a little more human-looking than the teddy-bears, but still no prize. I cranked my image amplifier up to forty log two for a closer look.

He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands. Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint. Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis. His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and under-muscled. There were too many fingers on his hands. Shoulderless, neckless; his head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest. Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassles instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his Adam’s apple should have been. Evidently the soap bubble contained an amenable environment, as he was wearing absolutely nothing except a ridged hide that looked like skin submerged too long in hot water, then dyed a pale orange. “He” had no external genitalia, nor anything that might hint of mammary glands.

Obviously, he either didn’t see us, or thought we were part of the herd of teddy-bears. He never looked back at us, but just continued in the same direction we were headed, .05 rad east of north.

“Might as well go back to sleep now, if you can sleep after looking at that thing. We move out at 0435.” Forty minutes.

Because of the planet’s opaque cloud cover, there had been no way to tell, from space, what the enemy base looked like or how big it was. We only knew its position, the same way we knew the position the scoutships were supposed to land on. So it could easily have been underwater too, or underground.

But some of the drones were reconnaissance ships as well as decoys; and in their mock attacks on the base, one managed to get close enough to take a picture. Captain Stott beamed down a diagram of the place to Cortez—the only one with a visor in his suit—when we were five clicks from the base’s “radio” position. We stopped and he called all of the platoon leaders in with the Seventh Platoon to confer. Two teddy-bears loped in, too. We tried to ignore them.

“O.K., the captain sent down some pictures of our objective. I’m going to draw a map; you platoon leaders copy.” They took pads and styli out of their leg pockets, while Cortez unrolled a large plastic mat. He gave it a shake to randomize any residual charge, and turned on his stylus.

“Now, we’re coming from this direction.” He put an arrow at the bottom of the sheet. “First thing we’ll hit is this row of huts, probably billets, or bunkers, but who the hell knows…our initial objective is to destroy these buildings—the whole base is on a flat plain; there’s no way we could really sneak by them.”

“Potter here. Why can’t we jump over them?”

“Yeah, we could do that, and wind up completely surrounded, cut to ribbons. We take the buildings.

“After we do that…all I can say is that we’ll have to think on our feet. From the aerial reconnaissance, we can figure out the function of only a couple of buildings—and that stinks. We might wind up wasting a lot of time demolishing the equivalent of an enlisted man’s bar, ignoring a huge logistic computer because it looks like…a garbage dump or something.”

“Mandella here,” I said. “Isn’t there a spaceport of some kind—seems to me we ought to….”

“I’ll get to that, damn it. There’s a ring of these huts all around the camp, so we’ve got to break through somewhere. This place’ll be closest, less chance of giving away our position before we attack.

“There’s nothing in the whole place that actually looks like a weapon. That doesn’t mean anything, though; you could hide a bevawatt laser in each of those huts.

“Now, about five hundred meters from the huts, in the middle of the base, we’ll come to this big flower-shaped structure.” Cortez drew a large symmetrical shape that looked like the outline of a flower with seven petals. “What the hell this is, your guess is as good as mine. There’s only one of them, though, so we don’t damage it any more than we have to. Which means…we blast it to splinters if I think it’s dangerous.

“Now, as far as your spaceport, Mandella, is concerned—there just isn’t one. Nothing.

“That cruiser the Hope caulked had probably been left in orbit, like ours has to be. If they have any equivalent of a scoutship, or drone missiles, they’re either not kept here or they’re well hidden.”

“Bohrs here. Then what did they attack with, while we were coming down from orbit?”

“I wish we knew, Private.

“Obviously, we don’t have any way of estimating their numbers, not directly. Recon pictures failed to show a single Tauran on the grounds of the base. Meaning nothing, because it is an alien environment. Indirectly, though…we can count the number of broomsticks.

“There are fifty-one huts, and each has at most one broomstick. Four don’t have one parked outside, but we located three at various other parts of the base. Maybe this indicates that there are fifty-one Taurans, one of whom was outside the base when the picture was taken.”

“Keating here. Or fifty-one officers.”

“That’s right—maybe fifty thousand infantrymen stacked in one of these buildings. No way to tell. Maybe ten Taurans, each with five broomsticks, to use according to his mood.

“We’ve got one thing in our favor, and that’s communications. They evidently use a frequency modulation of megahertz electromagnetic radiation.”

“Radio!”

“That’s right, whoever you are. Identify yourself when you speak. So, it’s quite possible that they can’t detect our phased-neutrino communications. Also, just prior to the attack, the Hope is going to deliver a nice dirty fission bomb; detonate it in the upper atmosphere right over the base. That’ll restrict them to line-of-sight communication for some time; even those will be full of static.”

“Why don’t…Tate here…why don’t they just drop the bomb right in their laps? Would save us a lot of….”

“That doesn’t even deserve an answer, Private. But the answer is, they might. And you better hope they don’t. If they caulk the base, it’ll be for the safety of the Hope. After we’ve attacked, and probably before we’re far enough away for it to make much difference.

“We keep that from happening by doing a good job. We have to reduce the base to where it can no longer function; at the same time, leave as much intact as possible. And take one prisoner.”

“Potter here. You mean, at least one prisoner.”

“I mean what I say. One only. Potter…you’re relieved of your platoon. Send Chavez up.”

“All right, Sergeant.” The relief in her voice was unmistakable.

CORTEZ CONTINUED WITH his map and instructions. There was one other building whose function was pretty obvious; it had a large steerable dish antenna on top. We were to destroy it as soon as the grenadiers got in range.

The attack plan was very loose. Our signal to begin would be the flash of the fission bomb. At the same time, several drones would converge on the base, so we could see what their antispacecraft defenses were. We would try to reduce the effectiveness of those defenses without destroying them completely.

Immediately after the bomb and the drones, the grenadiers would vaporize a line of seven huts. Everybody would break through the hole into the base…and what would happen after that was anybody’s guess.

Ideally, we’d sweep from that end of the base to the other, destroying certain targets, caulking all but one Tauran. But that was unlikely to happen, as it depended on the Taurans’ offering very little resistance.

On the other hand, if the Taurans showed obvious superiority from the beginning, Cortez would give the order to scatter: everybody had a different compass bearing for retreat—we’d blossom out in all directions, the survivors to rendezvous in a valley some forty clicks east of the base. Then we’d see about a return engagement, after the Hope softened the base up a bit.

“One last thing,” Cortez rasped. “Maybe some of you feel the way Potter evidently does, maybe some of your men feel that way…that we ought to go easy, not make this so much of a bloodbath. Mercy is a luxury, a weakness we can’t afford to indulge in at this stage of the war. All we know about the enemy is that they have killed seven hundred and ninety-eight humans. They haven’t shown any restraint in attacking our cruisers, and it’d be foolish to expect any this time, this first ground action.

They are responsible for the lives of all of your comrades who died in training, and for Ho, and for all the others who are surely going to die today. I can’t understand anybody who wants to spare them. But that doesn’t make any difference. You have your orders, and what the hell, you might as well know, all of you have a posthypnotic suggestion that I will trigger by a phrase, just before the battle. It will make your job easier.”

“Sergeant….”

“Shut up. We’re short on time; get back to your platoons and brief them. We move out in five minutes.”

The platoon leaders returned to their men, leaving Cortez and the ten of us, plus three teddy-bears, milling around, getting in the way.

<p>15</p>

We took the last five clicks very carefully, sticking to the highest grass, running across occasional clearings. When we were five hundred meters from where the base was supposed to be, Cortez took the Third Platoon forward to scout, while the rest of us laid low.

Cortez’s voice came over the general freak: “Looks pretty much like we expected. Advance in a file, crawling. When you get to the Third Platoon, follow your squad leader to the left, or right.”

We did that and wound up with a string of eighty-three people in a line roughly perpendicular to the direction of attack. We were pretty well hidden, except for the dozen or so teddy-bears that mooched along the line munching grass.

There was no sign of life inside the base. All of the buildings were windowless, and a uniform shiny white. The huts that were our first objective were large featureless half-buried eggs, some sixty meters apart. Cortez assigned one to each grenadier.

We were broken into three fire teams: Team A consisted of platoons Two, Four, and Six; Team B was One, Three, and Five; the command platoon was Team C.

“Less than a minute now—filters down!—when I say ‘fire,’ grenadiers take out your targets. God help you if you miss.”

There was a sound like a giant’s belch and a stream of five or six iridescent bubbles floated up from the flower-shaped building. They rose with increasing speed to where they were almost out of sight, then shot off to the south, over our heads. The ground was suddenly bright and for the first time in a long time, I saw my shadow, a long one pointed north. The bomb had gone off prematurely. I just had time to think that it didn’t make too much difference; it’d still make alphabet soup out of their communications….

“Drones!” A ship came screaming in just above tree level, and a bubble was in the air to meet it. When they contacted, the bubble popped and the drone exploded into a million tiny fragments. Another one came from the opposite side and suffered the same fate.

“FIRE!” Seven bright glares of 500-microton grenades and a sustained concussion that I’m sure would have killed an unprotected man.

“Filters up.” Gray haze of smoke and dust. Clods of dirt falling with a sound like heavy raindrops.

“Listen up:

“‘Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory!’”

I hardly heard him, for trying to keep track of what was going on in my skull. I knew it was just posthypnotic suggestion, even remembered the session in Missouri when they’d implanted it, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. My mind reeled under the strong pseudo-memories; shaggy hulks that were Taurans—not at all what we now knew they looked like—boarding a colonist’s vessel, eating babies while mothers watched in screaming terror—the colonists never took babies; they wouldn’t stand the acceleration—then raping the women to death with huge veined purple members—ridiculous that they would feel desire for humans—holding the men down while they plucked flesh from their living bodies and gobbled it…a hundred grisly details as sharply remembered as the events of a minute ago, ridiculously overdone and logically absurd; but while my conscious mind was reflecting the silliness, somewhere much deeper, down in that sleeping giant where we keep our real motives and morals, something was thirsting for alien blood, secure in the conviction that the noblest thing a man could do would be to die killing one of those horrible monsters….

I knew it was all purest soya, and I hated the men who had taken such obscene liberties with my mind, but still I could hear my teeth grinding, feel cheeks frozen in a spastic grin, bloodlust…a teddy-bear walked in front of me, looking dazed. I started to raise my laserfinger, but somebody beat me to it and the creature’s head exploded in a cloud of gray splinters and blood.

Lucky groaned, half-whining, “Dirty…filthy bastards.” Lasers flared and crisscrossed and all of the teddy-bears fell dead.

Watch it, damn it,” Cortez screamed. “Aim those things; they aren’t toys!

“Team A, move out—into the craters to cover B.”

Somebody was laughing and sobbing. “What the crap is wrong with you, Petrov?” First time I could remember Cortez cussing.

I twisted around and saw Petrov, behind and to my left, lying in a shallow hole, digging frantically with both hands, crying and gurgling.

“Crap,” Cortez said. “Team B! past the craters ten meters, get down in a line. Team C—into the craters with A.”

* * *

I SCRAMBLED UP and covered the hundred meters in twelve amplified strides. The craters were practically large enough to hide a scoutship, some ten meters in diameter. I jumped to the opposite side of the hole and landed next to a fellow named Chin. He didn’t even look around when I landed, just kept scanning the base for signs of life.

“Team A—past Team B ten meters, down in line.” Just as he finished, the building in front of us burped and a salvo of the bubbles fanned out toward our lines. Most people saw it coming and got down, but Chin was just getting up to make his rush and stepped right into one.

It grazed the top of his helmet, and disappeared with a faint pop. He took one step backwards and toppled over the edge of the crater, trailing an arc of blood and brains. Lifeless, spreadeagled, he slid halfway to the bottom, shoveling dirt into the perfectly symmetrical hole where the bubble had chewed through plastic, hair, skin, bone and brain indiscriminately.

“Everybody hold it. Platoon leaders, casualty report…check…check, check…check, check, check…check. We have three deaders. Wouldn’t be any if you’d have kept low. So everybody grab dirt when you hear that thing go off. Team A, complete the rush.”

They completed the maneuver without incident. “O.K. Team C, rush to where B…hold it! Down!”

Everybody was already hugging the ground. The bubbles slid by in a smooth arc about two meters off the ground. They went serenely over our heads and, except for one that made toothpicks out of a tree, disappeared in the distance.

“B, rush past A ten meters. C, take over B’s place. You B grenadiers see if you can reach the Flower.”

Two grenades tore up the ground thirty or forty meters from the structure. In a good imitation of panic, it started belching out a continuous stream of bubbles—still, none coming lower than two meters off the ground. We kept hunched down and continued to advance.

Suddenly, a seam appeared in the building, widened to the size of a large door, and Taurans came swarming out.

“Grenadiers, hold your fire. B team, laser fire to the left and right, keep ’em bunched up. A and C, rush down the center.”

One Tauran died trying to turn through a laser beam. The others stayed where they were.

In a suit, it’s pretty awkward to run and try to keep your head down, at the same time. You have to go from side to side, like a skater getting started; otherwise you’ll be airborne. At least one person, somebody in A team, bounced too high and suffered the same fate as Chin.

I was feeling pretty fenced-in and trapped, with a wall of laser fire on each side and a low ceiling that meant death to touch. But in spite of myself, I felt happy, euphoric at finally getting the chance to kill some of those villainous baby-eaters.

They weren’t fighting back, except for the rather ineffective bubbles—obviously not designed as an antipersonnel weapon—and they didn’t retreat back into the building, either. They just milled around, about a hundred of them, and watched us get closer. A couple of grenades would caulk them all, but I guess Cortez was thinking about the prisoner.

“O.K., when I say ‘go,’ we’re going to flank ’em. B team will hold fire…Second and Fourth to the right, Sixth and Seventh to the left. B team will move forward in line to box them in.

“Go!” We peeled off to the left. As soon as the lasers stopped, the Taurans bolted, running in a group on a collision course with our flank.

“A Team, down and fire! Don’t shoot until you’re sure of your aim—if you miss you might hit a friendly. And fer Chris’sake save me one!”

It was a horrifying sight, that herd of monsters bearing down on us. They were running in great leaps—the bubbles avoiding them—and they all looked like the one we saw earlier, riding the broomstick; naked except for an almost transparent sphere around their whole bodies, that moved along with them. The right flank started firing, picking off individuals in the rear of the pack.

Suddenly a laser flared through the Taurans from the other side, somebody missing his mark. There was a horrible scream and I looked down the line to see someone, I think it was Perry, writhing on the ground, right hand over the smoldering stump of his left arm, seared off just below the elbow. Blood sprayed through his fingers and the suit, its camouflage circuits scrambled, flickered black-white-jungle-desert-green-gray. I don’t know how long I stared—long enough for the medic to run over and start giving aid—but when I looked up the Taurans were almost on top of me.

My first shot was wild and high, but it grazed the top of the leading Tauran’s protective bubble. The bubble disappeared and the monster stumbled and fell to the ground, jerking spasmodically. Foam gushed out of his mouth-hole, first white, then streaked with red. With one last jerk he became rigid and twisted backwards, almost to the shape of a horseshoe. His long scream, a high-pitched whistle, stopped just as his comrades trampled over him and I hated myself for smiling.

It was slaughter, even though our flank was outnumbered five to one. They kept coming without faltering, even when they had to climb over the drift of bodies and parts of bodies that piled up high, parallel to our flank. The ground between us was slick red with Tauran blood—all God’s children got hemoglobin—and, like the teddy-bears, their guts looked pretty much like guts to my untrained eye. My helmet reverberated with hysterical laughter while we cut them to gory chunks. I almost didn’t hear Cortez.

“Hold your fire—I said HOLD IT damn it! Catch a couple of the bastards, they won’t hurt you.”

I stopped shooting and eventually so did everybody else. When the next Tauran jumped over the smoking pile of meat in front of me, I dove to tackle him around those spindly legs.

It was like hugging a big, slippery balloon. When I tried to drag him down, he just popped out of my arms and kept running.

We managed to stop one of them by the simple expedient of piling half-a-dozen people on top of him. By that time the others had run through our line and were headed for the row of large cylindrical tanks that Cortez had said were probably for storage. A little door had opened in the base of each one.

“We’ve got our prisoner,” Cortez shouted. “Kill!”

They were fifty meters away and running hard, difficult targets. Lasers slashed around them, bobbing high and low. One fell, sliced in two, but the others, about ten of them, kept going and were almost to the doors when the grenadiers started firing.

They were still loaded with 500-mike bombs, but a near miss wasn’t enough—the concussion would just send them flying, unhurt in their bubbles.

“The buildings! Get the damn buildings!” The grenadiers raised their aim and let fly, but the bombs only seemed to scorch the white outside of the structures until, by chance, one landed in a door. That split the building just as if it had a seam; the two halves popped away and a cloud of machinery flew into the air, accompanied by a huge pale flame that rolled up and disappeared in an instant. Then the others all concentrated on the doors, except for potshots at some of the Taurans; not so much to get them as to blow them away before they could get inside. They seemed awfully eager.

ALL THIS TIME, we were trying to get the Taurans with laser fire, while they weaved and bounced around trying to get into the structures. We moved in as close to them as we could without putting ourselves in danger from the grenade blasts—that was still too far away for good aim.

Still, we were getting them one by one, and managed to destroy four of the seven buildings. Then, when there were only two aliens left, a nearby grenade blast flung one of them to within a few meters of a door. He dove in and several grenadiers fired salvos after him, but they all fell short, or detonated harmlessly on the side. Bombs were falling all around, making an awful racket, but the sound was suddenly drowned out by a great sigh, like a giant’s intake of breath, and where the building had been was a thick cylindrical cloud of smoke, solid-looking, dwindling away into the stratosphere, straight as if laid down by a ruler. The other Tauran had been right at the base of the cylinder; I could see pieces of him flying. A second later, a shock wave hit us and I rolled helplessly, pinwheeling, to smash into the pile of Tauran bodies and roll beyond.

I picked myself up and panicked for a second when I saw there was blood all over my suit—when I realized it was only alien blood, I relaxed but felt unclean.

Catch the bastard! Catch him!” In the confusion, the Tauran—now the only one left alive—had got free and was running for the grass. One platoon was chasing after him, losing ground, but then all of B team ran over and cut him off. I jogged over to join in the fun.

There were four people on top of him, and fifty people watching.

“Spread out, damn it! There might be a thousand more of them waiting to get us in one place.” We dispersed, grumbling. By unspoken agreement we were all sure that there were no more live Taurans on the face of the planet.

Cortez was walking toward the prisoner while I backed away. Suddenly the four men collapsed in a pile on top of the creature…even from my distance I could see the foam spouting from his mouth-hole. His bubble had popped. Suicide.

“Damn!” Cortez was right there. “Get off that bastard.” The four men got off and Cortez used his laser to slice the monster into a dozen quivering chunks. Heartwarming sight.

“That’s all right, though, we’ll find another one—everybody! Back in the arrowhead formation. Combat assault, on the Flower.”

Well, we assaulted the Flower, which had evidently run out of ammunition—it was still belching, but no bubbles—and it was empty. We just scurried up ramps and through corridors, fingers at the ready, like kids playing soldier. There was nobody home.

The same lack of response at the antenna installation, the “Salami,” and twenty other major buildings, as well as the forty-four perimeter huts still intact. So we had “captured” dozens of buildings, mostly of incomprehensible purpose, but failed in our main mission; capturing a Tauran for the xenologists to experiment with. Oh, well, they could have all the bits and pieces of the creatures they’d ever want. That was something.

After we’d combed every last square centimeter of the base, a scoutship came in with the real exploration crew, Star Fleet scientists. Cortez said, “All right, snap out of it,” and the hypnotic compulsion fell away.

At first it was pretty grim. A lot of the people, like Lucky and Marygay, almost went crazy with the memories of bloody murder multiplied a hundred times. Cortez ordered everybody to take a sedtab, two for the ones most upset. I took two without being specifically ordered to do so.

Because it was murder, unadorned butchery—once we had the antispacecraft weapon doped out, we weren’t in any danger. The Taurans didn’t seem to have any conception of person-to-person fighting. We just herded them up and slaughtered them, in the first encounter between mankind and another intelligent species. What might have happened if we had sat down and tried to communicate? Maybe it was the second encounter, counting the teddy-bears. But they got the same treatment.

I spent a long time after that telling myself over and over that it hadn’t been me who so gleefully carved up those frightened, stampeding creatures. Back in the Twentieth Century, they established to everybody’s satisfaction that “I was just following orders” was an inadequate excuse for inhuman conduct…but what can you do when the orders come from deep down in that puppet master of the unconscious?

Worst of all was the feeling that perhaps my actions weren’t all that inhuman. Ancestors only a few generations back would have done the same thing, even to their fellowmen, without any hypnotic conditioning.

So I was disgusted with the human race, disgusted with the army, and horrified at the prospect of living with myself for another century or so…well, there was always brainwipe.

The ship that the lone Tauran survivor had escaped in had got away, clean, the bulk of the planet shielding it from Earth’s Hope while it dropped into Aleph’s collapsar field. Escaped to home, I guessed, wherever that was, to report what twenty men with hand-weapons could do to a hundred fleeing on foot, unarmed.

I suspected that the next time humans met Taurans in ground combat, we would be more evenly matched. And I was right.

<p><emphasis>Joe Haldeman</emphasis></p>

Praised for its authentic portrayal of the emotional detachment and psychological dislocation of soldiers in a millennium-long future war, Joe Haldeman’s first science fiction novel, The Forever War, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when it was published in 1974 and was later adapted into a three-part graphic-novel series. Since then, Haldeman has returned to the theme of future war several times, notably in his trilogy Worlds, Worlds Apart, and Worlds Enough and Time, about a future Earth facing nuclear extinction, and Forever Peace, a further exploration of the dehumanizing potential of armed conflict. Haldeman’s other novels include Mindbridge, All My Sins Remembered, and the alternate-world opus The Hemingway Hoax, expanded from his Nebula Award–winning novella of the same name. Haldeman’s stories have been collected in Infinite Dreams and Dealing in Futures, and several of his essays are mixed with fiction in Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds. His powerful non– science fiction writing includes War Year, drawn from experiences during his tour of duty in Vietnam, and 1968, a portrait of America in the Vietnam era. He has also coedited the anthologies Body Armor 2000, Space-fighters, and Supertanks.


1

<p>1</p>

“TONIGHT WE’RE GOING to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than I. Ergo, as they say, he couldn’t possibly ever have killed a man, not in combat, silently or otherwise.

I already knew eighty ways to kill people, though most of them were pretty noisy. I sat up straight in my chair and assumed a look of polite attention and fell asleep with my eyes open. So did most everybody else. We’d learned that they never schedule anything important for these after-chop classes.

The projector woke me up and I sat through a short movie showing the “eight silent ways.” Some of the actors must have been brainwipes, since they were actually killed.

After the movie a girl in the front row raised her hand. The sergeant nodded at her and she rose to parade rest. Not bad-looking, but kind of chunky about the neck and shoulders. Everybody gets that way after carrying a heavy pack around for a couple of months.

“Sir”—we had to call sergeants “sir” until graduation—“most of those methods, really, they looked…kind of silly.”

“For instance?”

“Like killing a man with a blow to the kidneys, from an entrenching tool. I mean, when would you actually just have an entrenching tool, and no gun or knife? And why not just bash him over the head with it?”

“He might have a helmet on,” he said reasonably.

“Besides, Taurans probably don’t even have kidneys!”

He shrugged. “Probably they don’t.” This was 1997, and we’d never seen a Tauran: hadn’t even found any pieces of Taurans bigger than a scorched chromosome. “But their body chemistry is similar to ours, and we have to assume they’re similarly complex creatures. They must have weaknesses, vulnerable spots. You have to find out where they are.

“That’s the important thing.” He stabbed a finger at the screen. “That’s why those eight convicts got caulked for your benefit…you’ve got to find out how to kill Taurans, and be able to do it whether you have a megawatt laser or just an emery board.”

She sat back down, not looking too convinced.

“Any more questions?” Nobody raised a hand.

“O.K.—tench-hut!” We staggered upright and he looked at us expectantly.

“Screw you, sir,” came the tired chorus.

“Louder!”

“SCREW YOU, SIR!”

One of the army’s less-inspired morale devices.

“That’s better. Don’t forget, predawn maneuvers tomorrow. Chop at 0330, first formation, 0400. Anybody sacked after 0340 gets one stripe. Dismissed.”

I zipped up my coverall and went across the snow to the lounge for a cup of soya and a joint. I’d always been able to get by on five or six hours of sleep, and this was the only time I could be by myself, out of the army for a while. Looked at the newsfax for a few minutes. Another ship got caulked, out by Aldebaran sector. That was four years ago. They were mounting a reprisal fleet, but it’ll take four years more for them to get out there. By then, the Taurans would have every portal planet sewed up tight.

Back at the billet, everybody else was sacked and the main lights were out. The whole company’d been dragging ever since we got back from the two-week lunar training. I dumped my clothes in the locker, checked the roster and found out I was in bunk 31. Damn it, right under the heater.

I slipped through the curtain as quietly as possible so as not to wake up my bunkmate. Couldn’t see who it was, but I couldn’t have cared less. I slipped under the blanket.

“You’re late, Mandella,” a voice yawned. It was Rogers.

“Sorry I woke you up,” I whispered.

“’Sallright.” She snuggled over and clasped me spoon-fashion. She was warm and reasonably soft. I patted her hip in what I hoped was a brotherly fashion. “Night, Rogers.”

“G’night, Stallion.” She returned the gesture, a good deal more pointedly.

Why do you always get the tired ones when you’re ready and the randy ones when you’re tired? I bowed to the inevitable.


2

<p>2</p>

“Awright, let’s get some back inta that! Stringer team! Move it up—move up!”

A warm front had come in about midnight and the snow had turned to sleet. The permaplast stringer weighed five hundred pounds and was a bitch to handle, even when it wasn’t covered with ice. There were four of us, two at each end, carrying the plastic girder with frozen fingertips. Rogers and I were partners.

“Steel!” the guy behind me yelled, meaning that he was losing his hold. It wasn’t steel, but it was heavy enough to break your foot. Everybody let go and hopped away. It splashed slush and mud all over us.

“Damn it, Petrov,” Rogers said, “why didn’t you go out for Star Fleet or maybe the Red Cross? This damn thing’s not that damn heavy.” Most of the girls were a little more circumspect in their speech.

“Awright, get a move on, stringers—Epoxy team! Dog ’em! Dog ’em!”

Our two epoxy people ran up, swinging their buckets. “Let’s go, Mandella. I’m freezin’.”

“Me, too,” the girl said earnestly.

“One—two—heave!” We got the thing up again and staggered toward the bridge. It was about three-quarters completed. Looked as if the Second Platoon was going to beat us. I wouldn’t give a damn, but the platoon that got their bridge built first got to fly home. Four miles of muck for the rest of us, and no rest before chop.

We got the stringer in place, dropped it with a clank, and fitted the static clamps that held it to the rise-beams. The female half of the epoxy team started slopping glue on it before we even had it secured. Her partner was waiting for the stringer on the other side. The floor team was waiting at the foot of the bridge, each one holding a piece of the light stressed permaplast over his head, like an umbrella. They were dry and clean. I wondered aloud what they had done to deserve it, and Rogers suggested a couple of colorful, but unlikely possibilities.

We were going back to stand by the next stringer when the Field First—he was named Dougelstein, but we called him “Awright”—blew a whistle and bellowed, “Awright, soldier boys and girls, ten minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” He reached into his pocket and turned on the control that heated our coveralls.

Rogers and I sat down on our end of the stringer and I took out my weed box. I had lots of joints, but we weren’t allowed to smoke them until after night-chop. The only tobacco I had was a cigarro butt about three inches long. I lit it on the side of the box; it wasn’t too bad after the first couple of puffs. Rogers took a puff to be sociable, but made a face and gave it back.

“Were you in school when you got drafted?” she asked.

“Yeah. Just got a degree in Physics. Was going after a teacher’s certificate.”

She nodded soberly. “I was in Biology….”

“Figures.” I ducked a handful of slush. “How far?”

“Six years, bachelor’s and technical.” She slid her boot along the ground, turning up a ridge of mud and slush the consistency of freezing ice milk. “Why the hell did this have to happen?”

I shrugged. It didn’t call for an answer, least of all the answer that the UNEF kept giving us. Intellectual and physical elite of the planet, going out to guard humanity against the Tauran menace. It was all just a big experience. See whether we could goad the Taurans into ground action.

Awright blew the whistle two minutes early, as expected, but Rogers and I and the other two stringers got to sit for a minute while the epoxy and floor teams finished covering our stringer. It got cold fast, sitting there with our suits turned off, but we remained inactive, on principle.

I really didn’t see the sense of us having to train in the cold. Typical army half-logic. Sure, it was going to be cold where we were going; but not ice-cold or snow-cold. Almost by definition, a portal planet remained within a degree or two of absolute zero all the time, since collapsars don’t shine—and the first chill you felt would mean that you were a dead man.

TWELVE YEARS BEFORE, when I was ten years old, they had discovered the collapsar jump. Just fling an object at a collapsar with sufficient speed, and it pops out in some other part of the galaxy. It didn’t take long to figure out the formula that predicted where it would come out; it just traveled along the same “line”—actually an Einsteinian geodesic—it would have followed if the collapsar hadn’t been in the way—until it reaches another collapsar field, whereupon it reappears, repelled with the same speed it had approaching the original collapsar. Travel time between the two collapsars is exactly zero.

It made a lot of work for mathematical physicists, who had to redefine simultaneity, then tear down general relativity and build it back up again. And it made the politicians very happy, because now they could send a shipload of colonists to Fomalhaut for less than it once cost to put a brace of men on the Moon. There were a lot of people the politicians would just love to see on Fomalhaut, implementing a glorious adventure instead of stirring up trouble at home.

The ships were always accompanied by an automated probe that followed a couple of million miles behind. We knew about the portal planets, little bits of flotsam that whirled around the collapsars; the purpose of the drone was to come back and tell us in the event that a ship had smacked into a portal planet at .999 of the speed of light.

That particular catastrophe never happened, but one day a drone did come limping back alone. Its data were analyzed, and it turned out that the colonists’ ship had been pursued by another vessel and destroyed. This happened near Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus, but since “Aldebaranian” is a little hard to handle, they named the enemy Taurans.

Colonizing vessels thenceforth went out protected by an armed guard. Often the armed guard went out alone, and finally the colonization effort itself slowed to a token trickle. The United Nations Exploratory and Colonization Group got shortened to UNEF, United Nations Exploratory Force, emphasis on the “force.”

Then some bright lad in the General Assembly decided that we ought to field an army of footsoldiers to guard the portal planets of the nearer collapsars. This led to the Elite Conscription Act of 1996 and the most rigorously selected army in the history of warfare.

So here we are, fifty men and fifty women, with IQ’s over 150 and bodies of unusual health and strength, slogging elitely through the mud and slush of central Missouri, reflecting on how useful our skill in building bridges will be, on worlds where the only fluid will be your occasional standing pool of liquid helium.


3

<p>3</p>

About a month later, we left for our final training exercise; maneuvers on the planet Charon. Though nearing perihelion, it was still more than twice as far from the sun as Pluto.

The troopship was a converted “cattlewagon,” made to carry two hundred colonists and assorted bushes and beasts. Don’t think it was roomy, though, just because there were half that many of us. Most of the excess space was taken up with extra reaction mass and ordnance.

The whole trip took three weeks, accelerating at 2 Gs halfway; decelerating the other half. Our top speed, as we roared by the orbit of Pluto, was around one twentieth of the speed of light—not quite enough for relativity to rear its complicated head.

Three weeks of carrying around twice as much weight as normal…it’s no picnic. We did some cautious exercises three times a day, and remained horizontal as much as possible. Still, we had several broken bones and serious dislocations. The men had to wear special supporters. It was almost impossible to sleep, what with nightmares of choking and being crushed, and the necessity of rolling over periodically to prevent blood pooling and bedsores. One girl got so fatigued that she almost slept through the experience of having a rib rub through to the open air.

I’d been in space several times before, so when we finally stopped decelerating and went into free fall, it was nothing but a relief. But some people had never been out, except for our training on the Moon, and succumbed to the sudden vertigo and disorientation. The rest of us cleaned up after them, floating through the quarters with sponges and inspirators to suck up globules of partly-digested “Concentrate, High-protein, Low-residue, Beef Flavor (Soya).”

A shuttle took us down to the surface in three trips. I waited for the last one, along with everybody else who wasn’t bothered by free fall.

We had a good view of Charon, coming down from orbit. There wasn’t much to see, though. It was just a dim, off-white sphere with a few smudges on it. We landed about two hundred meters from the base. A pressurized crawler came out and mated with the ferry, so we didn’t have to suit up. We clanked and squeaked up to the main building, a featureless box of grayish plastic.

Inside, the walls were the same inspired color. The rest of the company was sitting at desks, chattering away. There was a seat next to Freeland.

“Jeff—feeling better?” He still looked a little pale.

“If the gods had meant for man to survive in free fall, they would have given him a cast-iron glottis. Somewhat better. Dying for a smoke.”

“Yeah.”

You seemed to take it all right. Went up in school, didn’t you?”

“Senior thesis in vacuum welding, yeah, three weeks in Earth orbit.” I sat back and reached for my weed box, for the thousandth time. It still wasn’t there, of course. The Life Support Unit didn’t want to handle nicotine and THC.

“Training was bad enough,” Jeff groused, “but this crap—”

“I don’t know.” I’d been thinking about it. “It might just all be worth it.”

“Hell, no—this is a space war, let Star Fleet take care of it…they’re just going to send us out and either we sit for fifty years on some damn ice cube of a portal planet, or we get….”

“Well, Jeff, you’ve got to look at it the other way, too. Even if there’s only one chance in a thousand that we’ll be doing some good, keeping the Taurans….

“TENCH-HUT!” WE stood up in a raggety-ass fashion, by twos and threes. The door opened and a full major came in. I stiffened a little. He was the highest-ranking officer I’d ever seen. He had a row of ribbons stitched into his coveralls, including a purple strip meaning he’d been wounded in combat, fighting in the old American army. Must have been that Indochina thing, but it had fizzled out before I was born. He didn’t look that old.

“Sit, sit.” He made a patting motion with his hand. Then he put his hands on his hips and scanned the company with a small smile on his face. “Welcome to Charon. You picked a lovely day to land; the temperature outside is a summery eight point one five degrees Absolute. We expect little change for the next two centuries or so.” Some of us laughed half-heartedly.

“You’d best enjoy the tropical climate here at Miami Base, enjoy it while you can. We’re on the center of sunside here, and most of your training will be on darkside. Over there, the temperature drops to a chilly two point zero eight.

“You might as well regard all the training you got on Earth and the Moon as just a warm-up exercise, to give you a fair chance of surviving Charon. You’ll have to go through your whole repertory here: tools, weapons, maneuvers. And you’ll find that, at these temperatures, tools don’t work the way they should, weapons don’t want to fire. And people move v-e-r-y cautiously.”

He studied the clipboard in his hand. “Right now, you have forty-nine women and forty-eight men. Two deaths, one psychiatric release. Having read an outline of your training program, I’m frankly surprised that so many of you pulled through.

“But you might as well know that I won’t be displeased if as few as fifty of you graduate from this final phase. And the only way not to graduate is to die. Here. The only way anybody gets back to Earth—including me—is after a combat tour.

“You will complete your training in one month. From here you go to Stargate collapsar, a little over two lights away. You will stay at the settlement on Stargate I, the largest portal planet, until replacements arrive. Hopefully, that will be no more than a month; another group is due here as soon as you leave.

“When you leave Stargate, you will be going to a strategically important collapsar, set up a military base there, and fight the enemy, if attacked. Otherwise, maintain the base until further orders.

“The last two weeks of your training will consist of constructing such a base, on darkside. There you will be totally isolated from Miami Base: no communication, no medical evacuation, no resupply. Sometime before the two weeks are up, your defense facilities will be evaluated in an attack by guided drones. They will be armed.

“All of the permanent personnel here on Charon are combat veterans. Thus, all of us are forty to fifty years of age, but I think we can keep up with you. Two of us will be with you at all times, and will accompany you at least as far as Stargate. They are Captain Sherman Stott, your company commander, and Sergeant Octavio Cortez, your first sergeant. Gentlemen?”

Two men in the front row stood easily and turned to face us. Captain Stott was a little smaller than the major, but cut from the same mold; face hard and smooth as porcelain, cynical half-smile, a precise centimeter of beard framing a large chin, looking thirty at the most. He wore a large, gunpowder-type pistol on his hip.

Sergeant Cortez was another story. His head was shaved and the wrong shape; flattened out on one side where a large piece of skull had obviously been taken out. His face was very dark and seamed with wrinkles and scars. Half his left ear was missing and his eyes were as expressive as buttons on a machine. He had a moustache-and-beard combination that looked like a skinny white caterpillar taking a lap around his mouth. On anybody else, his schoolboy smile might look pleasant, but he was about the ugliest, meanest-looking creature I’d ever seen. Still, if you didn’t look at his head and considered the lower six feet or so, he could pose as the “after” advertisement for a body-building spa. Neither Stott nor Cortez wore any ribbons. Cortez had a small pocket-laser suspended in a magnetic rig, sideways, under his left armpit. It had wooden grips that were worn very smooth.

“Now, before I turn you over to the tender mercies of these two gentlemen, let me caution you again.

“Two months ago there was not a living soul on this planet, a working force of forty-five men struggled for a month to erect this base. Twenty-four of them, more than half, died in the construction of it. This is the most dangerous planet men have ever tried to live on, but the places you’ll be going will be this bad and worse. Your cadre will try to keep you alive for the next month. Listen to them…and follow their example; all of them have survived here for longer than you’ll have to. Captain?” The captain stood up as the major went out the door.

“Tench-hut!” The last syllable was like an explosion and we all jerked to our feet.

“Now, I’m only gonna say this once so you better listen,” he growled. “We are in a combat situation here and in a combat situation there is only one penalty for disobedience and insubordination.” He jerked the pistol from his hip and held it by the barrel, like a club. “This is an Army model 1911 automatic pistol caliber .45 and it is a primitive, but effective, weapon. The sergeant and I are authorized to use our weapons to kill to enforce discipline, don’t make us do it because we will. We will.” He put the pistol back. The holster snap made a loud crack in the dead quiet.

“Sergeant Cortez and I between us have killed more people than are sitting in this room. Both of us fought in Vietnam on the American side and both of us joined the United Nations International Guard more than ten years ago. I took a break in grade from major for the privilege of commanding this company, and First Sergeant Cortez took a break from sub-major, because we are both combat soldiers and this is the first combat situation since 1974.

“Keep in mind what I’ve said while the First Sergeant instructs you more specifically in what your duties will be under this command. Take over, Sergeant.” He turned on his heel and strode out of the room, with the little smile on his face that hadn’t changed one millimeter during the whole harangue.

The First Sergeant moved like a heavy machine with lots of ball bearings. When the door hissed shut he swiveled ponderously to face us and said, “At ease, siddown,” in a surprisingly gentle voice. He sat on a table in the front of the room. It creaked—but held.

“Now, the captain talks scary and I look scary, but we both mean well. You’ll be working pretty closely with me, so you better get used to this thing I’ve got hanging in front of my brain. You probably won’t see the captain much, except on maneuvers.”

He touched the flat part of his head. “And speaking of brains, I still have just about all mine, in spite of Chinese efforts to the contrary. All of us old vets who mustered into UNEF had to pass the same criteria that got you drafted by the Elite Conscription Act. So I suspect all of you are smart and tough—but just keep in mind that the captain and I are smart and tough and experienced.”

He flipped through the roster without really looking at it. “Now, as the captain said, there’ll be only one kind of disciplinary action on maneuvers. Capital punishment. But normally we won’t have to kill you for disobeying. Charon’ll save us the trouble.

“Back in the billeting area, it’ll be another story. We don’t much care what you do inside, but once you suit up and go outside, you’ve gotta have discipline that would shame a Centurian. There will be situations where one stupid act could kill us all.

“Anyhow, the first thing we’ve gotta do is get you fitted to your fighting suits. The armorer’s waiting at your billet; he’ll take you one at a time. Let’s go.”


4

<p>4</p>

“Now, I know you got lectured and lectured on what a fighting suit can do, back on Earth.” The armorer was a small man, partially bald, with no insignia of rank on his coveralls. Sergeant Cortez told us to call him “sir,” since he was a lieutenant.

“But I’d like to reinforce a couple of points, maybe add some things your instructors Earthside weren’t clear about, or couldn’t know. Your First Sergeant was kind enough to consent to being my visual aid. Sergeant?”

Cortez slipped out of his coveralls and came up to the little raised platform where a fighting suit was standing, popped open like a man-shaped clam. He backed into it and slipped his arms into the rigid sleeves. There was a click and the thing swung shut with a sigh. It was bright green with CORTEZ stenciled in white letters on the helmet.

“Camouflage, Sergeant.”

The green faded to white, then dirty gray. “This is good camouflage for Charon, and most of your portal planets,” said Cortez, from a deep well. “But there are several other combinations available.” The gray dappled and brightened to a combination of greens and browns: “Jungle.” Then smoothed out to a hard light ochre: “Desert.” Dark brown, darker, to a deep flat black: “Night or space.”

“Very good, Sergeant. To my knowledge, this is the only feature of the suit which was perfected after your training. The control is around your left wrist and is admittedly awkward. But once you find the right combination, it’s easy to lock in.

“Now, you didn’t get much in-suit training Earthside because we didn’t want you to get used to using the thing in a friendly environment. The fighting suit is the deadliest personal weapon ever built, and with no weapon it is easier for the user to kill himself through carelessness. Turn around, Sergeant.

“Case in point.” He tapped a square protuberance between the shoulders. “Exhaust fins. As you know, the suit tries to keep you at a comfortable temperature no matter what the weather’s like outside. The material of the suit is as near to a perfect insulator as we could get, consistent with mechanical demands. Therefore, these fins get hot—especially hot, compared to darkside temperatures—as they bleed off the body’s heat.

“All you have to do is lean up against a boulder of frozen gas; there’s lots of it around. The gas will sublime off faster than it can escape from the fins; in escaping, it will push against the surrounding ‘ice’ and fracture it…and in about one hundredth of a second, you have the equivalent of a hand grenade going off right below your neck. You’ll never feel a thing.

“Variations on this theme have killed eleven people in the past two months. And they were just building a bunch of huts.

“I assume you know how easily the waldo capabilities can kill you or your companions. Anybody want to shake hands with the sergeant?” He stepped over and clasped his glove. “He’s had lots of practice. Until you have, be extremely careful. You might scratch an itch and wind up bleeding to death. Remember, semi-logarithmic repose: two pounds’ pressure exerts five pounds’ force; three pounds gives ten; four pounds, twenty-three; five pounds, forty-seven. Most of you can muster up a grip of well over a hundred pounds. Theoretically, you could rip a steel girder in two with that, amplified. Actually, you’d destroy the material of your gloves and, at least on Charon, die very quickly. It’d be a race between decompression and flash-freezing. You’d be the loser.

“The leg waldos are also dangerous, even though the amplification is less extreme. Until you’re really skilled, don’t try to run, or jump. You’re likely to trip, and that means you’re likely to die.

“Charon’s gravity is three-fourths of Earth normal, so it’s not too bad. But on a really small world, like Luna, you could take a running jump and not come down for twenty minutes, just keep sailing over the horizon. Maybe bash into a mountain at eighty meters per second. On a small asteroid, it’d be no trick at all to run up to escape velocity and be off on an informal tour of intergalactic space. It’s a slow way to travel.

“Tomorrow morning, we’ll start teaching you how to stay alive inside of this infernal machine. The rest of the afternoon and evening, I’ll call you one at a time to be fitted. That’s all, Sergeant.”

Cortez went to the door and turned the stopcock that let air into the air lock. A bank of infrared lamps went on to keep the air from freezing inside it. When the pressures were equalized, he shut the stopcock, unclamped the door and stepped in, clamping it shut behind him. A pump hummed for about a minute, evacuating the air lock, then he stepped out and sealed the outside door. It was pretty much like the ones on Luna.

“First I want Private Omar Almizar. The rest of you can go find your bunks. I’ll call you over the squawker.”

“Alphabetical order, sir?”

“Yep. About ten minutes apiece. If your name begins with Z, you might as well get sacked.”

That was Rogers. She probably was thinking about getting sacked.


5

<p>5</p>

The sun was a hard white point directly overhead. It was a lot brighter than I had expected it to be; since we were eighty AUs out, it was only 1/6400th as bright as it is on Earth. Still, it was putting out about as much light as a powerful streetlamp.

“This is considerably more light than you’ll have on a portal planet,” Captain Stott’s voice crackled in our collective ear. “Be glad that you’ll be able to watch your step.”

We were lined up, single file, on a permaplast sidewalk connecting the billet and the supply hut. We’d practiced walking inside, all morning, and this wasn’t any different except for the exotic scenery. Though the light was rather dim, you could see all the way to the horizon quite clearly, with no atmosphere in the way. A black cliff that looked too regular to be natural stretched from one horizon to the other, passing within a kilometer of us. The ground was obsidian-black, mottled with patches of white, or bluish, ice. Next to the supply hut was a small mountain of snow in a bin marked OXYGEN.

The suit was fairly comfortable, but it gave you the odd feeling of being simultaneously a marionette and a puppeteer. You apply the impulse to move your leg and the suit picks it up and magnifies it and moves your leg for you.

“Today we’re only going to walk around the company area and nobody will leave the company area.” The captain wasn’t wearing his .45, but he had a laser-finger like the rest of us. And his was probably hooked up.

Keeping an interval of at least two meters between each person, we stepped off the permaplast and followed the captain over the smooth rock. We walked carefully for about an hour, spiraling out, and finally stopped at the far edge of the perimeter.

“Now everybody pay close attention. I’m going out to that blue slab of ice”—it was a big one, about twenty meters away—“and show you something that you’d better know if you want to live.”

He walked out a dozen confident steps. “First I have to heat up a rock—filters down.” I slapped the stud under my armpit and the filter slid into place over my image converter. The captain pointed his finger at a black rock the size of a basketball and gave it a short burst. The glare rolled a long shadow of the captain over us and beyond. The rock shattered into a pile of hazy splinters.

“It doesn’t take long for these to cool down.” He stooped and picked up a piece. “This one is probably twenty or twenty-five degrees. Watch.” He tossed the “warm” rock on the ice slab. It skittered around in a crazy pattern and shot off the side. He tossed another one, and it did the same.

“As you know, you are not quite perfectly insulated. These rocks are about the temperature of the soles of your boots. If you try to stand on a slab of hydrogen the same thing will happen to you. Except that the rock is already dead.

“The reason for this behavior is that the rock makes a slick interface with the ice—a little puddle of liquid hydrogen—and rides a few molecules above the liquid on a cushion of hydrogen vapor. This makes the rock, or you, a frictionless bearing as far as the ice is concerned and you can’t stand up without any friction under your boots.

“After you have lived in your suit for a month or so you should be able to survive falling down, but right now you just don’t know enough. Watch.”

The captain flexed and hopped up onto the slab. His feet shot out from under him and he twisted around in midair, landing on hands and knees. He slipped off and stood on the ground.

“The idea is to keep your exhaust fins from making contact with the frozen gas. Compared to the ice they are as hot as a blast furnace and contact with any weight behind it will result in an explosion.”

AFTER THAT DEMONSTRATION, we walked around for another hour or so, and returned to the billet. Once through the air lock, we had to mill around for a while, letting the suits get up to something like room temperature. Somebody came up and touched helmets with me.

“William?” She had MC COY stenciled above her faceplate.

“Hi, Sean. Anything special?”

“I just wondered if you had anyone to sleep with tonight.”

That’s right; I’d forgotten, there wasn’t any sleeping roster here. Everybody just chose his own partner. “Sure, I mean, uh, no…no, I haven’t asked anybody, sure, if you want to….”

“Thanks, William. See you later.” I watched her walk away and thought that if anybody could make a fighting suit look sexy, it’d be Sean. But even Sean couldn’t.

Cortez decided we were warm enough and led us to the suit room where we backed the things into place and hooked them up to the charging plates—each suit had a little chunk of plutonium that would power it for several years, but we were supposed to run on fuel cells as much as possible. After a lot of shuffling around, everybody finally got plugged in and we were allowed to unsuit, ninety-seven naked chickens squirming out of bright green eggs. It was cold—the air, the floor, and especially the suits—and we made a pretty disorderly exit toward the lockers.

I slipped on tunic, trousers and sandals and was still cold. I took my cup and joined the line for soya, everybody jumping up and down to keep warm.

“How c-cold, do you think, it is, M-Mandella?” That was McCoy.

“I don’t, even want, to think, about it.” I stopped jumping and rubbed myself as briskly as possible, while holding a cup in one hand. “At least as cold as Missouri was.”

“Ung…wish they’d, get some damn heat in, this place.” It always affects the small girls more than anybody else. McCoy was the littlest one in the company, a waspwaist doll barely five feet high.

“They’ve got the airco going. It can’t be long now.”

“I wish I, was a big, slab of, meat like, you.”

I was glad she wasn’t.


6

<p>6</p>

We had our first casualty on the third day, learning how to dig holes.

With such large amounts of energy stored in a soldier’s weapons, it wouldn’t be practical for him to hack out a hole in the frozen ground with the conventional pick and shovel. Still, you can launch grenades all day and get nothing but shallow depressions—so the usual method is to bore a hole in the ground with the hand laser, drop a timed charge in after it’s cooled down and, ideally, fill the hole with stuff. Of course, there’s not much loose rock on Charon, unless you’ve already blown a hole nearby.

The only difficult thing about the procedure is getting away. To be safe, we were told, you’ve got to either be behind something really solid, or be at least a hundred meters away. You’ve got about three minutes after setting the charge, but you can’t just spring away. Not on Charon.

The accident happened when we were making a really deep hole, the kind you want for a large underground bunker. For this, we had to blow a hole, then climb down to the bottom of the crater and repeat the procedure again and again until the hole was deep enough. Inside the crater we used charges with a five-minute delay, but it hardly seemed enough time—you really had to go slow, picking your way up the crater’s edge.

Just about everybody had blown a double hole; everybody but me and three others. I guess we were the only ones paying really close attention when Bovanovitch got into trouble. All of us were a good two hundred meters away. With my image converter turned up to about forty power, I watched her disappear over the rim of the crater. After that I could only listen in on her conversation with Cortez.

“I’m on the bottom, Sergeant.” Normal radio procedure was suspended for these maneuvers; only the trainee and Cortez could broadcast.

“O.K., move to the center and clear out the rubble. Take your time. No rush until you pull the pin.”

“Sure, Sergeant.” We could hear small echoes of rocks clattering; sound conduction through her boots. She didn’t say anything for several minutes.

“Found bottom.” She sounded a little out of breath.

“Ice, or rock?”

“Oh, it’s rock, Sergeant. The greenish stuff.”

“Use a low setting, then. One point two, dispersion four.”

“God darn it, Sergeant, that’ll take forever.”

“Yeah, but that stuff’s got hydrated crystals in it—heat it up too fast and you might make it fracture. And we’d just have to leave you there, girl.”

“O.K., one point two dee four.” The inside edge of the crater flickered red with reflected laser light.

“When you get about half a meter deep, squeeze it up to dee two.”

“Roger.” It took her exactly seventeen minutes, three of them at dispersion two. I could imagine how tired her shooting arm was.

“Now rest for a few minutes. When the bottom of the hole stops glowing, arm the charge and drop it in. Then walk out. Understand? You’ll have plenty of time.”

“I understand, Sergeant. Walk out.” She sounded nervous. Well, you don’t often have to tiptoe away from a twenty microton tachyon bomb. We listened to her breathing for a few minutes.

“Here goes.” Faint slithering sound of the bomb sliding down.

“Slow and easy now, you’ve got five minutes.”

“Y-yeah. Five.” Her footsteps started out slow and regular. Then, after she started climbing the side, the sounds were less regular; maybe a little frantic. And with four minutes to go—

“Crap!” A loud scraping noise, then clatters and bumps.

“What’s wrong, Private?”

“Oh, crap.” Silence. “Crap!”

“Private, you don’t wanna get shot, you tell me what’s wrong!”

“I…I’m stuck, damn rockslide…DO SOMETHING I can’t move. I can’t move I, I—”

“Shut up! How deep?”

“Can’t move my crap, my damn legs HELP ME—”

“Then damn it use your arms—push!—you can move a ton with each hand.” Three minutes.

Then she stopped cussing and started to mumble, in Russian, I guess, a low monotone. She was panting and you could hear rocks tumbling away.

“I’m free.” Two minutes.

“Go as fast as you can.” Cortez’s voice was flat, emotionless.

At ninety seconds she appeared crawling over the rim. “Run, girl…you better run.” She ran five or six steps and fell, skidded a few meters and got back up, running; fell again, got up again—

It looked like she was going pretty fast, but she had only covered about thirty meters when Cortez said, “All right, Bovanovitch, get down on your stomach and lie still.” Ten seconds, but she didn’t hear him, or she wanted to get just a little more distance, and she kept running, careless leaping strides and at the high point of one leap there was a flash and a rumble and something big hit her below the neck and her headless body spun off end over end through space, trailing a red-black spiral of flash-frozen blood that settled gracefully to the ground, a path of crystal powder that nobody disturbed while we gathered rocks to cover the juiceless thing at the end of it.

That night Cortez didn’t lecture us, didn’t even show up for night-chop. We were all very polite to each other and everybody was afraid to talk about it.

I sacked with Rogers; everybody sacked with a good friend, but all she wanted to do was cry, and she cried so long and so hard that she got me doing it, too.


7

<p>7</p>

“Fire team A—move out!” The twelve of us advanced in a ragged line toward the simulated bunker. It was about a kilometer away, across a carefully prepared obstacle course. We could move pretty fast, since all of the ice had been cleared from the field, but even with ten days’ experience we weren’t ready to do more than an easy jog.

I carried a grenade launcher, loaded with tenth-microton practice grenades. Everybody had their laser-fingers set at point oh eight dee one; not much more than a flashlight. This was a simulated attack—the bunker and its robot defender cost too much to be used once and thrown away.

“Team B follow. Team leaders, take over.”

We approached a clump of boulders at about the halfway mark, and Potter, my team leader, said “Stop and cover.” We clustered behind the rocks and waited for team B.

Barely visible in their blackened suits, the dozen men and women whispered by us. As soon as they were clear, they jogged left, out of our line of sight.

“Fire!” Red circles of light danced a half-click downrange, where the bunker was just visible. Five hundred meters was the limit for these practice grenades; but I might luck out, so I lined the launcher up on the image of the bunker, held it at a 45° angle and popped off a salvo of three.

Return fire from the bunker started before my grenades even landed. Its automatic lasers were no more powerful than the ones we were using, but a direct hit would deactivate your image converter, leaving you blind. It was setting down a random field of fire, not even coming close to the boulders we were hiding behind.

Three magnesium-bright flashes blinked simultaneously, about thirty meters short of the bunker. “Mandella! I thought you were supposed to be good with that thing.”

“Damn it, Potter—it only throws half a click. Once we get closer, I’ll lay ’em right on top, every time.”

Sure you will.” I didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t be team leader forever. Besides, she hadn’t been such a bad girl before the power went to her head.

Since the grenadier is the assistant team leader, I was slaved into Potter’s radio and could hear B team talk to her.

“Potter, this is Freeman. Losses?”

“Potter here—no, looks like they were concentrating on you.”

“Yeah, we lost three. Right now we’re in a depression about eighty, a hundred meters down from you. We can give cover whenever you’re ready.”

“O.K., start.” Soft click: “A team follow me.” She slid out from behind the rock and turned on the faint pink beacon beneath her powerpack. I turned on mine and moved out to run alongside of her and the rest of the team fanned out in a trailing wedge. Nobody fired while B team laid down a cover for us.

All I could hear was Potter’s breathing and the soft crunch-crunch of my boots. Couldn’t see much of anything, so I tongued the image converter up to a log two intensification. That made the image kind of blurry but adequately bright. Looked like the bunker had B team pretty well pinned down; they were getting quite a roasting. All of their return fire was laser; they must have lost their grenadier.

“Potter, this is Mandella. Shouldn’t we take some of the heat off B team?”

“Soon as I can find us good enough cover. Is that all right with you? Private?” She’d been promoted to corporal for the duration of the exercise.

We angled to the right and laid down behind a slab of rock. Most of the others found cover nearby, but a few had to just hug the ground.

“Freeman, this is Potter.”

“Potter, this is Smithy. Freeman’s out; Samuels is out. We only have five men left. Give us some cover so we can get….”

“Roger, Smithy.”—click—“Open up, A team. The B’s are really hurtin’.”

I PEEKED OUT over the edge of the rock. My rangefinder said that the bunker was about three hundred fifty meters away, still pretty far. I aimed just a smidgeon high and popped three, then down a couple of degrees and three more. The first ones overshot by about twenty meters, then the second salvo flared up directly in front of the bunker. I tried to hold on that angle and popped fifteen, the rest of the magazine, in the same direction.

I should have ducked down behind the rock to reload, but I wanted to see where the fifteen would land, so I kept my eyes on the bunker while I reached back to unclip another magazine….

When the laser hit my image converter there was a red glare so intense it seemed to go right through my eyes and bounce off the back of my skull. It must have been only a few milliseconds before the converter overloaded and went blind, but the bright green afterimage hurt my eyes for several minutes.

Since I was officially “dead,” my radio automatically cut off and I had to remain where I was until the mock battle was over. With no sensory input besides the feel of my own skin—and it ached where the image converter had shone on it—and the ringing in my ears, it seemed like an awfully long time. Finally, a helmet clanked against mine:

“You O.K., Mandella?” Potter’s voice.

“Sorry, I died of boredom twenty minutes ago.”

“Stand up and take my hand.” I did so and we shuffled back to the billet. It must have taken over an hour. She didn’t say anything more, all the way back—it’s a pretty awkward way to communicate—but after we’d cycled through the air lock and warmed up, she helped me undo my suit. I got ready for a mild tongue-lashing, but when the suit popped open, before I could even get my eyes adjusted to the light, she grabbed me around the neck and planted a wet kiss on my mouth.

“Nice shooting, Mandella.”

“Huh?”

“The last salvo before you got hit—four direct hits; the bunker decided it was knocked out, and all we had to do was walk the rest of the way.”

“Great.” I scratched my face under the eyes and some dry skin flaked off. She giggled.

“You should see yourself, you look like….”

“All personnel report to the assembly area.” That was the captain’s voice. Bad news.

She handed me a tunic and sandals. “Let’s go.”

The assembly area/chop hall was just down the corridor. There was a row of roll-call buttons at the door; I pressed the one beside my name. Four of the names were covered with black tape. That was good, we hadn’t lost anybody else during today’s maneuvers.

The captain was sitting on the raised dais, which at least meant we didn’t have to go through the tench-hut bullshit. The place filled up in less than a minute; a soft chime indicated the roll was complete.

Captain Stott didn’t stand up. “You did fairly well today, nobody got killed and I expected some to. In that respect you exceeded my expectations but in every other respect you did a poor job.

“I am glad you’re taking good care of yourselves because each of you represents an investment of over a million dollars and one-fourth of a human life.

“But in this simulated battle against a very stupid robot enemy, thirty-seven of you managed to walk into laser fire and be killed in a simulated way and since dead people require no food you will require no food, for the next three days. Each person who was a casualty in this battle will be allowed only two liters of water and a vitamin ration each day.”

We knew enough not to groan or anything, but there were some pretty disgusted looks, especially on the faces that had singed eyebrows and a pink rectangle of sunburn framing their eyes.

“Mandella.”

“Sir?”

“You are far and away the worst burned casualty. Was your image converter set on normal?”

Oh, crap. “No, sir. Log two.”

“I see. Who was your team leader for the exercise?”

“Acting Corporal Potter, sir.”

“Private Potter, did you order him to use image intensification?”

“Sir, I…I don’t remember.”

“You don’t. Well, as a memory exercise you may join the dead people. Is that satisfactory?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Dead people get one last meal tonight, and go on no rations starting tomorrow. Are there any questions?” He must have been kidding. “All right. Dismissed.”

I SELECTED THE meal that looked as if it had the most calories and took my tray over to sit by Potter.

“That was a quixotic damn thing to do. But thanks.”

“Nothing. I’ve been wanting to lose a few pounds anyway.” I couldn’t see where she was carrying any extra.

“I know a good exercise,” I said. She smiled without looking up from her tray. “Have anybody for tonight?”

“Kind of thought I’d ask Jeff….”

“Better hurry, then. He’s lusting after Uhuru.” Well, that was mostly true. Everybody did.

“I don’t know. Maybe we ought to save our strength. That third day….”

“Come on.” I scratched the back of her hand lightly with a fingernail. “We haven’t sacked since Missouri. Maybe I’ve learned something new.”

“Maybe you have.” She tilted her head up at me in a sly way. “O.K.”

Actually, she was the one with the new trick. The French corkscrew, she called it. She wouldn’t tell me who taught it to her, though. I’d like to shake his hand.


8

<p>8</p>

The two weeks’ training around Miami Base eventually cost us eleven lives. Twelve, if you count Dahlquist. I guess having to spend the rest of your life on Charon, with a hand and both legs missing, is close enough to dying.

Little Foster was crushed in a landslide and Freeland had a suit malfunction that froze him solid before we could carry him inside. Most of the other deaders were people I didn’t know all that well. But they all hurt. And they seemed to make us more scared rather than more cautious.

Now darkside. A flier brought us over in groups of twenty, and set us down beside a pile of building materials, thoughtfully immersed in a pool of helium II.

We used grapples to haul the stuff out of the pool. It’s not safe to go wading, since the stuff crawls all over you and it’s hard to tell what’s underneath; you could walk out onto a slab of hydrogen and be out of luck.

I’d suggested that we try to boil away the pool with our lasers, but ten minutes of concentrated fire didn’t drop the helium level appreciably. It didn’t boil, either; helium II is a “superfluid,” so what evaporation there was had to take place evenly, all over the surface. No hot spots, so no bubbling.

We weren’t supposed to use lights, to “avoid detection.” There was plenty of starlight, with your image converter cranked up to log three or four, but each stage of amplification meant some loss of detail. By log four, the landscape looked like a crude monochrome painting, and you couldn’t read the names on people’s helmets unless they were right in front of you.

The landscape wasn’t all that interesting, anyhow. There were half a dozen medium-sized meteor craters—all with exactly the same level of helium II in them—and the suggestion of some puny mountains just over the horizon. The uneven ground was the consistency of frozen spiderwebs; every time you put your foot down, you’d sink half an inch with a squeaking crunch. It could get on your nerves.

It took most of a day to pull all the stuff out of the pool. We took shifts napping, which you could do either standing up, sitting, or lying on your stomach. I didn’t do well in any of those positions, so I was anxious to get the bunker built and pressurized.

We could build the thing underground—it’d just fill up with helium II—so the first thing to do was to build an insulating platform, a permaplast-vacuum sandwich three layers tall.

I was an acting corporal, with a crew of ten people. We were carrying the permaplast layers to the building site—two people can carry one easily—when one of “my” men slipped and fell on his back.

“Damn it, Singer, watch your step.” We’d had a couple of deaders that way.

“Sorry, Corporal. I’m bushed, just got my feet tangled up.”

“Yeah, just watch it.” He got back up all right, and with his partner placed the sheet and went back to get another.

I kept my eye on him. In a few minutes he was practically staggering, not easy to do with that suit of cybernetic armor.

“Singer! After you set that plank, I want to see you.”

“O.K.” He labored through the task and mooched over.

“Let me check your readout.” I opened the door on his chest to expose the medical monitor. His temperature was two degrees high; blood pressure and heart rate both elevated. Not up to the red line, though.

“You sick or something?”

“Hell, Mandella, I feel O.K., just tired. Since I fell I’ve been a little dizzy.”

I CHINNED THE medic’s combination. “Doc, this is Mandella. You wanna come over here for a minute?”

“Sure, where are you?” I waved and he walked over from poolside.

“What’s the problem?” I showed him Singer’s readout.

He knew what all the other little dials and things meant, so it took him a while. “As far as I can tell, Mandella…he’s just hot.”

“Hell, I coulda told you that,” said Singer.

“Maybe you better have the armorer take a look at his suit.” We had two people who’d taken a crash course in suit maintenance; they were our “armorers.”

I chinned Sanchez and asked him to come over with his tool kit.

“Be a couple of minutes, Corporal. Carryin’ a plank.”

“Well, put it down and get on over here.” I was getting an uneasy feeling. Waiting for him, the medic and I looked over Singer’s suit.

“Uh-oh,” Doc Jones said. “Look at this.” I went around to the back and looked where he was pointing. Two of the fins on the heat exchanger were bent out of shape.

“What is wrong?” Singer asked.

“You fell on your heat exchanger, right?”

“Sure, Corporal—that’s it, it must not be working right.”

“I don’t think it’s working at all,” said Doc.

Sanchez came over with his diagnostic kit and we told him what had happened. He looked at the heat exchanger, then plugged a couple of jacks into it and got a digital readout from a little monitor in his kit. I didn’t know what it was measuring, but it came out zero to eight decimal places.

Heard a soft click, Sanchez chinning my private frequency. “Corporal, this guy’s a deader.”

“What? Can’t you fix the damn thing?”

“Maybe…maybe I could, if I could take it apart. But there’s no way….”

“Hey! Sanchez?” Singer was talking on the general freak. “Find out what’s wrong?” He was panting.

Click. “Keep your pants on, man, we’re working on it.” Click. “He won’t last long enough for us to get the bunker pressurized. And I can’t work on that heat exchanger from outside of the suit.”

“You’ve got a spare suit, haven’t you?”

“Two of ’em, the fit-anybody kind. But there’s no place…say….”

“Right. Go get one of the suits warmed up.” I chinned the general freak. “Listen, Singer, we’ve gotta get you out of that thing. Sanchez has a spare unit, but to make the switch, we’re gonna have to build a house around you. Understand?”

“Huh-uh.”

“Look, we’ll just make a box with you inside, and hook it up to the life-support unit. That way you can breathe while you make the switch.”

“Soun’s pretty compis…complicated t’me.”

“Look, just come along….”

“I’ll be all right, man, jus’ lemme res’….”

I grabbed his arm and led him to the building site. He was really weaving. Doc took his other arm, and between us we kept him from falling over.

“Corporal Ho, this is Corporal Mandella.” Ho was in charge of the life-support unit.

“Go away, Mandella, I’m busy.”

“You’re going to be busier.” I outlined the problem to her. While her group hurried to adapt the LSU—for this purpose, it need only be an air hose and heater—I got my crew to bring around six slabs of permaplast, so we could build a big box around Singer and the extra suit. It would look like a huge coffin, a meter square and six meters long.

We set the suit down on the slab that would be the floor of the coffin. “O.K., Singer, let’s go.”

No answer.

“Singer!” He was just standing there. Doc Jones checked his readout.

“He’s out, man, unconscious.”

MY MIND RACED. There might just be room for another person in the box. “Give me a hand here.” I took Singer’s shoulders and Doc took his feet, and we carefully laid him out at the feet of the empty suit.

Then I laid down myself, above the suit. “O.K., close ’er up.”

“Look, Mandella, if anybody goes in there, it oughta be me.”

“No, Doc. My job. My man.” That sounded all wrong. William Mandella, boy hero.

They stood a slab up on edge—it had two openings for the LSU input and exhaust—and proceeded to weld it to the bottom plank with a narrow laser beam. On Earth, we’d just use glue, but here the only fluid was helium, which has lots of interesting properties, but is definitely not sticky.

After about ten minutes we were completely walled up. I could feel the LSU humming. I switched on my suit light—the first time since we landed on darkside—and the glare made purple blotches dance in front of my eyes.

“Mandella, this is Ho. Stay in your suit at least two or three minutes. We’re putting hot air in, but it’s coming back just this side of liquid.” I lay and watched the purple fade.

“O.K., it’s still cold, but you can make it.” I popped my suit. It wouldn’t open all the way, but I didn’t have too much trouble getting out. The suit was still cold enough to take some skin off my fingers and butt as I wiggled out.

I had to crawl feet-first down the coffin to get to Singer. It got darker fast, moving away from my light. When I popped his suit a rush of hot stink hit me in the face. In the dim light his skin was dark red and splotchy. His breathing was very shallow and I could see his heart palpitating.

FIRST I UNHOOKED the relief tubes—an unpleasant business—then the bio sensors, and then I had the problem of getting his arms out of their sleeves.

It’s pretty easy to do for yourself. You twist this way and turn that way and the arm pops out. Doing it from the outside is a different matter: I had to twist his arm and then reach under and move the suit’s arm to match—and it takes muscle to move a suit around from the outside.

Once I had one arm out it was pretty easy: I just crawled forward, putting my feet on the suit’s shoulders, and pulled on his free arm. He slid out of the suit like an oyster slipping out of its shell.

I popped the spare suit and, after a lot of pulling and pushing, managed to get his legs in. Hooked up the bio sensors and the front relief tube. He’d have to do the other one himself, it’s too complicated. For the nth time I was glad not to have been born female; they have to have two of those damned plumber’s friends, instead of just one and a simple hose.

I left his arms out of the sleeves. The suit would be useless for any kind of work, anyhow; waldos have to be tailored to the individual.

His eyelids fluttered. “Man…della. Where…the hell….”

I explained, slowly, and he seemed to get most of it. “Now I’m gonna close you up and go get into my suit. I’ll have the crew cut the end off this thing and I’ll haul you out. Got it?”

He nodded. Strange to see that—when you nod or shrug in a suit, it doesn’t communicate anything.

I crawled into my suit, hooked up the attachments and chinned the general freak. “Doc, I think he’s gonna be O.K. Get us out of here now.”

“Will do.” Ho’s voice. The LSU hum was replaced by a chatter, then a throb; evacuating the box to prevent an explosion.

One corner of the seam grew red, then white, and a bright crimson beam lanced through, not a foot away from my head. I scrunched back as far as I could. The beam slid up the seam and around three corners, back to where it started. The end of the box fell away slowly, trailing filaments of melted ’plast.

“Wait for the stuff to harden, Mandella.”

“Sanchez, I’m not that stupid.”

“Here you go.” Somebody tossed a line to me. That would be smarter than dragging him out by myself. I threaded a long bight under his arms and tied it behind his neck. Then I scrambled out to help them pull, which was silly—they had a dozen people already lined up to haul.

Singer got out all right and was actually sitting up while Doc Jones checked his readout. People were asking me about it and congratulating me when suddenly Ho said “Look!” and pointed toward the horizon.

It was a black ship, coming in fast. I just had time to think it wasn’t fair, they weren’t supposed to attack until the last few days, and then the ship was right on top of us.


9

<p>9</p>

We all flopped to the ground instinctively, but the ship didn’t attack. It blasted braking rockets and dropped to land on skids. Then it skied around to come to a rest beside the building site.

Everybody had it figured out and was standing around sheepishly when the two suited figures stepped out of the ship.

A familiar voice crackled over the general freak. “Every one of you saw us coming in and not one of you responded with laser fire. It wouldn’t have done any good but it would have indicated a certain amount of fighting spirit. You have a week or less before the real thing and since the sergeant and I will be here I will insist that you show a little more will to live. Acting Sergeant Potter.”

“Here, sir.”

“Get me a detail of twelve men to unload cargo. We brought a hundred small robot drones for target practice so that you might have at least a fighting chance, when a live target comes over.

“Move now; we only have thirty minutes before the ship returns to Miami.”

I checked, and it was actually more like forty minutes.

HAVING THE CAPTAIN and sergeant there didn’t really make much difference; we were still on our own, they were just observing.

Once we got the floor down, it only took one day to complete the bunker. It was a gray oblong, featureless except for the air-lock blister and four windows. On top was a swivel-mounted bevawatt laser. The operator—you couldn’t call him a “gunner”—sat in a chair holding dead-man switches in both hands. The laser wouldn’t fire as long as he was holding one of those switches. If he let go, it would automatically aim for any moving aerial object and fire at will. Primary detection and aiming was by means of a kilometer-high antenna mounted beside the bunker.

It was the only arrangement that could really be expected to work, with the horizon so close and human reflexes so slow. You couldn’t have the thing fully automatic, because in theory, friendly ships might also approach.

The aiming computer could choose up to twelve targets, appearing simultaneously—firing at the largest ones first. And it would get all twelve in the space of half a second.

The installation was partly protected from enemy fire by an efficient ablative layer that covered everything except the human operator. But then they were dead-man switches. One man above guarding eighty inside. The army’s good at that kind of arithmetic.

Once the bunker was finished, half of us stayed inside at all times—feeling very much like targets—taking turns operating the laser, while the other half went on maneuvers.

About four clicks from the base was a large “lake” of frozen hydrogen; one of our most important maneuvers was to learn how to get around on the treacherous stuff.

It really wasn’t too difficult. You couldn’t stand up on it, so you had to belly down and slide.

If you had somebody to push you from the edge, getting started was no problem. Otherwise, you had to scrabble with your hands and feet, pushing down as hard as was practical, until you started moving, in a series of little jumps. Once started, you would keep going until you ran out of ice. You could steer a little bit by digging in, hand and foot, on the appropriate side, but you couldn’t slow to a stop that way. So it was a good idea not to go too fast, and to be positioned in such a way that your helmet didn’t absorb the shock of stopping.

We went through all the things we’d done on the Miami side; weapons practice, demolition, attack patterns. We also launched drones at irregular intervals, toward the bunker. Thus, ten or fifteen times a day, the operators got to demonstrate their skill in letting go of the handles as soon as the proximity light went on.

I had four hours of that, like everybody else. I was nervous until the first “attack,” when I saw how little there was to it. The light went on, I let go, the gun aimed and when the drone peeped over the horizon—zzt! Nice touch of color, the molten metal spraying through space. Otherwise not too exciting.

So none of us were worried about the upcoming “graduation exercise,” thinking it would be just more of the same.

MIAMI BASE ATTACKED on the thirteenth day with two simultaneous missiles streaking over opposite sides of the horizon at some forty kilometers per second. The laser vaporized the first one with no trouble, but the second got within eight clicks of the bunker before it was hit.

We were coming back from maneuvers, about a click away from the bunker. I wouldn’t have seen it happen if I hadn’t been looking directly at the bunker the moment of the attack.

The second missile sent a shower of molten debris straight toward the bunker. Eleven pieces hit, and, as we later reconstructed it, this is what happened.

The first casualty was Uhuru, pretty Uhuru inside the bunker, who was hit in the back and head and died instantly. With the drop in pressure, the LSU went into high gear. Friedman was standing in front of the main airco outlet and was blown into the opposite wall hard enough to knock him unconscious; he died of decompression before the others could get him to his suit.

Everybody else managed to stagger through the gale and get into their suits, but Garcia’s suit had been holed and didn’t do him any good.

By the time we got there, they had turned off the LSU and were welding up the holes in the wall. One man was trying to scrape up the unrecognizable mess that had been Uhuru. I could hear him sobbing and retching. They had already taken Garcia and Friedman outside for burial. The captain took over the repair detail from Potter. Sergeant Cortez led the sobbing man over to a corner and came back to work on cleaning up Uhuru’s remains, alone. He didn’t order anybody to help and nobody volunteered.


10

<p>10</p>

As a graduation exercise, we were unceremoniously stuffed into a ship—Earth’s Hope, the same one we rode to Charon—and bundled off to Stargate at a little more than 1 G.

The trip seemed endless, about six months subjective time, and boring, but not as hard on the carcass as going to Charon had been. Captain Stott made us review our training orally, day by day, and we did exercises every day until we were worn to a collective frazzle.

Stargate I was like Charon’s darkside, only more so. The base on Stargate I was smaller than Miami Base—only a little bigger than the one we constructed on darkside—and we were due to lay over a week to help expand the facilities. The crew there was very glad to see us; especially the two females, who looked a little worn around the edges.

We all crowded into the small dining hall, where Submajor Williamson, the man in charge of Stargate I, gave us some disconcerting news:

“Everybody get comfortable. Get off the tables, though, there’s plenty of floor.

“I have some idea of what you just went through, training on Charon. I won’t say it’s all been wasted. But where you’re headed, things will be quite different. Warmer.”

He paused to let that soak in.

“Aleph Aurigae, the first collapsar ever detected, revolves around the normal star Epsilon Aurigae, in a twenty-seven-year orbit. The enemy has a base of operations, not on a regular portal planet of Aleph, but on a planet in orbit around Epsilon. We don’t know much about the planet: just that it goes around Epsilon once every seven hundred forty-five days, is about three-fourths the size of Earth, and has an albedo of 0.8, meaning it’s probably covered with clouds. We can’t say precisely how hot it will be, but judging from its distance from Epsilon, it’s probably rather hotter than Earth. Of course, we don’t know whether you’ll be working…fighting on lightside or darkside, equator or poles. It’s highly unlikely that the atmosphere will be breathable—at any rate, you’ll stay inside your suits.

“Now you know exactly as much about where you’re going as I do. Questions?”

“Sir,” Stein drawled, “now we know where we’re goin’…anybody know what we’re goin’ to do when we get there?”

Williamson shrugged. “That’s up to your captain—and your sergeant, and the captain of Earth’s Hope, and Hope’s logistic computer. We just don’t have enough data yet, to project a course of action for you. It may be a long and bloody battle, it may be just a case of walking in to pick up the pieces. Conceivably, the Taurans might want to make a peace offer”—Cortez snorted—“in which case you would simply be part of our muscle, our bargaining power.” He looked at Cortez mildly. “No one can say for sure.”

THE ORGY THAT night was kind of amusing, but it was like trying to sleep in the middle of a raucous beach party. The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom—and law—but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.

The eighteen men acted as if they were compelled to try as many permutations as possible, and their performance was impressive—in a strictly quantitative sense, that is.

The next morning—and every other morning we were on Stargate I—we staggered out of bed and into our suits, to go outside and work on the “new wing.” Eventually, Stargate would be tactical and logistic headquarters for the war, with thousands of permanent personnel, guarded by half-a-dozen heavy cruisers in Hope’s class. When we started, it was two shacks and twenty people; when we left, it was four shacks and twenty people. The work was a breeze, compared to darkside, since we had all the light we needed, and got sixteen hours inside for every eight hours’ work. And no drone attacks for a final exam.

When we shuttled back up to the Hope, nobody was too happy about leaving—though some of the more popular females declared it’d be good to get some rest—Stargate was the last easy, safe assignment we’d have before taking up arms against the Taurans. And as Williamson had pointed out the first day, there was no way of predicting what that would be like.

Most of us didn’t feel too enthusiastic about making a collapsar jump, either. We’d been assured that we wouldn’t even feel it happen, just free fall all the way.

I wasn’t convinced. As a physics student, I’d had the usual courses in general relativity and theories of gravitation. We only had a little direct data at that time—Stargate was discovered when I was in grade school—but the mathematical model seemed clear enough.

The collapsar Stargate was a perfect sphere about three kilometers in radius. It was suspended forever in a state of gravitational collapse that should have meant its surface was dropping toward its center at nearly the speed of light. Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there…the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity, or Buddhism.

At any rate, there would be a theoretical point in spacetime when one end of our ship was just above the surface of the collapsar, and the other end was a kilometer away—in our frame of reference. In any sane universe, this would set up tidal stresses and tear the ship apart, and we would be just another million kilograms of degenerate matter on the theoretical surface, rushing headlong to nowhere for the rest of eternity; or dropping to the center in the next trillionth of a second. You pays your money and you takes your frame of reference.

But they were right. We blasted away from Stargate I, made a few course corrections and then just dropped, for about an hour.

Then a bell rang and we sank into our cushions under a steady two gravities of deceleration. We were in enemy territory.


11

<p>11</p>

We’d been decelerating at two gravities for almost nine days when the battle began. Lying on our couches being miserable, all we felt were two soft bumps, missiles being released. Some eight hours later, the squawk-box crackled: “Attention, all crew. This is the captain.” Quinsana, the pilot, was only a lieutenant, but was allowed to call himself captain aboard the vessel, where he outranked all of us, even Captain Stott. “You grunts in the cargo hold can listen, too.

“We just engaged the enemy with two fifty-bevaton tachyon missiles, and have destroyed both the enemy vessel and another object which it had launched approximately three microseconds before.

“The enemy has been trying to overtake us for the past one hundred seventy-nine hours, ship time. At the time of the engagement, the enemy was moving at a little over half the speed of light, relative to Aleph, and was only about thirty AU’s from Earth’s Hope. It was moving at .47c relative to us, and thus we would have been coincident in spacetime”—rammed!—“in a little more than nine hours. The missiles were launched at 0719 ship’s time, and destroyed the enemy at 1540, both tachyon bombs detonating within a thousand clicks of the enemy objects.”

The two missiles were a type whose propulsion system itself was only a barely-controlled tachyon bomb. They accelerated at a constant rate of 100 Gs, and were traveling at a relativistic speed by the time the nearby mass of the enemy ship detonated them.

“We expect no further interference from enemy vessels. Our velocity with respect to Aleph will be zero in another five hours; we will then begin to journey back. The return will take twenty-seven days.” General moans and dejected cussing. Everybody knew all that already, of course; but we didn’t care to be reminded of it.

SO AFTER ANOTHER month of logycalisthenics and drill, at a constant 2 Gs, we got our first look at the planet we were going to attack. Invaders from outer space, yes, sir.

It was a blinding white crescent basking two AU’s from Epsilon. The captain had pinned down the location of the enemy base from fifty AU’s out, and we had jockeyed in on a wide arc, keeping the bulk of the planet between them and us. That didn’t mean we were sneaking up on them—quite the contrary; they launched three abortive attacks—but it put us in a stronger defensive position. Until we had to go to the surface, that is. Then only the ship and its Star Fleet crew would be reasonably safe.

Since the planet rotated rather slowly—once every ten and one-half days—a “stationary” orbit for the ship had to be one hundred fifty thousand clicks out. This made the people in the ship feel quite secure, with six thousand miles of rock and ninety thousand miles of space between them and the enemy. But it meant a whole second’s time lag in communication between us on the ground and the ship’s battle computer. A person could get awful dead while that neutrino pulse crawled up and back.

Our vague orders were to attack the base and gain control while damaging a minimum of enemy equipment. We were to take at least one enemy alive. We were under no circumstances to allow ourselves to be taken alive, however. And the decision wasn’t up to us; one special pulse from the battle computer, and that speck of plutonium in your power plant would fission with all of .01% efficiency, and you’d be nothing but a rapidly expanding, very hot plasma.

They strapped us into six scoutships—one platoon of twelve people in each—and we blasted away from Earth’s Hope at 8 Gs. Each scoutship was supposed to follow its own carefully random path to our rendezvous point, one hundred eight clicks from the base. Fourteen drone ships were launched at the same time, to confound the enemy’s antispacecraft system.

The landing went off almost perfectly. One ship suffered minor damage, a near miss boiling away some of the ablative material on one side of the hull, but it’d still be able to make it and return, as long as it kept its speed down while in the atmosphere.

We zigged and zagged and wound up first ship at the rendezvous point. There was only one trouble. It was under four kilometers of water.

I could almost hear that machine, ninety thousand miles away, grinding its mental gears, adding this new bit of data. We proceeded just as if we were landing on solid ground: braking rockets, falling, skids out, hit the water, skip, hit the water, skip, hit the water, sink.

It would have made sense to go ahead and land on the bottom—we were streamlined, after all, and water just another fluid—but the hull wasn’t strong enough to hold up a four-kilometer column of water. Sergeant Cortez was in the scoutship with us.

“Sarge, tell that computer to do something! We’re gonna get….”

“Oh, shut up, Mandella. Trust in th’ lord.” “Lord” was definitely lower-case when Cortez said it.

There was a loud bubbly sigh, then another and a slight increase in pressure on my back that meant the ship was rising. “Flotation bags?” Cortez didn’t deign to answer, or didn’t know.

That must have been it. We rose to within ten or fifteen meters of the surface and stopped, suspended there. Through the port I could see the surface above, shimmering like a mirror of hammered silver. I wondered what it could be like, to be a fish and have a definite roof over your world.

I watched another ship splash in. It made a great cloud of bubbles and turbulence, then fell—slightly tailfirst—for a short distance before large bags popped out under each delta wing. Then it bobbed up to about our level and stayed.

Soon all of the ships were floating within a few hundred meters of us, like a school of ungainly fish.

“This is Captain Stott. Now listen carefully. There is a beach some twenty-eight clicks from your present position, in the direction of the enemy. You will be proceeding to this beach by scoutship and from there will mount your assault on the Tauran position.” That was some improvement; we’d only have to walk eighty clicks.

WE DEFLATED THE bags, blasted to the surface and flew in a slow, spread-out formation to the beach. It took several minutes. As the ship scraped to a halt I could hear pumps humming, making the cabin pressure equal to the air pressure outside. Before it had quite stopped moving, the escape slot beside my couch slid open. I rolled out onto the wing of the craft and jumped to the ground. Ten seconds to find cover—I sprinted across loose gravel to the “treeline,” a twisty bramble of tall sparse bluish-green shrubs. I dove into the briar path and turned to watch the ships leave. The drones that were left rose slowly to about a hundred meters, then took off in all directions with a bone-jarring roar. The real scoutships slid slowly back into the water. Maybe that was a good idea.

It wasn’t a terribly attractive world, but certainly would be easier to get around in than the cryogenic nightmare we were trained for. The sky was a uniform dull silver brightness that merged with the mist over the ocean so completely as to make it impossible to tell where water ended and air began. Small wavelets licked at the black gravel shore, much too slow and graceful in the three-quarters Earth normal gravity. Even from fifty meters away, the rattle of billions of pebbles rolling with the tide was loud in my ears.

The air temperature was 79° Centigrade, not quite hot enough for the sea to boil, even though the air pressure was low compared to Earth’s. Wisps of steam drifted quickly upward from the line where water met land. I wondered how long a man would survive, exposed here without a suit. Would the heat or the low oxygen—partial pressure one-eighth Earth normal—kill him first? Or was there some deadly microorganism that would beat them both….

“This is Cortez. Everybody come over and assemble by me.” He was standing on the beach a little to the left of me, waving his hand in a circle over his head. I walked toward him through the shrubs. They were brittle, unsubstantial, seemed paradoxically dried-out in the steamy air. They wouldn’t offer much in the way of cover.

“We’ll be advancing on a heading .05 radians east of north. I want Platoon One to take point. Two and Three follow about twenty meters behind, to the left and right. Seven, command platoon, is in the middle, twenty meters behind Two and Three. Five and Six, bring up the rear, in a semicircular closed flank. Everybody straight?” Sure, we could do that “arrowhead” maneuver in our sleep. “O.K., let’s move out.”

I was in Platoon Seven, the “command group.” Captain Stott put me there not because I was expected to give any commands, but because of my training in physics.

The command group was supposedly the safest place, buffered by six platoons: people were assigned to it because there was some tactical reason for them to survive at least a little longer than the rest. Cortez was there to give orders. Chavez was there to correct suit malfuncts. The senior medic, Doc Wilson—the only medic who actually had an MD—was there and so was Theodopolis, the radio engineer: our link with the captain, who had elected to stay in orbit.

The rest of us were assigned to the command group by dint of special training or aptitude that wouldn’t normally be considered of a “tactical” nature. Facing a totally unknown enemy, there was no way of telling what might prove important. Thus I was there because I was the closest the company had to a physicist. Rogers was biology. Tate was chemistry. He could crank out a perfect score on the Rhine extrasensory perception test, every time. Bohrs was a polyglot, able to speak twenty-one languages fluently, idiomatically. Petrov’s talent was that he had tested out to have not one molecule of xenophobia in his psyche. Keating was a skilled acrobat. Debby Hollister—“Lucky” Hollister—showed a remarkable aptitude for making money, and also had a consistently high Rhine potential.


12

<p>12</p>

When we first set out, we were using the “jungle” camouflage combination on our suits. But what passed for jungle in these anemic tropics was too sparse; we looked like a band of conspicuous harlequins trooping through the woods. Cortez had us switch to black, but that was just as bad, as the light from Epsilon came evenly from all parts of the sky, and there were no shadows except us. We finally settled on the dun-colored desert camouflage.

The nature of the countryside changed slowly as we walked north, away from the sea. The throned stalks, I guess you could call them trees, came in fewer numbers but were bigger around and less brittle; at the base of each was a tangled mass of vine with the same blue-green color, which spread out in a flattened cone some ten meters in diameter. There was a delicate green flower the size of a man’s head near the top of each tree.

Grass began to appear some five clicks from the sea. It seemed to respect the trees’ “property rights,” leaving a strip of bare earth around each cone of vine. At the edge of such a clearing, it would grow as timid blue-green stubble; then, moving away from the tree, would get thicker and taller until it reached shoulder-high in some places, where the separation between two trees was unusually large. The grass was a lighter, greener shade than the trees and vines. We changed the color of our suits to the bright green we had used for maximum visibility on Charon. Keeping to the thickest part of the grass, we were fairly inconspicuous.

I couldn’t help thinking that one week of training in a South American jungle would have been worth a hell of a lot more than all those weeks on Charon. We wouldn’t be so understrength, either.

We covered over twenty clicks each day, buoyant after months under 2 Gs. Until the second day, the only form of animal life we saw was a kind of black worm, finger-sized with hundreds of cilium legs like the bristles of a stiff brush. Rogers said that there obviously had to be some sort of larger creature around, or there would be no reason for the trees to have thorns. So we were doubly on guard, expecting trouble both from the Taurans and the unidentified “large creatures.”

Potter’s Second Platoon was on point; the general freak was reserved for her, since point would likely be the first platoon to spot any trouble.

“Sarge, this is Potter,” we all heard. “Movement ahead.”

“Get down, then!”

“We are. Don’t think they see us.”

“First Platoon, go up to the right of point. Keep down. Fourth, get up to the left. Tell me when you get in position. Sixth Platoon, stay back and guard the rear. Fifth and Third, close with the command group.”

Two dozen people whispered out of the grass, to join us. Cortez must have heard from the Fourth Platoon.

“Good. How about you, First…O.K., fine. How many are there?”

“Eight we can see.” Potter’s voice.

“Good. When I give the word, open fire. Shoot to kill.”

“Sarge…they’re just animals.”

“Potter—if you’ve known all this time what a Tauran looks like, you should’ve told us. Shoot to kill.”

“But we need….”

“We need a prisoner, but we don’t need to escort him forty clicks to his home base and keep an eye on him while we fight. Clear?”

“Yes. Sergeant.”

“O.K. Seventh, all you brains and weirds, we’re going up and watch. Fifth and Third, come along to guard.”

We crawled through the meter-high grass to where the Second Platoon had stretched out in a firing line.

“I don’t see anything,” Cortez said.

“Ahead and just to the left. Dark green.”

THEY WERE ONLY a shade darker than the grass. But after you saw the first one, you could see them all, moving slowly around some thirty meters ahead.

“Fire!” Cortez fired first, then twelve streaks of crimson leaped out and the grass wilted back, disappeared and the creatures convulsed and died trying to scatter.

“Hold fire, hold it!” Cortez stood up. “We want to have something left—Second Platoon, follow me.” He strode out toward the smoldering corpses, laser finger pointed out front, obscene divining rod pulling him toward the carnage…I felt my gorge rising and knew that all the lurid training tapes, all the horrible deaths in training accidents, hadn’t prepared me for this sudden reality…that I had a magic wand that I could point at a life and make it a smoking piece of half-raw meat; I wasn’t a soldier nor even wanted to be one nor ever would want….

“O.K., Seventh, come on up.”

While we were walking toward them, one of the creatures moved, a tiny shudder, and Cortez flicked the beam of his laser over it with an almost negligent gesture. It made a hand-deep gash across the creature’s middle. It died, like the others, without emitting a sound.

They were not quite as tall as humans, but wider in girth. They were covered with dark green, almost black fur; white curls where the laser had singed. They appeared to have three legs and an arm. The only ornament to their shaggy heads was a mouth, wet black orifice filled with flat black teeth. They were thoroughly repulsive but their worst feature was not a difference from human beings but a similarity…wherever the laser had opened a body cavity, milk-white glistening veined globes and coils of organs spilled out, and their blood was dark clotting red.

“Rogers, take a look. Taurans or not?”

Rogers knelt by one of the disemboweled creatures and opened a flat plastic box, filled with glistening dissecting tools. She selected a scalpel. “One way we might be able to find out.” Doc Wilson watched over her shoulder as she methodically slit the membrane covering several organs.

“Here.” She held up a blackish fibrous mass between two fingers, parody of daintiness through all that armor.

“So?”

“It’s grass, Sergeant. If the Taurans can eat grass and breathe the air, they certainly found a planet remarkably like their home.” She tossed it away. “They’re animals, Sergeant, just damn animals.”

“I don’t know,” Doc Wilson said. “Just because they walk around on all fours, threes maybe, and are able to eat grass….”

“Well, let’s check out the brain.” She found one that had been hit on the head and scraped the superficial black char from the wound. “Look at that.”

It was almost solid bone. She tugged and ruffled the hair all over the head of another one. “What the hell does it use for sensory organs? No eyes, or ears, or….” She stood up. “Nothing in that head but a mouth and ten centimeters of skull. To protect nothing, not a damn thing.”

“If I could shrug, I’d shrug,” the doctor said. “It doesn’t prove anything—a brain doesn’t have to look like a mushy walnut and it doesn’t have to be in the head. Maybe that skull isn’t bone, maybe that’s the brain, some crystal lattice….”

“Yeah, but the stomach’s in the right place, and if those aren’t intestines I’ll eat—”

“Look,” Cortez said, “this is all real interesting, but all we need to know is whether that thing’s dangerous, then we’ve gotta move on, we don’t have all….”

“They aren’t dangerous,” Rogers began. “They don’t….”

“MEDIC! DOC!” SOMEBODY was waving his arms, back at the firing line. Doc sprinted back to him, the rest of us following.

“What’s wrong?” He had reached back and unclipped his medical kit on the run.

“It’s Ho, she’s out.”

Doc swung open the door on Ho’s biomedical monitor. He didn’t have to look far. “She’s dead.”

“Dead?” Cortez said. “What the hell….”

“Just a minute.” Doc plugged a jack into the monitor and fiddled with some dials on his kit. “Everybody’s biomed readout is stored for twelve hours. I’m running it backwards, should be able to—there!”

“What?”

“Four and a half minutes ago—must have been when you opened fire….”

“Well?”

“Massive cerebral hemorrhage. No….” He watched the dials. “No…warning, no indication of anything out of the ordinary; blood pressure up, pulse up, but normal under the circumstances…nothing to…indicate….” He reached down and popped her suit. Her fine oriental features were distorted in a horrible grimace, both gums showing. Sticky fluid ran from under her collapsed eyelids and a trickle of blood still dripped from each ear. Doc Wilson closed the suit back up.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if a bomb went off in her skull.”

“Oh crap,” Rogers said, “she was Rhine-sensitive, wasn’t she.”

“That’s right.” Cortez sounded thoughtful. “All right, everybody listen. Platoon leaders, check your platoons and see if anybody’s missing, or hurt. Anybody else in Seventh?”

“I…I’ve got a splitting headache, Sarge,” Lucky said.

Four others had bad headaches. One of them affirmed that he was slightly Rhine-sensitive. The others didn’t know.

“Cortez, I think it’s obvious,” Doc Wilson said, “that we should give these…monsters wide berth, especially shouldn’t harm any more of them. Not with five people susceptible to whatever apparently killed Ho.”

“Of course, damn it, I don’t need anybody to tell me that. We’d better get moving. I just filled the captain in on what happened; he agrees that we’d better get as far away from here as we can, before we stop for the night.

“Let’s get back in formation and continue on the same bearing. Fifth Platoon, take over point; Second, come back to the rear. Everybody else, same as before.”

“What about Ho?” Lucky asked.

“She’ll be taken care of. From the ship.”

After we’d gone half a click, there was a flash and rolling thunder. Where Ho had been, came a wispy luminous mushroom cloud boiling up to disappear against the gray sky.


13

<p>13</p>

We stopped for the “night”—actually, the sun wouldn’t set for another seventy hours—atop a slight rise some ten clicks from where we had killed the aliens. But they weren’t aliens, I had to remind myself—we were.

Two platoons deployed in a ring around the rest of us, and we flopped down exhausted. Everybody was allowed four hours’ sleep and had two hours’ guard duty.

Potter came over and sat next to me. I chinned her frequency.

“Hi, Marygay.”

“Oh, William,” her voice over the radio was hoarse and cracking. “God, it’s so horrible.”

“It’s over now….”

“I killed one of them, the first instant, I shot it right in the, in the…”

I put my hand on her knee. The contact made a plastic click and I jerked it back, visions of machines embracing, copulating. “Don’t feel singled out, Marygay, whatever guilt there is belongs evenly to all of us…but a triple portion for Cor….”

“You privates quit jawin’ and get some sleep. You both pull guard in two hours.”

“O.K., Sarge.” Her voice was so sad and tired I couldn’t bear it. I felt if I could only touch her I could drain off the sadness like a ground wire draining current but we were each trapped in our own plastic world.

“G’night, William.”

“Night.” It’s almost impossible to get sexually excited inside a suit, with the relief tube and all the silver chloride sensors poking you, but somehow this was my body’s response to the emotional impotence, maybe remembering more pleasant sleeps with Marygay, maybe feeling that in the midst of all this death, personal death could be soon, cranking up the pro-creative derrick for one last try…lovely thoughts like this, and I fell asleep and dreamed that I was a machine, mimicking the functions of life, creaking and clanking my clumsy way through the world, people too polite to say anything but giggling behind my back, and the little man who sat inside my head pulling the levers and clutches and watching the dials, he was hopelessly mad and was storing up hurts for the day….

“Mandella—wake up, damn it, your shift!”

I shuffled over to my place on the perimeter to watch for God knows what…but I was so weary I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Finally I tongued a stimtab, knowing I’d pay for it later.

For over an hour I sat there, scanning my sector left, right, near, far; the scene never changing, not even a breath of wind to stir the grass.

Then suddenly the grass parted and one of the three-legged creatures was right in front of me. I raised my finger but didn’t squeeze.

“Movement!”

“Movement!”

“HOLD YOUR FIRE. Don’t shoot!”

“Movement.”

“Movement.” I looked left and right and as far as I could see, every perimeter guard had one of the blind dumb creatures standing right in front of him.

Maybe the drug I’d taken to stay awake made me more sensitive to whatever they did. My scalp crawled and I felt a formless thing in my mind, the feeling you get when somebody has said something and you didn’t quite hear it, want to respond but the opportunity to ask him to repeat it is gone.

The creature sat back on its haunches, leaning forward on the one front leg. Big green bear with a withered arm. Its power threaded through my mind, spiderwebs, echo of night terrors, trying to communicate, trying to destroy me, I couldn’t know.

“ALL RIGHT, EVERYBODY on the perimeter, fall back, slow. Don’t make any quick gestures…anybody got a headache or anything?”

“Sergeant, this is Hollister.” Lucky.

“They’re trying to say something…I can almost…no, just….”

“Well?”

“All I can get is that they think we’re…think we’re…well, funny. They aren’t afraid.”

“You mean the one in front of you isn’t….”

“No, the feeling comes from all of them, they’re all thinking the same thing. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do.”

“Maybe they thought it was funny, what they did to Ho.”

“Maybe. I don’t feel like they’re dangerous. Just curious about us.”

“Sergeant, this is Bohrs.”

“Yeah.”

“The Taurans have been here at least a year—maybe they’ve learned how to communicate with these…overgrown teddy-bears. They might be spying on us, might be sending back….”

“I don’t think they’d show themselves, if that were the case,” Lucky said. “They can obviously hide from us pretty well when they want to.”

“Anyhow,” Cortez said, “if they’re spies, the damage has been done. Don’t think it’d be smart to take any action against them. I know you’d all like to see ’em dead for what they did to Ho, so would I, but we’d better be careful.”

I didn’t want to see them dead, but I’d just as soon not see them in any condition. I was walking backwards slowly, toward the middle of camp. The creature didn’t seem disposed to follow. Maybe he just knew we were surrounded. He was pulling up grass with his arm and munching.

“O.K., all of you platoon leaders, wake everybody up, get a roll count. Let me know if anybody’s been hurt. Tell your people we’re moving out in one minute.”

I don’t know what Cortez expected, but of course the creatures just followed right along. They didn’t keep us surrounded; just had twenty or thirty following us all the time. Not the same ones, either. Individuals would saunter away, new ones would join the parade. It was pretty obvious that they weren’t going to tire out.

We were each allowed one stimtab. Without it, no one could have marched an hour. A second pill would have been welcome after the edge started to wear off, but the mathematics of the situation forbade it: we were still thirty clicks from the enemy base; fifteen hours’ marching at the least. And though one could stay awake and energetic for a hundred hours on the ’tabs, aberrations of judgment and perception snowballed after the second ’tab, until in extremis the most bizarre hallucinations would be taken at face value, and a person would fidget for hours, deciding whether to have breakfast.

Under artificial stimulation, the company traveled with great energy for the first six hours, was slowing by the seventh, and ground to an exhausted halt after nine hours and nineteen kilometers. The teddy-bears had never lost sight of us and, according to Lucky, had never stopped “broadcasting.” Cortez’s decision was that we would stop for seven hours, each platoon taking one hour of perimeter guard. I was never so glad to have been in the Seventh Platoon, as we stood guard the last shift and thus were the only ones to get six hours of uninterrupted sleep.

In the few moments I lay awake after finally lying down, the thought came to me that the next time I closed my eyes could well be the last. And partly because of the drug hangover, mostly because of the past day’s horrors, I found that I really just didn’t give a damn.


14

<p>14</p>

Our first contact with the Taurans came during my shift.

The teddy-bears were still there when I woke up and replaced Doc Jones on guard. They’d gone back to their original formation, one in front of each guard position. The one who was waiting for me seemed a little larger than normal, but otherwise looked just like all the others. All the grass had been cropped where he was sitting, so he occasionally made forays to the left or right. But he always returned to sit right in front of me, you would say staring if he had had anything to stare with.

We had been facing each other for about fifteen minutes when Cortez’s voice rumbled:

“Awright, everybody wake up and get hid!”

I followed instinct and flopped to the ground and rolled into a tall stand of grass.

“Enemy vessel overhead.” His voice was almost laconic.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really overhead, but rather passing somewhat east of us. It was moving slowly, maybe a hundred clicks per hour, and looked like a broomstick surrounded by a dirty soap bubble. The creature riding it was a little more human-looking than the teddy-bears, but still no prize. I cranked my image amplifier up to forty log two for a closer look.

He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands. Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint. Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis. His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and under-muscled. There were too many fingers on his hands. Shoulderless, neckless; his head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest. Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassles instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his Adam’s apple should have been. Evidently the soap bubble contained an amenable environment, as he was wearing absolutely nothing except a ridged hide that looked like skin submerged too long in hot water, then dyed a pale orange. “He” had no external genitalia, nor anything that might hint of mammary glands.

Obviously, he either didn’t see us, or thought we were part of the herd of teddy-bears. He never looked back at us, but just continued in the same direction we were headed, .05 rad east of north.

“Might as well go back to sleep now, if you can sleep after looking at that thing. We move out at 0435.” Forty minutes.

Because of the planet’s opaque cloud cover, there had been no way to tell, from space, what the enemy base looked like or how big it was. We only knew its position, the same way we knew the position the scoutships were supposed to land on. So it could easily have been underwater too, or underground.

But some of the drones were reconnaissance ships as well as decoys; and in their mock attacks on the base, one managed to get close enough to take a picture. Captain Stott beamed down a diagram of the place to Cortez—the only one with a visor in his suit—when we were five clicks from the base’s “radio” position. We stopped and he called all of the platoon leaders in with the Seventh Platoon to confer. Two teddy-bears loped in, too. We tried to ignore them.

“O.K., the captain sent down some pictures of our objective. I’m going to draw a map; you platoon leaders copy.” They took pads and styli out of their leg pockets, while Cortez unrolled a large plastic mat. He gave it a shake to randomize any residual charge, and turned on his stylus.

“Now, we’re coming from this direction.” He put an arrow at the bottom of the sheet. “First thing we’ll hit is this row of huts, probably billets, or bunkers, but who the hell knows…our initial objective is to destroy these buildings—the whole base is on a flat plain; there’s no way we could really sneak by them.”

“Potter here. Why can’t we jump over them?”

“Yeah, we could do that, and wind up completely surrounded, cut to ribbons. We take the buildings.

“After we do that…all I can say is that we’ll have to think on our feet. From the aerial reconnaissance, we can figure out the function of only a couple of buildings—and that stinks. We might wind up wasting a lot of time demolishing the equivalent of an enlisted man’s bar, ignoring a huge logistic computer because it looks like…a garbage dump or something.”

“Mandella here,” I said. “Isn’t there a spaceport of some kind—seems to me we ought to….”

“I’ll get to that, damn it. There’s a ring of these huts all around the camp, so we’ve got to break through somewhere. This place’ll be closest, less chance of giving away our position before we attack.

“There’s nothing in the whole place that actually looks like a weapon. That doesn’t mean anything, though; you could hide a bevawatt laser in each of those huts.

“Now, about five hundred meters from the huts, in the middle of the base, we’ll come to this big flower-shaped structure.” Cortez drew a large symmetrical shape that looked like the outline of a flower with seven petals. “What the hell this is, your guess is as good as mine. There’s only one of them, though, so we don’t damage it any more than we have to. Which means…we blast it to splinters if I think it’s dangerous.

“Now, as far as your spaceport, Mandella, is concerned—there just isn’t one. Nothing.

“That cruiser the Hope caulked had probably been left in orbit, like ours has to be. If they have any equivalent of a scoutship, or drone missiles, they’re either not kept here or they’re well hidden.”

“Bohrs here. Then what did they attack with, while we were coming down from orbit?”

“I wish we knew, Private.

“Obviously, we don’t have any way of estimating their numbers, not directly. Recon pictures failed to show a single Tauran on the grounds of the base. Meaning nothing, because it is an alien environment. Indirectly, though…we can count the number of broomsticks.

“There are fifty-one huts, and each has at most one broomstick. Four don’t have one parked outside, but we located three at various other parts of the base. Maybe this indicates that there are fifty-one Taurans, one of whom was outside the base when the picture was taken.”

“Keating here. Or fifty-one officers.”

“That’s right—maybe fifty thousand infantrymen stacked in one of these buildings. No way to tell. Maybe ten Taurans, each with five broomsticks, to use according to his mood.

“We’ve got one thing in our favor, and that’s communications. They evidently use a frequency modulation of megahertz electromagnetic radiation.”

“Radio!”

“That’s right, whoever you are. Identify yourself when you speak. So, it’s quite possible that they can’t detect our phased-neutrino communications. Also, just prior to the attack, the Hope is going to deliver a nice dirty fission bomb; detonate it in the upper atmosphere right over the base. That’ll restrict them to line-of-sight communication for some time; even those will be full of static.”

“Why don’t…Tate here…why don’t they just drop the bomb right in their laps? Would save us a lot of….”

“That doesn’t even deserve an answer, Private. But the answer is, they might. And you better hope they don’t. If they caulk the base, it’ll be for the safety of the Hope. After we’ve attacked, and probably before we’re far enough away for it to make much difference.

“We keep that from happening by doing a good job. We have to reduce the base to where it can no longer function; at the same time, leave as much intact as possible. And take one prisoner.”

“Potter here. You mean, at least one prisoner.”

“I mean what I say. One only. Potter…you’re relieved of your platoon. Send Chavez up.”

“All right, Sergeant.” The relief in her voice was unmistakable.

CORTEZ CONTINUED WITH his map and instructions. There was one other building whose function was pretty obvious; it had a large steerable dish antenna on top. We were to destroy it as soon as the grenadiers got in range.

The attack plan was very loose. Our signal to begin would be the flash of the fission bomb. At the same time, several drones would converge on the base, so we could see what their antispacecraft defenses were. We would try to reduce the effectiveness of those defenses without destroying them completely.

Immediately after the bomb and the drones, the grenadiers would vaporize a line of seven huts. Everybody would break through the hole into the base…and what would happen after that was anybody’s guess.

Ideally, we’d sweep from that end of the base to the other, destroying certain targets, caulking all but one Tauran. But that was unlikely to happen, as it depended on the Taurans’ offering very little resistance.

On the other hand, if the Taurans showed obvious superiority from the beginning, Cortez would give the order to scatter: everybody had a different compass bearing for retreat—we’d blossom out in all directions, the survivors to rendezvous in a valley some forty clicks east of the base. Then we’d see about a return engagement, after the Hope softened the base up a bit.

“One last thing,” Cortez rasped. “Maybe some of you feel the way Potter evidently does, maybe some of your men feel that way…that we ought to go easy, not make this so much of a bloodbath. Mercy is a luxury, a weakness we can’t afford to indulge in at this stage of the war. All we know about the enemy is that they have killed seven hundred and ninety-eight humans. They haven’t shown any restraint in attacking our cruisers, and it’d be foolish to expect any this time, this first ground action.

They are responsible for the lives of all of your comrades who died in training, and for Ho, and for all the others who are surely going to die today. I can’t understand anybody who wants to spare them. But that doesn’t make any difference. You have your orders, and what the hell, you might as well know, all of you have a posthypnotic suggestion that I will trigger by a phrase, just before the battle. It will make your job easier.”

“Sergeant….”

“Shut up. We’re short on time; get back to your platoons and brief them. We move out in five minutes.”

The platoon leaders returned to their men, leaving Cortez and the ten of us, plus three teddy-bears, milling around, getting in the way.


15

<p>15</p>

We took the last five clicks very carefully, sticking to the highest grass, running across occasional clearings. When we were five hundred meters from where the base was supposed to be, Cortez took the Third Platoon forward to scout, while the rest of us laid low.

Cortez’s voice came over the general freak: “Looks pretty much like we expected. Advance in a file, crawling. When you get to the Third Platoon, follow your squad leader to the left, or right.”

We did that and wound up with a string of eighty-three people in a line roughly perpendicular to the direction of attack. We were pretty well hidden, except for the dozen or so teddy-bears that mooched along the line munching grass.

There was no sign of life inside the base. All of the buildings were windowless, and a uniform shiny white. The huts that were our first objective were large featureless half-buried eggs, some sixty meters apart. Cortez assigned one to each grenadier.

We were broken into three fire teams: Team A consisted of platoons Two, Four, and Six; Team B was One, Three, and Five; the command platoon was Team C.

“Less than a minute now—filters down!—when I say ‘fire,’ grenadiers take out your targets. God help you if you miss.”

There was a sound like a giant’s belch and a stream of five or six iridescent bubbles floated up from the flower-shaped building. They rose with increasing speed to where they were almost out of sight, then shot off to the south, over our heads. The ground was suddenly bright and for the first time in a long time, I saw my shadow, a long one pointed north. The bomb had gone off prematurely. I just had time to think that it didn’t make too much difference; it’d still make alphabet soup out of their communications….

“Drones!” A ship came screaming in just above tree level, and a bubble was in the air to meet it. When they contacted, the bubble popped and the drone exploded into a million tiny fragments. Another one came from the opposite side and suffered the same fate.

“FIRE!” Seven bright glares of 500-microton grenades and a sustained concussion that I’m sure would have killed an unprotected man.

“Filters up.” Gray haze of smoke and dust. Clods of dirt falling with a sound like heavy raindrops.

“Listen up:

“‘Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory!’”

I hardly heard him, for trying to keep track of what was going on in my skull. I knew it was just posthypnotic suggestion, even remembered the session in Missouri when they’d implanted it, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. My mind reeled under the strong pseudo-memories; shaggy hulks that were Taurans—not at all what we now knew they looked like—boarding a colonist’s vessel, eating babies while mothers watched in screaming terror—the colonists never took babies; they wouldn’t stand the acceleration—then raping the women to death with huge veined purple members—ridiculous that they would feel desire for humans—holding the men down while they plucked flesh from their living bodies and gobbled it…a hundred grisly details as sharply remembered as the events of a minute ago, ridiculously overdone and logically absurd; but while my conscious mind was reflecting the silliness, somewhere much deeper, down in that sleeping giant where we keep our real motives and morals, something was thirsting for alien blood, secure in the conviction that the noblest thing a man could do would be to die killing one of those horrible monsters….

I knew it was all purest soya, and I hated the men who had taken such obscene liberties with my mind, but still I could hear my teeth grinding, feel cheeks frozen in a spastic grin, bloodlust…a teddy-bear walked in front of me, looking dazed. I started to raise my laserfinger, but somebody beat me to it and the creature’s head exploded in a cloud of gray splinters and blood.

Lucky groaned, half-whining, “Dirty…filthy bastards.” Lasers flared and crisscrossed and all of the teddy-bears fell dead.

Watch it, damn it,” Cortez screamed. “Aim those things; they aren’t toys!

“Team A, move out—into the craters to cover B.”

Somebody was laughing and sobbing. “What the crap is wrong with you, Petrov?” First time I could remember Cortez cussing.

I twisted around and saw Petrov, behind and to my left, lying in a shallow hole, digging frantically with both hands, crying and gurgling.

“Crap,” Cortez said. “Team B! past the craters ten meters, get down in a line. Team C—into the craters with A.”

* * *

I SCRAMBLED UP and covered the hundred meters in twelve amplified strides. The craters were practically large enough to hide a scoutship, some ten meters in diameter. I jumped to the opposite side of the hole and landed next to a fellow named Chin. He didn’t even look around when I landed, just kept scanning the base for signs of life.

“Team A—past Team B ten meters, down in line.” Just as he finished, the building in front of us burped and a salvo of the bubbles fanned out toward our lines. Most people saw it coming and got down, but Chin was just getting up to make his rush and stepped right into one.

It grazed the top of his helmet, and disappeared with a faint pop. He took one step backwards and toppled over the edge of the crater, trailing an arc of blood and brains. Lifeless, spreadeagled, he slid halfway to the bottom, shoveling dirt into the perfectly symmetrical hole where the bubble had chewed through plastic, hair, skin, bone and brain indiscriminately.

“Everybody hold it. Platoon leaders, casualty report…check…check, check…check, check, check…check. We have three deaders. Wouldn’t be any if you’d have kept low. So everybody grab dirt when you hear that thing go off. Team A, complete the rush.”

They completed the maneuver without incident. “O.K. Team C, rush to where B…hold it! Down!”

Everybody was already hugging the ground. The bubbles slid by in a smooth arc about two meters off the ground. They went serenely over our heads and, except for one that made toothpicks out of a tree, disappeared in the distance.

“B, rush past A ten meters. C, take over B’s place. You B grenadiers see if you can reach the Flower.”

Two grenades tore up the ground thirty or forty meters from the structure. In a good imitation of panic, it started belching out a continuous stream of bubbles—still, none coming lower than two meters off the ground. We kept hunched down and continued to advance.

Suddenly, a seam appeared in the building, widened to the size of a large door, and Taurans came swarming out.

“Grenadiers, hold your fire. B team, laser fire to the left and right, keep ’em bunched up. A and C, rush down the center.”

One Tauran died trying to turn through a laser beam. The others stayed where they were.

In a suit, it’s pretty awkward to run and try to keep your head down, at the same time. You have to go from side to side, like a skater getting started; otherwise you’ll be airborne. At least one person, somebody in A team, bounced too high and suffered the same fate as Chin.

I was feeling pretty fenced-in and trapped, with a wall of laser fire on each side and a low ceiling that meant death to touch. But in spite of myself, I felt happy, euphoric at finally getting the chance to kill some of those villainous baby-eaters.

They weren’t fighting back, except for the rather ineffective bubbles—obviously not designed as an antipersonnel weapon—and they didn’t retreat back into the building, either. They just milled around, about a hundred of them, and watched us get closer. A couple of grenades would caulk them all, but I guess Cortez was thinking about the prisoner.

“O.K., when I say ‘go,’ we’re going to flank ’em. B team will hold fire…Second and Fourth to the right, Sixth and Seventh to the left. B team will move forward in line to box them in.

“Go!” We peeled off to the left. As soon as the lasers stopped, the Taurans bolted, running in a group on a collision course with our flank.

“A Team, down and fire! Don’t shoot until you’re sure of your aim—if you miss you might hit a friendly. And fer Chris’sake save me one!”

It was a horrifying sight, that herd of monsters bearing down on us. They were running in great leaps—the bubbles avoiding them—and they all looked like the one we saw earlier, riding the broomstick; naked except for an almost transparent sphere around their whole bodies, that moved along with them. The right flank started firing, picking off individuals in the rear of the pack.

Suddenly a laser flared through the Taurans from the other side, somebody missing his mark. There was a horrible scream and I looked down the line to see someone, I think it was Perry, writhing on the ground, right hand over the smoldering stump of his left arm, seared off just below the elbow. Blood sprayed through his fingers and the suit, its camouflage circuits scrambled, flickered black-white-jungle-desert-green-gray. I don’t know how long I stared—long enough for the medic to run over and start giving aid—but when I looked up the Taurans were almost on top of me.

My first shot was wild and high, but it grazed the top of the leading Tauran’s protective bubble. The bubble disappeared and the monster stumbled and fell to the ground, jerking spasmodically. Foam gushed out of his mouth-hole, first white, then streaked with red. With one last jerk he became rigid and twisted backwards, almost to the shape of a horseshoe. His long scream, a high-pitched whistle, stopped just as his comrades trampled over him and I hated myself for smiling.

It was slaughter, even though our flank was outnumbered five to one. They kept coming without faltering, even when they had to climb over the drift of bodies and parts of bodies that piled up high, parallel to our flank. The ground between us was slick red with Tauran blood—all God’s children got hemoglobin—and, like the teddy-bears, their guts looked pretty much like guts to my untrained eye. My helmet reverberated with hysterical laughter while we cut them to gory chunks. I almost didn’t hear Cortez.

“Hold your fire—I said HOLD IT damn it! Catch a couple of the bastards, they won’t hurt you.”

I stopped shooting and eventually so did everybody else. When the next Tauran jumped over the smoking pile of meat in front of me, I dove to tackle him around those spindly legs.

It was like hugging a big, slippery balloon. When I tried to drag him down, he just popped out of my arms and kept running.

We managed to stop one of them by the simple expedient of piling half-a-dozen people on top of him. By that time the others had run through our line and were headed for the row of large cylindrical tanks that Cortez had said were probably for storage. A little door had opened in the base of each one.

“We’ve got our prisoner,” Cortez shouted. “Kill!”

They were fifty meters away and running hard, difficult targets. Lasers slashed around them, bobbing high and low. One fell, sliced in two, but the others, about ten of them, kept going and were almost to the doors when the grenadiers started firing.

They were still loaded with 500-mike bombs, but a near miss wasn’t enough—the concussion would just send them flying, unhurt in their bubbles.

“The buildings! Get the damn buildings!” The grenadiers raised their aim and let fly, but the bombs only seemed to scorch the white outside of the structures until, by chance, one landed in a door. That split the building just as if it had a seam; the two halves popped away and a cloud of machinery flew into the air, accompanied by a huge pale flame that rolled up and disappeared in an instant. Then the others all concentrated on the doors, except for potshots at some of the Taurans; not so much to get them as to blow them away before they could get inside. They seemed awfully eager.

ALL THIS TIME, we were trying to get the Taurans with laser fire, while they weaved and bounced around trying to get into the structures. We moved in as close to them as we could without putting ourselves in danger from the grenade blasts—that was still too far away for good aim.

Still, we were getting them one by one, and managed to destroy four of the seven buildings. Then, when there were only two aliens left, a nearby grenade blast flung one of them to within a few meters of a door. He dove in and several grenadiers fired salvos after him, but they all fell short, or detonated harmlessly on the side. Bombs were falling all around, making an awful racket, but the sound was suddenly drowned out by a great sigh, like a giant’s intake of breath, and where the building had been was a thick cylindrical cloud of smoke, solid-looking, dwindling away into the stratosphere, straight as if laid down by a ruler. The other Tauran had been right at the base of the cylinder; I could see pieces of him flying. A second later, a shock wave hit us and I rolled helplessly, pinwheeling, to smash into the pile of Tauran bodies and roll beyond.

I picked myself up and panicked for a second when I saw there was blood all over my suit—when I realized it was only alien blood, I relaxed but felt unclean.

Catch the bastard! Catch him!” In the confusion, the Tauran—now the only one left alive—had got free and was running for the grass. One platoon was chasing after him, losing ground, but then all of B team ran over and cut him off. I jogged over to join in the fun.

There were four people on top of him, and fifty people watching.

“Spread out, damn it! There might be a thousand more of them waiting to get us in one place.” We dispersed, grumbling. By unspoken agreement we were all sure that there were no more live Taurans on the face of the planet.

Cortez was walking toward the prisoner while I backed away. Suddenly the four men collapsed in a pile on top of the creature…even from my distance I could see the foam spouting from his mouth-hole. His bubble had popped. Suicide.

“Damn!” Cortez was right there. “Get off that bastard.” The four men got off and Cortez used his laser to slice the monster into a dozen quivering chunks. Heartwarming sight.

“That’s all right, though, we’ll find another one—everybody! Back in the arrowhead formation. Combat assault, on the Flower.”

Well, we assaulted the Flower, which had evidently run out of ammunition—it was still belching, but no bubbles—and it was empty. We just scurried up ramps and through corridors, fingers at the ready, like kids playing soldier. There was nobody home.

The same lack of response at the antenna installation, the “Salami,” and twenty other major buildings, as well as the forty-four perimeter huts still intact. So we had “captured” dozens of buildings, mostly of incomprehensible purpose, but failed in our main mission; capturing a Tauran for the xenologists to experiment with. Oh, well, they could have all the bits and pieces of the creatures they’d ever want. That was something.

After we’d combed every last square centimeter of the base, a scoutship came in with the real exploration crew, Star Fleet scientists. Cortez said, “All right, snap out of it,” and the hypnotic compulsion fell away.

At first it was pretty grim. A lot of the people, like Lucky and Marygay, almost went crazy with the memories of bloody murder multiplied a hundred times. Cortez ordered everybody to take a sedtab, two for the ones most upset. I took two without being specifically ordered to do so.

Because it was murder, unadorned butchery—once we had the antispacecraft weapon doped out, we weren’t in any danger. The Taurans didn’t seem to have any conception of person-to-person fighting. We just herded them up and slaughtered them, in the first encounter between mankind and another intelligent species. What might have happened if we had sat down and tried to communicate? Maybe it was the second encounter, counting the teddy-bears. But they got the same treatment.

I spent a long time after that telling myself over and over that it hadn’t been me who so gleefully carved up those frightened, stampeding creatures. Back in the Twentieth Century, they established to everybody’s satisfaction that “I was just following orders” was an inadequate excuse for inhuman conduct…but what can you do when the orders come from deep down in that puppet master of the unconscious?

Worst of all was the feeling that perhaps my actions weren’t all that inhuman. Ancestors only a few generations back would have done the same thing, even to their fellowmen, without any hypnotic conditioning.

So I was disgusted with the human race, disgusted with the army, and horrified at the prospect of living with myself for another century or so…well, there was always brainwipe.

The ship that the lone Tauran survivor had escaped in had got away, clean, the bulk of the planet shielding it from Earth’s Hope while it dropped into Aleph’s collapsar field. Escaped to home, I guessed, wherever that was, to report what twenty men with hand-weapons could do to a hundred fleeing on foot, unarmed.

I suspected that the next time humans met Taurans in ground combat, we would be more evenly matched. And I was right.


Joe Haldeman

<p><emphasis>Joe Haldeman</emphasis></p>

Praised for its authentic portrayal of the emotional detachment and psychological dislocation of soldiers in a millennium-long future war, Joe Haldeman’s first science fiction novel, The Forever War, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when it was published in 1974 and was later adapted into a three-part graphic-novel series. Since then, Haldeman has returned to the theme of future war several times, notably in his trilogy Worlds, Worlds Apart, and Worlds Enough and Time, about a future Earth facing nuclear extinction, and Forever Peace, a further exploration of the dehumanizing potential of armed conflict. Haldeman’s other novels include Mindbridge, All My Sins Remembered, and the alternate-world opus The Hemingway Hoax, expanded from his Nebula Award–winning novella of the same name. Haldeman’s stories have been collected in Infinite Dreams and Dealing in Futures, and several of his essays are mixed with fiction in Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds. His powerful non– science fiction writing includes War Year, drawn from experiences during his tour of duty in Vietnam, and 1968, a portrait of America in the Vietnam era. He has also coedited the anthologies Body Armor 2000, Space-fighters, and Supertanks.


SUPERIORITY

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke

<p>SUPERIORITY</p> <p>Arthur C. Clarke</p>

IN MAKING THIS STATEMENT—which I do of my own free will—I wish first to make it perfectly clear that I am not in any way trying to gain sympathy, nor do I expect any mitigation of whatever sentence the Court may pronounce. I am writing this in an attempt to refute some of the lying reports broadcast over the prison radio and published in the papers I have been allowed to see. These have given an entirely false picture of the true cause of our defeat, and as the leader of my race’s armed forces at the cessation of hostilities I feel it my duty to protest against such libels upon those who served under me.

I also hope that this statement may explain the reasons for the application I have twice made to the Court, and will now induce it to grant a favor for which I can see no possible grounds of refusal.

The ultimate cause of our failure was a simple one: despite all statements to the contrary, it was not due to lack of bravery on the part of our men, or to any fault of the Fleet’s. We were defeated by one thing only—by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat—by the inferior science of our enemies.

When the war opened we had no doubt of our ultimate victory. The combined fleets of our allies greatly exceeded in number and armament those which the enemy could muster against us, and in almost all branches of military science we were their superiors. We were sure that we could maintain this superiority. Our belief proved, alas, to be only too well founded.

At the opening of the war our main weapons were the long-range homing torpedo, dirigible ball-lightning and the various modifications of the Klydon beam. Every unit of the Fleet was equipped with these and though the enemy possessed similar weapons their installations were generally of lesser power. Moreover, we had behind us a far greater military Research Organization, and with this initial advantage we could not possibly lose.

The campaign proceeded according to plan until the Battle of the Five Suns. We won this, of course, but the opposition proved stronger than we had expected. It was realized that victory might be more difficult, and more delayed, than had first been imagined. A conference of supreme commanders was therefore called to discuss our future strategy.

Present for the first time at one of our war conferences was Professor-General Norden, the new Chief of the Research Staff, who had just been appointed to fill the gap left by the death of Malvar, our greatest scientist. Malvar’s leadership had been responsible, more than any other single factor, for the efficiency and power of our weapons. His loss was a very serious blow, but no one doubted the brilliance of his successor—though many of us disputed the wisdom of appointing a theoretical scientist to fill a post of such vital importance. But we had been overruled.

I can well remember the impression Norden made at that conference. The military advisers were worried, and as usual turned to the scientists for help. Would it be possible to improve our existing weapons, they asked, so that our present advantage could be increased still further?

Norden’s reply was quite unexpected. Malvar had often been asked such a question—and he had always done what we requested.

“Frankly, gentlemen,” said Norden, “I doubt it. Our existing weapons have practically reached finality. I don’t wish to criticize my predecessor, or the excellent work done by the Research Staff in the last few generations, but do you realize that there has been no basic change in armaments for over a century? It is, I am afraid, the result of a tradition that has become conservative. For too long, the Research Staff has devoted itself to perfecting old weapons instead of developing new ones. It is fortunate for us that our opponents have been no wiser: we cannot assume that this will always be so.”

Norden’s words left an uncomfortable impression, as he had no doubt intended. He quickly pressed home the attack.

“What we want are new weapons—weapons totally different from any that have been employed before. Such weapons can be made: it will take time, of course, but since assuming charge I have replaced some of the older scientists with young men and have directed research into several unexplored fields which show great promise. I believe, in fact, that a revolution in warfare may soon be upon us.”

We were skeptical. There was a bombastic tone in Norden’s voice that made us suspicious of his claims. We did not know, then, that he never promised anything that he had not already almost perfected in the laboratory. In the laboratory—that was the operative phrase.

Norden proved his case less than a month later, when he demonstrated the Sphere of Annihilation, which produced complete disintegration of matter over a radius of several hundred meters. We were intoxicated by the power of the new weapon, and were quite prepared to overlook one fundamental defect—the fact that it was a sphere and hence destroyed its rather complicated generating equipment at the instant of formation. This meant, of course, that it could not be used on warships but only on guided missiles, and a great program was started to convert all homing torpedoes to carry the new weapon. For the time being all further offensives were suspended.

We realize now that this was our first mistake. I still think that it was a natural one, for it seemed to us then that all our existing weapons had become obsolete overnight, and we already regarded them as almost primitive survivals. What we did not appreciate was the magnitude of the task we were attempting, and the length of time it would take to get the revolutionary super-weapon into battle. Nothing like this had happened for a hundred years and we had no previous experience to guide us.

The conversion problem proved far more difficult than anticipated. A new class of torpedo had to be designed, as the standard model was too small. This meant in turn that only the larger ships could launch the weapon, but we were prepared to accept this penalty. After six months, the heavy units of the Fleet were being equipped with the Sphere. Training maneuvers and tests had shown that it was operating satisfactorily and we were ready to take it into action. Norden was already being hailed as the architect of victory, and had half promised even more spectacular weapons.

Then two things happened. One of our battleships disappeared completely on a training flight, and an investigation showed that under certain conditions the ship’s long-range radar could trigger the Sphere immediately after it had been launched. The modification needed to overcome this defect was trivial, but it caused a delay of another month and was the source of much bad feeling between the naval staff and the scientists. We were ready for action again—when Norden announced that the radius of effectiveness of the Sphere had now been increased by ten, thus multiplying by a thousand the chances of destroying an enemy ship.

So the modifications started all over again, but everyone agreed that the delay would be worth it. Meanwhile, however, the enemy had been emboldened by the absence of further attacks and had made an unexpected onslaught. Our ships were short of torpedoes, since none had been coming from the factories, and were forced to retire. So we lost the systems of Kyrane and Floranus, and the planetary fortress of Rhamsandron.

It was an annoying but not a serious blow, for the recaptured systems had been unfriendly, and difficult to administer. We had no doubt that we could restore the position in the near future, as soon as the new weapon became operational.

These hopes were only partially fulfilled. When we renewed our offensive, we had to do so with fewer of the Spheres of Annihilation than had been planned, and this was one reason for our limited success. The other reason was more serious.

While we had been equipping as many of our ships as we could with the irresistible weapon, the enemy had been building feverishly. His ships were of the old pattern with the old weapons—but they now outnumbered ours. When we went into action, we found that the numbers ranged against us were often 100 percent greater than expected, causing target confusion among the automatic weapons and resulting in higher losses than anticipated. The enemy losses were higher still, for once a Sphere had reached its objective, destruction was certain, but the balance had not swung as far in our favor as we had hoped.

Moreover, while the main fleets had been engaged, the enemy had launched a daring attack on the lightly held systems of Eriston, Duranus, Carmanidora and Pharanidon—recapturing them all. We were thus faced with a threat only fifty light-years from our home planets.

There was much recrimination at the next meeting of the supreme commanders. Most of the complaints were addressed to Norden—Grand Admiral Taxaris in particular maintaining that thanks to our admittedly irresistible weapon we were now considerably worse off than before. We should, he claimed, have continued to build conventional ships, thus preventing the loss of our numerical superiority.

Norden was equally angry and called the naval staff ungrateful bunglers. But I could tell that he was worried—as indeed we all were—by the unexpected turn of events. He hinted that there might be a speedy way of remedying the situation.

We now know that Research had been working on the Battle Analyzer for many years, but at the time it came as a revelation to us and perhaps we were too easily swept off our feet. Norden’s argument, also, was seductively convincing. What did it matter, he said, if the enemy had twice as many ships as we—if the efficiency of ours could be doubled or even trebled? For decades the limiting factor in warfare had been not mechanical but biological—it had become more and more difficult for any single mind, or group of minds, to cope with the rapidly changing complexities of battle in three-dimensional space. Norden’s mathematicians had analyzed some of the classic engagements of the past, and had shown that even when we had been victorious we had often operated our units at much less than half of their theoretical efficiency.

The Battle Analyzer would change all this by replacing the operations staff with electronic calculators. The idea was not new, in theory, but until now it had been no more than a utopian dream. Many of us found it difficult to believe that it was still anything but a dream: after we had run through several very complex dummy battles, however, we were convinced.

It was decided to install the Analyzer in four of our heaviest ships, so that each of the main fleets could be equipped with one. At this stage, the trouble began—though we did not know it until later.

The Analyzer contained just short of a million vacuum tubes and needed a team of five hundred technicians to maintain and operate it. It was quite impossible to accommodate the extra staff aboard a battleship, so each of the four units had to be accompanied by a converted liner to carry the technicians not on duty. Installation was also a very slow and tedious business, but by gigantic efforts it was completed in six months.

Then, to our dismay, we were confronted by another crisis. Nearly five thousand highly skilled men had been selected to serve the Analyzers and had been given an intensive course at the Technical Training Schools. At the end of seven months, 10 per cent of them had had nervous breakdowns and only 40 per cent had qualified.

Once again, everyone started to blame everyone else. Norden, of course, said that the Research Staff could not be held responsible, and so incurred the enmity of the Personnel and Training Commands. It was finally decided that the only thing to do was to use two instead of four Analyzers and to bring the others into action as soon as men could be trained. There was little time to lose, for the enemy was still on the offensive and his morale was rising.

The first Analyzer fleet was ordered to recapture the system of Eriston. On the way, by one of the hazards of war, the liner carrying the technicians was struck by a roving mine. A warship would have survived, but the liner with its irreplaceable cargo was totally destroyed. So the operation had to be abandoned.

The other expedition was, at first, more successful. There was no doubt at all that the Analyzer fulfilled its designers’ claims, and the enemy was heavily defeated in the first engagements. He withdrew, leaving us in possession of Saphran, Leucon and Hexanerax. But his Intelligence Staff must have noted the change in our tactics and the inexplicable presence of a liner in the heart of our battlefleet. It must have noted, also, that our first fleet had been accompanied by a similar ship—and had withdrawn when it had been destroyed.

In the next engagement, the enemy used his superior numbers to launch an overwhelming attack on the Analyzer ship and its unarmed consort. The attack was made without regard to losses—both ships were, of course, very heavily protected—and it succeeded. The result was the virtual decapitation of the Fleet, since an effectual transfer to the old operational methods proved impossible. We disengaged under heavy fire, and so lost all our gains and also the systems of Lormyia, Ismarnus, Beronis, Alphanidon and Sideneus.

At this stage, Grand Admiral Taxaris expressed his disapproval of Norden by committing suicide, and I assumed supreme command.

The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination, the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships. It was galling to realize that if we had only continued building, without seeking new weapons, we would have been in a far more advantageous position. There were many acrimonious conferences at which Norden defended the scientists while everyone else blamed them for all that had happened. The difficulty was that Norden had proved every one of his claims: he had a perfect excuse for all the disasters that had occurred. And we could not now turn back—the search for an irresistible weapon must go on. At first it had been a luxury that would shorten the war. Now it was a necessity if we were to end it victoriously.

We were on the defensive, and so was Norden. He was more than ever determined to reestablish his prestige and that of the Research Staff. But we had been twice disappointed, and would not make the same mistake again. No doubt Norden’s twenty thousand scientists would produce many further weapons: we would remain unimpressed.

We were wrong. The final weapon was something so fantastic that even now it seems difficult to believe that it ever existed. Its innocent, noncommittal name—The Exponential Field—gave no hint of its real potentialities. Some of Norden’s mathematicians had discovered it during a piece of entirely theoretical research into the properties of space, and to everyone’s great surprise their results were found to be physically realizable.

It seems very difficult to explain the operation of the Field to the layman. According to the technical description, it “produces an exponential condition of space, so that a finite distance in normal, linear space may become infinite in pseudo-space.” Norden gave an analogy which some of us found useful. It was as if one took a flat disk of rubber—representing a region of normal space—and then pulled its center out to infinity. The circumference of the disk would be unaltered—but its “diameter” would be infinite. That was the sort of thing the generator of the Field did to the space around it.

As an example, suppose that a ship carrying the generator was surrounded by a ring of hostile machines. If it switched on the Field, each of the enemy ships would think that it—and the ships on the far side of the circle—had suddenly receded into nothingness. Yet the circumference of the circle would be the same as before: only the journey to the center would be of infinite duration, for as one proceeded, distances would appear to become greater and greater as the “scale” of space altered.

It was a nightmare condition, but a very useful one. Nothing could reach a ship carrying the Field: it might be englobed by an enemy fleet yet would be as inaccessible as if it were at the other side of the Universe. Against this, of course, it could not fight back without switching off the Field, but this still left it at a very great advantage, not only in defense but in offense. For a ship fitted with the Field could approach an enemy fleet undetected and suddenly appear in its midst.

This time there seemed to be no flaws in the new weapon. Needless to say, we looked for all the possible objections before we committed ourselves again. Fortunately the equipment was fairly simple and did not require a large operating staff. After much debate, we decided to rush it into production, for we realized that time was running short and the war was going against us. We had now lost about the whole of our initial gains and enemy forces had made several raids into our own solar system.

We managed to hold off the enemy while the Fleet was reequipped and the new battle techniques were worked out. To use the Field operationally it was necessary to locate an enemy formation, set a course that would intercept it, and then switch on the generator for the calculated period of time. On releasing the Field again—if the calculations had been accurate—one would be in the enemy’s midst and could do great damage during the resulting confusion, retreating by the same route when necessary.

The first trial maneuvers proved satisfactory and the equipment seemed quite reliable. Numerous mock attacks were made and the crews became accustomed to the new technique. I was on one of the test flights and can vividly remember my impressions as the Field was switched on. The ships around us seemed to dwindle as if on the surface of an expanding bubble: in an instant they had vanished completely. So had the stars—but presently we could see that the Galaxy was still visible as a faint band of light around the ship. The virtual radius of our pseudo-space was not really infinite, but some hundred thousand light-years, and so the distance to the farthest stars of our system had not been greatly increased—though the nearest had of course totally disappeared.

These training maneuvers, however, had to be canceled before they were completed, owing to a whole flock of minor technical troubles in various pieces of equipment, notably the communications circuits. These were annoying, but not important, though it was thought best to return to Base to clear them up.

At that moment the enemy made what was obviously intended to be a decisive attack against the fortress planet of Iton at the limits of our Solar System. The Fleet had to go into battle before repairs could be made.

The enemy must have believed that we had mastered the secret of invisibility—as in a sense we had. Our ships appeared suddenly out of nowhere and inflicted tremendous damage—for a while. And then something quite baffling and inexplicable happened.

I was in command of the flagship Hircania when the trouble started. We had been operating as independent units, each against assigned objectives. Our detectors observed an enemy formation at medium range and the navigating officers measured its distance with great accuracy. We set course and switched on the generator.

The Exponential Field was released at the moment when we should have been passing through the center of the enemy group. To our consternation, we emerged into normal space at a distance of many hundred miles—and when we found the enemy, he had already found us. We retreated, and tried again. This time we were so far away from the enemy that he located us first.

Obviously, something was seriously wrong. We broke communicator silence and tried to contact the other ships of the Fleet to see if they had experienced the same trouble. Once again we failed—and this time the failure was beyond all reason, for the communication equipment appeared to be working perfectly. We could only assume, fantastic though it seemed, that the rest of the Fleet had been destroyed.

I do not wish to describe the scenes when the scattered units of the Fleet struggled back to Base. Our casualties had actually been negligible, but the ships were completely demoralized. Almost all had lost touch with one another and had found that their ranging equipment showed inexplicable errors. It was obvious that the Exponential Field was the cause of the troubles, despite the fact that they were only apparent when it was switched off.

The explanation came too late to do us any good, and Norden’s final discomfiture was small consolation for the virtual loss of the war. As I have explained, the Field generators produced a radial distortion of space, distances appearing greater and greater as one approached the center of the artificial pseudo-space. When the Field was switched off, conditions returned to normal.

But not quite. It was never possible to restore the initial state exactly. Switching the Field on and off was equivalent to an elongation and contraction of the ship carrying the generator, but there was a hysteretic effect, as it were, and the initial condition was never quite reproducible, owing to all the thousands of electrical changes and movements of mass aboard the ship while the Field was on. These asymmetries and distortions were cumulative, and though they seldom amounted to more than a fraction of one per cent, that was quite enough. It meant that the precision ranging equipment and the tuned circuits in the communication apparatus were thrown completely out of adjustment. Any single ship could never detect the change—only when it compared its equipment with that of another vessel, or tried to communicate with it, could it tell what had happened.

It is impossible to describe the resultant chaos. Not a single component of one ship could be expected with certainty to work aboard another. The very nuts and bolts were no longer interchangeable, and the supply position became quite impossible. Given time, we might even have overcome these difficulties, but the enemy ships were already attacking in thousands with weapons which now seemed centuries behind those that we had invented. Our magnificent Fleet, crippled by our own science, fought on as best it could until it was overwhelmed and forced to surrender. The ships fitted with the Field were still invulnerable, but as fighting units they were almost helpless. Every time they switched on their generators to escape from enemy attack, the permanent distortion of their equipment increased. In a month, it was all over.

THIS IS THE true story of our defeat, which I give without prejudice to my defense before this Court. I make it, as I have said, to counteract the libels that have been circulating against the men who fought under me, and to show where the true blame for our misfortunes lay.

Finally, my request, which as the Court will now realize I make in no frivolous manner and which I hope will therefore be granted.

The Court will be aware that the conditions under which we are housed and the constant surveillance to which we are subjected night and day are somewhat distressing. Yet I am not complaining of this: nor do I complain of the fact that shortage of accommodation has made it necessary to house us in pairs.

But I cannot be held responsible for my future actions if I am compelled any longer to share my cell with Professor Norden, late Chief of the Research Staff of my armed forces.

<p><emphasis>Arthur C. Clarke</emphasis></p>

Arthur C. Clarke’s lengthy publishing credentials include articles in mid-century scientific journals that laid the groundwork for the development of telecommunications satellites. Among his many influential works of science fiction are the visionary novel of man’s future in the universe, Childhood’s End, and the now legendary film and fiction that grew out of its concepts: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey. Clarke is regarded as one of the masters of hard science fiction, and his novels Prelude to Space, A Fall of Moondust, and The Fountains of Paradise have all been praised for their meticulous scientific accuracy. At the same time, he has explored the metaphysical and cosmological implications of science and space exploration in such works as the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning novel Rendezvous with Rama and the oft-reprinted title story of The Nine Billion Names of God, one of the many collections of his short fiction, which include Reach for Tomorrow, Tales from the White Hart, The Other Side of the Sky, and Tales of Ten Worlds. Clarke’s bestselling books of popular science include The Exploration of Space, Profiles of the Future, and The View from Serendip. He has also authored the young adult novels Islands in the Sky and Dolphin Island, and the autobiographical volume Astounding Days.


IN MAKING THIS STATEMENT—which I do of my own free will—I wish first to make it perfectly clear that I am not in any way trying to gain sympathy, nor do I expect any mitigation of whatever sentence the Court may pronounce. I am writing this in an attempt to refute some of the lying reports broadcast over the prison radio and published in the papers I have been allowed to see. These have given an entirely false picture of the true cause of our defeat, and as the leader of my race’s armed forces at the cessation of hostilities I feel it my duty to protest against such libels upon those who served under me.

I also hope that this statement may explain the reasons for the application I have twice made to the Court, and will now induce it to grant a favor for which I can see no possible grounds of refusal.

The ultimate cause of our failure was a simple one: despite all statements to the contrary, it was not due to lack of bravery on the part of our men, or to any fault of the Fleet’s. We were defeated by one thing only—by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat—by the inferior science of our enemies.

When the war opened we had no doubt of our ultimate victory. The combined fleets of our allies greatly exceeded in number and armament those which the enemy could muster against us, and in almost all branches of military science we were their superiors. We were sure that we could maintain this superiority. Our belief proved, alas, to be only too well founded.

At the opening of the war our main weapons were the long-range homing torpedo, dirigible ball-lightning and the various modifications of the Klydon beam. Every unit of the Fleet was equipped with these and though the enemy possessed similar weapons their installations were generally of lesser power. Moreover, we had behind us a far greater military Research Organization, and with this initial advantage we could not possibly lose.

The campaign proceeded according to plan until the Battle of the Five Suns. We won this, of course, but the opposition proved stronger than we had expected. It was realized that victory might be more difficult, and more delayed, than had first been imagined. A conference of supreme commanders was therefore called to discuss our future strategy.

Present for the first time at one of our war conferences was Professor-General Norden, the new Chief of the Research Staff, who had just been appointed to fill the gap left by the death of Malvar, our greatest scientist. Malvar’s leadership had been responsible, more than any other single factor, for the efficiency and power of our weapons. His loss was a very serious blow, but no one doubted the brilliance of his successor—though many of us disputed the wisdom of appointing a theoretical scientist to fill a post of such vital importance. But we had been overruled.

I can well remember the impression Norden made at that conference. The military advisers were worried, and as usual turned to the scientists for help. Would it be possible to improve our existing weapons, they asked, so that our present advantage could be increased still further?

Norden’s reply was quite unexpected. Malvar had often been asked such a question—and he had always done what we requested.

“Frankly, gentlemen,” said Norden, “I doubt it. Our existing weapons have practically reached finality. I don’t wish to criticize my predecessor, or the excellent work done by the Research Staff in the last few generations, but do you realize that there has been no basic change in armaments for over a century? It is, I am afraid, the result of a tradition that has become conservative. For too long, the Research Staff has devoted itself to perfecting old weapons instead of developing new ones. It is fortunate for us that our opponents have been no wiser: we cannot assume that this will always be so.”

Norden’s words left an uncomfortable impression, as he had no doubt intended. He quickly pressed home the attack.

“What we want are new weapons—weapons totally different from any that have been employed before. Such weapons can be made: it will take time, of course, but since assuming charge I have replaced some of the older scientists with young men and have directed research into several unexplored fields which show great promise. I believe, in fact, that a revolution in warfare may soon be upon us.”

We were skeptical. There was a bombastic tone in Norden’s voice that made us suspicious of his claims. We did not know, then, that he never promised anything that he had not already almost perfected in the laboratory. In the laboratory—that was the operative phrase.

Norden proved his case less than a month later, when he demonstrated the Sphere of Annihilation, which produced complete disintegration of matter over a radius of several hundred meters. We were intoxicated by the power of the new weapon, and were quite prepared to overlook one fundamental defect—the fact that it was a sphere and hence destroyed its rather complicated generating equipment at the instant of formation. This meant, of course, that it could not be used on warships but only on guided missiles, and a great program was started to convert all homing torpedoes to carry the new weapon. For the time being all further offensives were suspended.

We realize now that this was our first mistake. I still think that it was a natural one, for it seemed to us then that all our existing weapons had become obsolete overnight, and we already regarded them as almost primitive survivals. What we did not appreciate was the magnitude of the task we were attempting, and the length of time it would take to get the revolutionary super-weapon into battle. Nothing like this had happened for a hundred years and we had no previous experience to guide us.

The conversion problem proved far more difficult than anticipated. A new class of torpedo had to be designed, as the standard model was too small. This meant in turn that only the larger ships could launch the weapon, but we were prepared to accept this penalty. After six months, the heavy units of the Fleet were being equipped with the Sphere. Training maneuvers and tests had shown that it was operating satisfactorily and we were ready to take it into action. Norden was already being hailed as the architect of victory, and had half promised even more spectacular weapons.

Then two things happened. One of our battleships disappeared completely on a training flight, and an investigation showed that under certain conditions the ship’s long-range radar could trigger the Sphere immediately after it had been launched. The modification needed to overcome this defect was trivial, but it caused a delay of another month and was the source of much bad feeling between the naval staff and the scientists. We were ready for action again—when Norden announced that the radius of effectiveness of the Sphere had now been increased by ten, thus multiplying by a thousand the chances of destroying an enemy ship.

So the modifications started all over again, but everyone agreed that the delay would be worth it. Meanwhile, however, the enemy had been emboldened by the absence of further attacks and had made an unexpected onslaught. Our ships were short of torpedoes, since none had been coming from the factories, and were forced to retire. So we lost the systems of Kyrane and Floranus, and the planetary fortress of Rhamsandron.

It was an annoying but not a serious blow, for the recaptured systems had been unfriendly, and difficult to administer. We had no doubt that we could restore the position in the near future, as soon as the new weapon became operational.

These hopes were only partially fulfilled. When we renewed our offensive, we had to do so with fewer of the Spheres of Annihilation than had been planned, and this was one reason for our limited success. The other reason was more serious.

While we had been equipping as many of our ships as we could with the irresistible weapon, the enemy had been building feverishly. His ships were of the old pattern with the old weapons—but they now outnumbered ours. When we went into action, we found that the numbers ranged against us were often 100 percent greater than expected, causing target confusion among the automatic weapons and resulting in higher losses than anticipated. The enemy losses were higher still, for once a Sphere had reached its objective, destruction was certain, but the balance had not swung as far in our favor as we had hoped.

Moreover, while the main fleets had been engaged, the enemy had launched a daring attack on the lightly held systems of Eriston, Duranus, Carmanidora and Pharanidon—recapturing them all. We were thus faced with a threat only fifty light-years from our home planets.

There was much recrimination at the next meeting of the supreme commanders. Most of the complaints were addressed to Norden—Grand Admiral Taxaris in particular maintaining that thanks to our admittedly irresistible weapon we were now considerably worse off than before. We should, he claimed, have continued to build conventional ships, thus preventing the loss of our numerical superiority.

Norden was equally angry and called the naval staff ungrateful bunglers. But I could tell that he was worried—as indeed we all were—by the unexpected turn of events. He hinted that there might be a speedy way of remedying the situation.

We now know that Research had been working on the Battle Analyzer for many years, but at the time it came as a revelation to us and perhaps we were too easily swept off our feet. Norden’s argument, also, was seductively convincing. What did it matter, he said, if the enemy had twice as many ships as we—if the efficiency of ours could be doubled or even trebled? For decades the limiting factor in warfare had been not mechanical but biological—it had become more and more difficult for any single mind, or group of minds, to cope with the rapidly changing complexities of battle in three-dimensional space. Norden’s mathematicians had analyzed some of the classic engagements of the past, and had shown that even when we had been victorious we had often operated our units at much less than half of their theoretical efficiency.

The Battle Analyzer would change all this by replacing the operations staff with electronic calculators. The idea was not new, in theory, but until now it had been no more than a utopian dream. Many of us found it difficult to believe that it was still anything but a dream: after we had run through several very complex dummy battles, however, we were convinced.

It was decided to install the Analyzer in four of our heaviest ships, so that each of the main fleets could be equipped with one. At this stage, the trouble began—though we did not know it until later.

The Analyzer contained just short of a million vacuum tubes and needed a team of five hundred technicians to maintain and operate it. It was quite impossible to accommodate the extra staff aboard a battleship, so each of the four units had to be accompanied by a converted liner to carry the technicians not on duty. Installation was also a very slow and tedious business, but by gigantic efforts it was completed in six months.

Then, to our dismay, we were confronted by another crisis. Nearly five thousand highly skilled men had been selected to serve the Analyzers and had been given an intensive course at the Technical Training Schools. At the end of seven months, 10 per cent of them had had nervous breakdowns and only 40 per cent had qualified.

Once again, everyone started to blame everyone else. Norden, of course, said that the Research Staff could not be held responsible, and so incurred the enmity of the Personnel and Training Commands. It was finally decided that the only thing to do was to use two instead of four Analyzers and to bring the others into action as soon as men could be trained. There was little time to lose, for the enemy was still on the offensive and his morale was rising.

The first Analyzer fleet was ordered to recapture the system of Eriston. On the way, by one of the hazards of war, the liner carrying the technicians was struck by a roving mine. A warship would have survived, but the liner with its irreplaceable cargo was totally destroyed. So the operation had to be abandoned.

The other expedition was, at first, more successful. There was no doubt at all that the Analyzer fulfilled its designers’ claims, and the enemy was heavily defeated in the first engagements. He withdrew, leaving us in possession of Saphran, Leucon and Hexanerax. But his Intelligence Staff must have noted the change in our tactics and the inexplicable presence of a liner in the heart of our battlefleet. It must have noted, also, that our first fleet had been accompanied by a similar ship—and had withdrawn when it had been destroyed.

In the next engagement, the enemy used his superior numbers to launch an overwhelming attack on the Analyzer ship and its unarmed consort. The attack was made without regard to losses—both ships were, of course, very heavily protected—and it succeeded. The result was the virtual decapitation of the Fleet, since an effectual transfer to the old operational methods proved impossible. We disengaged under heavy fire, and so lost all our gains and also the systems of Lormyia, Ismarnus, Beronis, Alphanidon and Sideneus.

At this stage, Grand Admiral Taxaris expressed his disapproval of Norden by committing suicide, and I assumed supreme command.

The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination, the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships. It was galling to realize that if we had only continued building, without seeking new weapons, we would have been in a far more advantageous position. There were many acrimonious conferences at which Norden defended the scientists while everyone else blamed them for all that had happened. The difficulty was that Norden had proved every one of his claims: he had a perfect excuse for all the disasters that had occurred. And we could not now turn back—the search for an irresistible weapon must go on. At first it had been a luxury that would shorten the war. Now it was a necessity if we were to end it victoriously.

We were on the defensive, and so was Norden. He was more than ever determined to reestablish his prestige and that of the Research Staff. But we had been twice disappointed, and would not make the same mistake again. No doubt Norden’s twenty thousand scientists would produce many further weapons: we would remain unimpressed.

We were wrong. The final weapon was something so fantastic that even now it seems difficult to believe that it ever existed. Its innocent, noncommittal name—The Exponential Field—gave no hint of its real potentialities. Some of Norden’s mathematicians had discovered it during a piece of entirely theoretical research into the properties of space, and to everyone’s great surprise their results were found to be physically realizable.

It seems very difficult to explain the operation of the Field to the layman. According to the technical description, it “produces an exponential condition of space, so that a finite distance in normal, linear space may become infinite in pseudo-space.” Norden gave an analogy which some of us found useful. It was as if one took a flat disk of rubber—representing a region of normal space—and then pulled its center out to infinity. The circumference of the disk would be unaltered—but its “diameter” would be infinite. That was the sort of thing the generator of the Field did to the space around it.

As an example, suppose that a ship carrying the generator was surrounded by a ring of hostile machines. If it switched on the Field, each of the enemy ships would think that it—and the ships on the far side of the circle—had suddenly receded into nothingness. Yet the circumference of the circle would be the same as before: only the journey to the center would be of infinite duration, for as one proceeded, distances would appear to become greater and greater as the “scale” of space altered.

It was a nightmare condition, but a very useful one. Nothing could reach a ship carrying the Field: it might be englobed by an enemy fleet yet would be as inaccessible as if it were at the other side of the Universe. Against this, of course, it could not fight back without switching off the Field, but this still left it at a very great advantage, not only in defense but in offense. For a ship fitted with the Field could approach an enemy fleet undetected and suddenly appear in its midst.

This time there seemed to be no flaws in the new weapon. Needless to say, we looked for all the possible objections before we committed ourselves again. Fortunately the equipment was fairly simple and did not require a large operating staff. After much debate, we decided to rush it into production, for we realized that time was running short and the war was going against us. We had now lost about the whole of our initial gains and enemy forces had made several raids into our own solar system.

We managed to hold off the enemy while the Fleet was reequipped and the new battle techniques were worked out. To use the Field operationally it was necessary to locate an enemy formation, set a course that would intercept it, and then switch on the generator for the calculated period of time. On releasing the Field again—if the calculations had been accurate—one would be in the enemy’s midst and could do great damage during the resulting confusion, retreating by the same route when necessary.

The first trial maneuvers proved satisfactory and the equipment seemed quite reliable. Numerous mock attacks were made and the crews became accustomed to the new technique. I was on one of the test flights and can vividly remember my impressions as the Field was switched on. The ships around us seemed to dwindle as if on the surface of an expanding bubble: in an instant they had vanished completely. So had the stars—but presently we could see that the Galaxy was still visible as a faint band of light around the ship. The virtual radius of our pseudo-space was not really infinite, but some hundred thousand light-years, and so the distance to the farthest stars of our system had not been greatly increased—though the nearest had of course totally disappeared.

These training maneuvers, however, had to be canceled before they were completed, owing to a whole flock of minor technical troubles in various pieces of equipment, notably the communications circuits. These were annoying, but not important, though it was thought best to return to Base to clear them up.

At that moment the enemy made what was obviously intended to be a decisive attack against the fortress planet of Iton at the limits of our Solar System. The Fleet had to go into battle before repairs could be made.

The enemy must have believed that we had mastered the secret of invisibility—as in a sense we had. Our ships appeared suddenly out of nowhere and inflicted tremendous damage—for a while. And then something quite baffling and inexplicable happened.

I was in command of the flagship Hircania when the trouble started. We had been operating as independent units, each against assigned objectives. Our detectors observed an enemy formation at medium range and the navigating officers measured its distance with great accuracy. We set course and switched on the generator.

The Exponential Field was released at the moment when we should have been passing through the center of the enemy group. To our consternation, we emerged into normal space at a distance of many hundred miles—and when we found the enemy, he had already found us. We retreated, and tried again. This time we were so far away from the enemy that he located us first.

Obviously, something was seriously wrong. We broke communicator silence and tried to contact the other ships of the Fleet to see if they had experienced the same trouble. Once again we failed—and this time the failure was beyond all reason, for the communication equipment appeared to be working perfectly. We could only assume, fantastic though it seemed, that the rest of the Fleet had been destroyed.

I do not wish to describe the scenes when the scattered units of the Fleet struggled back to Base. Our casualties had actually been negligible, but the ships were completely demoralized. Almost all had lost touch with one another and had found that their ranging equipment showed inexplicable errors. It was obvious that the Exponential Field was the cause of the troubles, despite the fact that they were only apparent when it was switched off.

The explanation came too late to do us any good, and Norden’s final discomfiture was small consolation for the virtual loss of the war. As I have explained, the Field generators produced a radial distortion of space, distances appearing greater and greater as one approached the center of the artificial pseudo-space. When the Field was switched off, conditions returned to normal.

But not quite. It was never possible to restore the initial state exactly. Switching the Field on and off was equivalent to an elongation and contraction of the ship carrying the generator, but there was a hysteretic effect, as it were, and the initial condition was never quite reproducible, owing to all the thousands of electrical changes and movements of mass aboard the ship while the Field was on. These asymmetries and distortions were cumulative, and though they seldom amounted to more than a fraction of one per cent, that was quite enough. It meant that the precision ranging equipment and the tuned circuits in the communication apparatus were thrown completely out of adjustment. Any single ship could never detect the change—only when it compared its equipment with that of another vessel, or tried to communicate with it, could it tell what had happened.

It is impossible to describe the resultant chaos. Not a single component of one ship could be expected with certainty to work aboard another. The very nuts and bolts were no longer interchangeable, and the supply position became quite impossible. Given time, we might even have overcome these difficulties, but the enemy ships were already attacking in thousands with weapons which now seemed centuries behind those that we had invented. Our magnificent Fleet, crippled by our own science, fought on as best it could until it was overwhelmed and forced to surrender. The ships fitted with the Field were still invulnerable, but as fighting units they were almost helpless. Every time they switched on their generators to escape from enemy attack, the permanent distortion of their equipment increased. In a month, it was all over.

THIS IS THE true story of our defeat, which I give without prejudice to my defense before this Court. I make it, as I have said, to counteract the libels that have been circulating against the men who fought under me, and to show where the true blame for our misfortunes lay.

Finally, my request, which as the Court will now realize I make in no frivolous manner and which I hope will therefore be granted.

The Court will be aware that the conditions under which we are housed and the constant surveillance to which we are subjected night and day are somewhat distressing. Yet I am not complaining of this: nor do I complain of the fact that shortage of accommodation has made it necessary to house us in pairs.

But I cannot be held responsible for my future actions if I am compelled any longer to share my cell with Professor Norden, late Chief of the Research Staff of my armed forces.


Arthur C. Clarke

<p><emphasis>Arthur C. Clarke</emphasis></p>

Arthur C. Clarke’s lengthy publishing credentials include articles in mid-century scientific journals that laid the groundwork for the development of telecommunications satellites. Among his many influential works of science fiction are the visionary novel of man’s future in the universe, Childhood’s End, and the now legendary film and fiction that grew out of its concepts: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey. Clarke is regarded as one of the masters of hard science fiction, and his novels Prelude to Space, A Fall of Moondust, and The Fountains of Paradise have all been praised for their meticulous scientific accuracy. At the same time, he has explored the metaphysical and cosmological implications of science and space exploration in such works as the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning novel Rendezvous with Rama and the oft-reprinted title story of The Nine Billion Names of God, one of the many collections of his short fiction, which include Reach for Tomorrow, Tales from the White Hart, The Other Side of the Sky, and Tales of Ten Worlds. Clarke’s bestselling books of popular science include The Exploration of Space, Profiles of the Future, and The View from Serendip. He has also authored the young adult novels Islands in the Sky and Dolphin Island, and the autobiographical volume Astounding Days.


ENDER'S GAME

Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card

<p>ENDER'S GAME</p> <p>Orson Scott Card</p>

“WHATEVER YOUR GRAVITY is when you get to the door, remember—the enemy’s gate is down. If you step through your own door like you’re out for a stroll, you’re a big target and you deserve to get hit. With more than a flasher.” Ender Wiggins paused and looked over the group. Most were just watching him nervously. A few understanding. A few sullen and resisting.

First day with this army, all fresh from the teacher squads, and Ender had forgotten how young new kids could be. He’d been in it for three years, they’d had six months—nobody over nine years old in the whole bunch. But they were his. At eleven, he was half a year early to be a commander. He’d had a toon of his own and knew a few tricks, but there were forty in his new army. Green. All marksmen with a flasher, all in top shape, or they wouldn’t be here—but they were all just as likely as not to get wiped out first time into battle.

“Remember,” he went on, “they can’t see you till you get through that door. But the second you’re out, they’ll be on you. So hit that door the way you want to be when they shoot at you. Legs go under you, going straight down.” He pointed at a sullen kid who looked like he was only seven, the smallest of them all. “Which way is down, greenoh!”

“Toward the enemy door.” The answer was quick. It was also surly, as if to say, Yeah, yeah, now get on with the important stuff.

“Name, kid?”

“Bean.”

“Get that for size or for brains?”

Bean didn’t answer. The rest laughed a little. Ender had chosen right. The kid was younger than the rest, must have been advanced because he was sharp. The others didn’t like him much, they were happy to see him taken down a little. Like Ender’s first commander had taken him down.

“Well, Bean, you’re right onto things. Now I tell you this, nobody’s gonna get through that door without a good chance of getting hit. A lot of you are going to be turned into cement somewhere. Make sure it’s your legs. Right? If only your legs get hit, then only your legs get frozen, and in nullo that’s no sweat.” Ender turned to one of the dazed ones. “What’re legs for? Hmmm?”

Blank stare. Confusion. Stammer.

“Forget it. Guess I’ll have to ask Bean here.”

“Legs are for pushing off walls.” Still bored.

“Thanks, Bean. Get that, everybody?” They all got it, and didn’t like getting it from Bean. “Right. You can’t see with legs, you can’t shoot with legs, and most of the time they just get in the way. If they get frozen sticking straight out you’ve turned yourself into a blimp. No way to hide. So how do legs go?”

A few answered this time, to prove that Bean wasn’t the only one who knew anything. “Under you. Tucked up under.”

“Right. A shield. You’re kneeling on a shield, and the shield is your own legs. And there’s a trick to the suits. Even when your legs are flashed you can still kick off. I’ve never seen anybody do it but me—but you’re all gonna learn it.”

Ender Wiggins turned on his flasher. It glowed faintly green in his hand. Then he let himself rise in the weightless workout room, pulled his legs under him as though he were kneeling, and flashed both of them. Immediately his suit stiffened at the knees and ankles, so that he couldn’t bend at all.

“Okay, I’m frozen, see?”

He was floating a meter above them. They all looked up at him, puzzled. He leaned back and caught one of the handholds on the wall behind him, and pulled himself flush against the wall.

“I’m stuck at a wall. If I had legs, I’d use legs, and string myself out like a string bean, right?”

They laughed.

“But I don’t have legs, and that’s better, got it? Because of this.” Ender jackknifed at the waist, then straightened out violently. He was across the workout room in only a moment. From the other side he called to them. “Got that? I didn’t use hands, so I still had use of my flasher. And I didn’t have my legs floating five feet behind me. Now watch it again.”

He repeated the jackknife, and caught a handhold on the wall near them. “Now, I don’t just want you to do that when they’ve flashed your legs. I want you to do that when you’ve still got legs, because it’s better. And because they’ll never be expecting it. All right now, everybody up in the air and kneeling.”

Most were up in a few seconds. Ender flashed the stragglers, and they dangled, helplessly frozen, while the others laughed. “When I give an order, you move. Got it? When we’re at a door and they clear it, I’ll be giving you orders in two seconds, as soon as I see the setup. And when I give the order you better be out there, because whoever’s out there first is going to win, unless he’s a fool. I’m not. And you better not be, or I’ll have you back in the teacher squads.” He saw more than a few of them gulp, and the frozen ones looked at him with fear. “You guys who are hanging there. You watch. You’ll thaw out in about fifteen minutes, and let’s see if you can catch up to the others.”

For the next half hour Ender had them jackknifing off walls. He called a stop when he saw that they all had the basic idea. They were a good group, maybe. They’d get better.

“Now you’re warmed up,” he said to them, “we’ll start working.”

ENDER WAS THE last one out after practice, since he stayed to help some of the slower ones improve on technique. They’d had good teachers, but like all armies they were uneven, and some of them could be a real drawback in battle. Their first battle might be weeks away. It might be tomorrow. A schedule was never printed. The commander just woke up and found a note by his bunk, giving him the time of his battle and the name of his opponent. So for the first while he was going to drive his boys until they were in top shape—all of them. Ready for anything, at any time. Strategy was nice, but it was worth nothing if the soldiers couldn’t hold up under the strain.

He turned the corner into the residence wing and found himself face to face with Bean, the seven-year-old he had picked on all through practice that day. Problems. Ender didn’t want problems right now.

“Ho, Bean.”

“Ho, Ender.”

Pause.

“Sir,” Ender said softly.

“We’re not on duty.”

“In my army, Bean, we’re always on duty.” Ender brushed past him.

Bean’s high voice piped up behind him. “I know what you’re doing, Ender, sir, and I’m warning you.”

Ender turned slowly and looked at him. “Warning me?”

“I’m the best man you’ve got. But I’d better be treated like it.”

“Or what?” Ender smiled menacingly.

“Or I’ll be the worst man you’ve got. One or the other.”

“And what do you want? Love and kisses?” Ender was getting angry now.

Bean was unworried. “I want a toon.”

Ender walked back to him and stood looking down into his eyes. “I’ll give a toon,” he said, “to the boys who prove they’re worth something. They’ve got to be good soldiers, they’ve got to know how to take orders, they’ve got to be able to think for themselves in a pinch, and they’ve got to be able to keep respect. That’s how I got to be a commander. That’s how you’ll get to be a toon leader. Got it?”

Bean smiled. “That’s fair. If you actually work that way, I’ll be a toon leader in a month.”

Ender reached down and grabbed the front of his uniform and shoved him into the wall. “When I say I work a certain way, Bean, then that’s the way I work.”

Bean just smiled. Ender let go of him and walked away, and didn’t look back. He was sure, without looking, that Bean was still watching, still smiling, still just a little contemptuous. He might make a good toon leader at that. Ender would keep an eye on him.

CAPTAIN GRAFF, SIX foot two and a little chubby, stroked his belly as he leaned back in his chair. Across his desk sat Lieutenant Anderson, who was earnestly pointing out high points on a chart.

“Here it is, Captain,” Anderson said. “Ender’s already got them doing a tactic that’s going to throw off everyone who meets it. Doubled their speed.”

Graff nodded.

“And you know his test scores. He thinks well, too.”

Graff smiled. “All true, all true, Anderson, he’s a fine student, shows real promise.”

They waited.

Graff sighed. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Ender’s the one. He’s got to be.”

“He’ll never be ready in time, Lieutenant. He’s eleven, for heaven’s sake, man, what do you want, a miracle?”

“I want him into battles, every day starting tomorrow. I want him to have a year’s worth of battles in a month.”

Graff shook his head. “That would have his army in the hospital.”

“No, sir. He’s getting them into form. And we need Ender.”

“Correction, Lieutenant. We need somebody. You think it’s Ender.”

“All right, I think it’s Ender. Which of the commanders if it isn’t him?”

“I don’t know, Lieutenant.” Graff ran his hands over his slightly fuzzy bald head. “These are children, Anderson. Do you realize that? Ender’s army is nine years old. Are we going to put them against the older kids? Are we going to put them through hell for a month like that?”

Lieutenant Anderson leaned even farther over Graff’s desk.

“Ender’s test scores, Captain!”

“I’ve seen his bloody test scores! I’ve watched him in battle, I’ve listened to tapes of his training sessions. I’ve watched his sleep patterns, I’ve heard tapes of his conversations in the corridors and in the bathrooms, I’m more aware of Ender Wiggins than you could possibly imagine! And against all the arguments, against his obvious qualities, I’m weighing one thing. I have this picture of Ender a year from now, if you have your way. I see him completely useless, worn down, a failure, because he was pushed farther than he or any living person could go. But it doesn’t weigh enough, does it, Lieutenant, because there’s a war on, and our best talent is gone, and the biggest battles are ahead. So give Ender a battle every day this week. And then bring me a report.”

Anderson stood and saluted. “Thank you, sir.”

He had almost reached the door when Graff called his name. He turned and faced the captain.

“Anderson,” Captain Graff said. “Have you been outside, lately I mean?”

“Not since last leave, six months ago.”

“I didn’t think so. Not that it makes any difference. But have you ever been to Beaman Park, there in the city? Hmm? Beautiful park. Trees. Grass. No nullo, no battles, no worries. Do you know what else there is in Beaman Park?”

“What, sir?” Lieutenant Anderson asked.

“Children,” Graff answered.

“Of course, children,” said Anderson.

“I mean children. I mean kids who get up in the morning when their mothers call them and they go to school and then in the afternoons they go to Beaman Park and play. They’re happy, they smile a lot, they laugh, they have fun. Hmmm?”

“I’m sure they do, sir.”

“Is that all you can say, Anderson?”

Anderson cleared his throat. “It’s good for children to have fun, I think, sir. I know I did when I was a boy. But right now the world needs soldiers. And this is the way to get them.”

Graff nodded and closed his eyes. “Oh, indeed, you’re right, by statistical proof and by all the important theories, and dammit they work and the system is right but all the same Ender’s older than I am. He’s not a child. He’s barely a person.”

“If that’s true, sir, then at least we all know that Ender is making it possible for the others of his age to be playing in the park.”

“And Jesus died to save all men, of course.” Graff sat up and looked at Anderson almost sadly. “But we’re the ones,” Graff said, “we’re the ones who are driving in the nails.”

ENDER WIGGINS LAY on his bed staring at the ceiling. He never slept more than five hours a night—but the lights went off at 2200 and didn’t come on again until 0600. So he stared at the ceiling and thought.

He’d had his army for three and a half weeks. Dragon Army. The name was assigned, and it wasn’t a lucky one. Oh, the charts said that about nine years ago a Dragon Army had done fairly well. But for the next six years the name had been attached to inferior armies, and finally, because of the superstition that was beginning to play about the name, Dragon Army was retired. Until now. And now, Ender thought, smiling, Dragon Army was going to take them by surprise.

The door opened quietly. Ender did not turn his head. Someone stepped softly into his room, then left with the sound of the door shutting. When soft steps died away Ender rolled over and saw a white slip of paper lying on the floor. He reached down and picked it up.

“Dragon Army against Rabbit Army, Ender Wiggins and Carn Carby, 0700.”

The first battle. Ender got out of bed and quickly dressed. He went rapidly to the rooms of each of his toon leaders and told them to rouse their boys. In five minutes they were all gathered in the corridor, sleepy and slow. Ender spoke softly.

“First battle, 0700 against Rabbit Army. I’ve fought them twice before but they’ve got a new commander. Never heard of him. They’re an older group, though, and I know a few of their old tricks. Now wake up. Run, doublefast, warmup in workroom three.”

For an hour and a half they worked out, with three mock battles and calisthenics in the corridor out of the nullo. Then for fifteen minutes they all lay up in the air, totally relaxing in the weightlessness. At 0650 Ender roused them and they hurried into the corridor. Ender led them down the corridor, running again, and occasionally leaping to touch a light panel on the ceiling. The boys all touched the same light panel. And at 0658 they reached their gate to the battleroom.

The members of toons C and D grabbed the first eight handholds in the ceiling of the corridor. Toons A, B, and E crouched on the floor. Ender hooked his feet into two handholds in the middle of the ceiling, so he was out of everyone’s way.

“Which way is the enemy’s door?” he hissed.

“Down!” they whispered back, and laughed.

“Flashers on.” The boxes in their hands glowed green. They waited for a few seconds more, and then the grey wall in front of them disappeared and the battleroom was visible.

Ender sized it up immediately. The familiar open grid of most early games, like the monkey bars at the park, with seven or eight boxes scattered through the grid. They called the boxes stars. There were enough of them, and in forward enough positions, that they were worth going for. Ender decided this in a second, and he hissed, “Spread to near stars. E hold!”

The four groups in the corners plunged through the forcefield at the doorway and fell down into the battleroom. Before the enemy even appeared through the opposite gate Ender’s army had spread from the door to the nearest stars.

Then the enemy soldiers came through the door. From their stance Ender knew they had been in a different gravity, and didn’t know enough to disorient themselves from it. They came through standing up, their entire bodies spread and defenseless.

“Kill ’em, E!” Ender hissed, and threw himself out the door knees first, with his flasher between his legs and firing. While Ender’s group flew across the room the rest of Dragon Army lay down a protecting fire, so that E group reached a forward position with only one boy frozen completely, though they had all lost the use of their legs—which didn’t impair them in the least. There was a lull as Ender and his opponent, Carn Carnby, assessed their positions. Aside from Rabbit Army’s losses at the gate, there had been few casualties, and both armies were near full strength. But Carn had no originality—he was in a four-corner spread that any five-year-old in the teacher squads might have thought of. And Ender knew how to defeat it.

He called out, loudly, “E covers A, C down. B, D angle east wall.” Under E toon’s cover, B and D toons lunged away from their stars. While they were still exposed, A and C toons left their stars and drifted toward the near wall. They reached it together, and together jackknifed off the wall. At double the normal speed they appeared behind the enemy’s stars, and opened fire. In a few seconds the battle was over, with the enemy almost entirely frozen, including the commander, and the rest scattered to the corners. For the next five minutes, in squads of four, Dragon Army cleaned out the dark corners of the battleroom and shepherded the enemy into the center, where their bodies, frozen at impossible angles, jostled each other. Then Ender took three of his boys to the enemy gate and went through the formality of reversing the one-way field by simultaneously touching a Dragon Army helmet at each corner. Then Ender assembled his army in vertical files near the knot of frozen Rabbit Army soldiers.

Only three of Dragon Army’s soldiers were immobile. Their victory margin—38 to 0—was ridiculously high, and Ender began to laugh. Dragon Army joined him, laughing long and loud. They were still laughing when Lieutenant Anderson and Lieutenant Morris came in from the teachergate at the south end of the battleroom.

Lieutenant Anderson kept his face stiff and unsmiling, but Ender saw him wink as he held out his hand and offered the stiff, formal congratulations that were ritually given to the victor in the game.

Morris found Carn Carby and unfroze him, and the thirteen-year-old came and presented himself to Ender, who laughed without malice and held out his hand. Carn graciously took Ender’s hand and bowed his head over it. It was that or be flashed again.

Lieutenant Anderson dismissed Dragon Army, and they silently left the battleroom through the enemy’s door—again part of the ritual. A light was blinking on the north side of the square door, indicating where the gravity was in that corridor. Ender, leading his soldiers, changed his orientation and went through the forcefield and into gravity on his feet. His army followed him at a brisk run back to the workroom. When they got there they formed up into squads, and Ender hung in the air, watching them.

“Good first battle,” he said, which was excuse enough for a cheer, which he quieted. “Dragon Army did all right against Rabbits. But the enemy isn’t always going to be that bad. And if that had been a good army we would have been smashed. We still would have won, but we would have been smashed. Now let me see B and D toons out here. Your takeoff from the stars was way too slow. If Rabbit Army knew how to aim a flasher, you all would have been frozen solid before A and C even got to the wall.”

They worked out for the rest of the day.

That night Ender went for the first time to the commanders’ mess hall. No one was allowed there until he had won at least one battle, and Ender was the youngest commander ever to make it. There was no great stir when he came in. But when some of the other boys saw the Dragon on his breast pocket, they stared at him openly, and by the time he got his tray and sat at an empty table, the entire room was silent, with the other commanders watching him. Intensely self-conscious, Ender wondered how they all knew, and why they all looked so hostile.

Then he looked above the door he had just come through. There was a huge scoreboard across the entire wall. It showed the win/loss record for the commander of every army; that day’s battles were lit in red. Only four of them. The other three winners had barely made it—the best of them had only two men whole and eleven mobile at the end of the game. Dragon Army’s score of thirty-eight mobile was embarrassingly better.

Other new commanders had been admitted to the commanders’ mess hall with cheers and congratulations. Other new commanders hadn’t won thirty-eight to zero.

Ender looked for Rabbit Army on the scoreboard. He was surprised to find that Carn Carby’s score to date was eight wins and three losses. Was he that good? Or had he only fought against inferior armies? Whichever, there was still a zero in Carn’s mobile and whole columns, and Ender looked down from the scoreboard grinning. No one smiled back, and Ender knew that they were afraid of him, which meant that they would hate him, which meant that anyone who went into battle against Dragon Army would be scared and angry and less competent. Ender looked for Carn Carby in the crowd, and found him not too far away. He stared at Carby until one of the other boys nudged the Rabbit commander and pointed to Ender. Ender smiled again and waved slightly. Carby turned red, and Ender, satisfied, leaned over his dinner and began to eat.

AT THE END of the week Dragon Army had fought seven battles in seven days. The score stood 7 wins and 0 losses. Ender had never had more than five boys frozen in any game. It was no longer possible for the other commanders to ignore Ender. A few of them sat with him and quietly conversed about game strategies that Ender’s opponents had used. Other much larger groups were talking with the commanders that Ender had defeated, trying to find out what Ender had done to beat them.

In the middle of the meal the teacher door opened and the groups fell silent as Lieutenant Anderson stepped in and looked over the group. When he located Ender he strode quickly across the room and whispered in Ender’s ear. Ender nodded, finished his glass of water, and left with the lieutenant. On the way out, Anderson handed a slip of paper to one of the older boys. The room became very noisy with conversation as Anderson and Ender left.

Ender was escorted down corridors he had never seen before. They didn’t have the blue glow of the soldier corridors. Most were wood paneled, and the floors were carpeted. The doors were wood, with nameplates on them, and they stopped at one that said “Captain Graff, supervisor.” Anderson knocked softly, and a low voice said, “Come in.”

They went in. Captain Graff was seated behind a desk, his hands folded across his pot belly. He nodded, and Anderson sat. Ender also sat down. Graff cleared his throat and spoke.

“Seven days since your first battle, Ender.”

Ender did not reply.

“Won seven battles, one every day.”

Ender nodded.

“Scores unusually high, too.”

Ender blinked.

“Why?” Graff asked him.

Ender glanced at Anderson, and then spoke to the captain behind the desk. “Two new tactics, sir. Legs doubled up as a shield, so that a flash doesn’t immobilize. Jackknife takeoffs from the walls. Superior strategy, as Lieutenant Anderson taught, think places, not spaces. Five toons of eight instead of four of ten. Incompetent opponents. Excellent toon leaders, good soldiers.”

Graff looked at Ender without expression. Waiting for what, Ender wondered. Lieutenant Anderson spoke up.

“Ender, what’s the condition of your army?”

Do they want me to ask for relief? Not a chance, he decided. “A little tired, in peak condition, morale high, learning fast. Anxious for the next battle.”

Anderson looked at Graff. Graff shrugged slightly and turned to Ender.

“Is there anything you want to know?”

Ender held his hands loosely in his lap. “When are you going to put us up against a good army?”

Graff’s laughter rang in the room, and when it stopped, Graff handed a piece of paper to Ender.

“Now,” the captain said, and Ender read the paper: “Dragon Army against Leopard Army, Ender Wiggins and Pol Slattery, 2000.”

Ender looked up at Captain Graff. “That’s ten minutes from now, sir.”

Graff smiled. “Better hurry, then, boy.”

As Ender left he realized Pol Slattery was the boy who had been handed his orders as Ender left the mess hall.

He got to his army five minutes later. Three toon leaders were already undressed and lying naked on their beds. He sent them all flying down the corridors to rouse their toons, and gathered up their suits himself. When all his boys were assembled in the corridor, most of them still getting dressed, Ender spoke to them.

“This one’s hot and there’s no time. We’ll be late to the door, and the enemy’ll be deployed right outside our gate. Ambush, and I’ve never heard of it happening before. So we’ll take our time at the door. A and B toons, keep your belts loose, and give your flashers to the leaders and seconds of the other toons.”

Puzzled, his soldiers complied. By then all were dressed, and Ender led them at a trot to the gate. When they reached it the forcefield was already on one-way, and some of his soldiers were panting. They had had one battle that day and a full workout. They were tired.

Ender stopped at the entrance and looked at the placement of the enemy soldiers. Some of them were grouped not more than twenty feet out from the gate. There was no grid, there were no stars. A big empty space. Where were most of the enemy soldiers? There should have been thirty more.

“They’re flat against this wall,” Ender said, “where we can’t see them.”

He took A and B toons and made them kneel, their hands on their hips. Then he flashed them, so that their bodies were frozen rigid.

“You’re shields,” Ender said, and then had boys from C and D kneel on their legs and hook both arms under the frozen boys’ belts. Each boy was holding two flashers. Then Ender and the members of E toon picked up the duos, three at a time, and threw them out the door.

Of course, the enemy opened fire immediately. But they mainly hit the boys who were already flashed, and in a few moments pandemonium broke out in the battleroom. All the soldiers of Leopard Army were easy targets as they lay pressed flat against the wall or floated, unprotected, in the middle of the battleroom; and Ender’s soldiers, armed with two flashers each, carved them up easily. Pol Slattery reacted quickly, ordering his men away from the wall, but not quickly enough—only a few were able to move, and they were flashed before they could get a quarter of the way across the battleroom.

When the battle was over Dragon Army had only twelve boys whole, the lowest score they had ever had. But Ender was satisfied. And during the ritual of surrender Pol Slattery broke form by shaking hands and asking, “Why did you wait so long getting out of the gate?”

Ender glanced at Anderson, who was floating nearby. “I was informed late,” he said. “It was an ambush.”

Slattery grinned, and gripped Ender’s hand again. “Good game.”

Ender didn’t smile at Anderson this time. He knew that now the games would be arranged against him, to even up the odds. He didn’t like it.

IT WAS 2150, nearly time for lights out, when Ender knocked at the door of the room shared by Bean and three other soldiers. One of the others opened the door, then stepped back and held it wide. Ender stood for a moment, then asked if he could come in. They answered, of course, of course, come in, and he walked to the upper bunk, where Bean had set down his book and was leaning on one elbow to look at Ender.

“Bean, can you give me twenty minutes?”

“Near lights out,” Bean answered.

“My room,” Ender answered. “I’ll cover for you.”

Bean sat up and slid off his bed. Together he and Ender padded silently down the corridor to Ender’s room. Bean entered first, and Ender closed the door behind them.

“Sit down,” Ender said, and they both sat on the edge of the bed, looking at each other.

“Remember four weeks ago, Bean? When you told me to make you a toon leader?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve made five toon leaders since then, haven’t I? And none of them was you.”

Bean looked at him calmly.

“Was I right?” Ender asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bean answered.

Ender nodded. “How have you done in these battles?”

Bean cocked his head to one side. “I’ve never been immobilized, sir, and I’ve immobilized forty-three of the enemy. I’ve obeyed orders quickly, and I’ve commanded a squad in mop-up and never lost a soldier.”

“Then you’ll understand this.” Ender paused, then decided to back up and say something else first.

“You know you’re early, Bean, by a good half year. I was, too, and I’ve been made a commander six months early. Now they’ve put me into battles after only three weeks of training with my army. They’ve given me eight battles in seven days. I’ve already had more battles than boys who were made commander four months ago. I’ve won more battles than many who’ve been commanders for a year. And then tonight. You know what happened tonight.”

Bean nodded. “They told you late.”

“I don’t know what the teachers are doing. But my army is getting tired, and I’m getting tired, and now they’re changing the rules of the game. You see, Bean, I’ve looked in the old charts. No one has ever destroyed so many enemies and kept so many of his own soldiers whole in the history of the game. I’m unique—and I’m getting unique treatment.”

Bean smiled. “You’re the best, Ender.”

Ender shook his head. “Maybe. But it was no accident that I got the soldiers I got. My worst soldier could be a toon leader in another army. I’ve got the best. They’ve loaded things my way—but now they’re loading it all against me. I don’t know why. But I know I have to be ready for it. I need your help.”

“Why mine?”

“Because even though there are some better soldiers than you in Dragon Army—not many, but some—there’s nobody who can think better and faster than you.” Bean said nothing. They both knew it was true.

Ender continued, “I need to be ready, but I can’t retrain the whole army. So I’m going to cut every toon down by one, including you. With four others you’ll be a special squad under me. And you’ll learn to do some new things. Most of the time you’ll be in the regular toons just like you are now. But when I need you. See?”

Bean smiled and nodded. “That’s right, that’s good, can I pick them myself?”

“One from each toon except your own, and you can’t take any toon leaders.”

“What do you want us to do?”

“Bean, I don’t know. I don’t know what they’ll throw at us. What would you do if suddenly our flashers didn’t work, and the enemy’s did? What would you do if we had to face two armies at once? The only thing I know is—there may be a game where we don’t even try for score. Where we just go for the enemy’s gate. That’s when the battle is technically won—four helmets at the corners of the gate. I want you ready to do that any time I call for it. Got it? You take them for two hours a day during regular workout. Then you and I and your soldiers, we’ll work at night after dinner.”

“We’ll get tired.”

“I have a feeling we don’t know what tired is.” Ender reached out and took Bean’s hand, and gripped it. “Even when it’s rigged against us, Bean. We’ll win.”

Bean left in silence and padded down the corridor.

DRAGON ARMY WASN’T the only army working out after hours now. The other commanders had finally realized they had some catching up to do. From early morning to lights out soldiers all over Training and Command Center, none of them over fourteen years old, were learning to jackknife off walls and use each other as living shields.

But while other commanders mastered the techniques that Ender had used to defeat them, Ender and Bean worked on solutions to problems that had never come up.

There were still battles every day, but for a while they were normal, with grids and stars and sudden plunges through the gate. And after the battles, Ender and Bean and four other soldiers would leave the main group and practice strange maneuvers. Attacks without flashers, using feet to physically disarm or disorient an enemy. Using four frozen soldiers to reverse the enemy’s gate in less than two seconds. And one day Bean came to workout with a 300-meter cord.

“What’s that for?”

“I don’t know yet.” Absently Bean spun one end of the cord. It wasn’t more than an eighth of an inch thick, but it could have lifted ten adults without breaking.

“Where did you get it?”

“Commissary. They asked what for. I said to practice tying knots.”

Bean tied a loop in the end of the rope and slid it over his shoulders.

“Here, you two, hang on to the wall here. Now don’t let go of the rope. Give me about fifty yards of slack.” They complied, and Bean moved about ten feet from them along the wall. As soon as he was sure they were ready, he jackknifed off the wall and flew straight out, fifty yards. Then the rope snapped taut. It was so fine that it was virtually invisible, but it was strong enough to force Bean to veer off at almost a right angle. It happened so suddenly that he had inscribed a perfect arc and hit the wall hard before most of the other soldiers knew what had happened. Bean did a perfect rebound and drifted quickly back to where Ender and the others waited for him.

Many of the soldiers in the five regular squads hadn’t noticed the rope, and were demanding to know how it was done. It was impossible to change direction that abruptly in nullo. Bean just laughed.

“Wait till the next game without a grid! They’ll never know what hit them.”

They never did. The next game was only two hours later, but Bean and two others had become pretty good at aiming and shooting while they flew at ridiculous speeds at the end of the rope. The slip of paper was delivered, and Dragon Army trotted off to the gate, to battle with Griffin Army. Bean coiled the rope all the way.

When the gate opened, all they could see was a large brown star only fifteen feet away, completely blocking their view of the enemy’s gate.

Ender didn’t pause. “Bean, give yourself fifty feet of rope and go around the star.” Bean and his four soldiers dropped through the gate and in a moment Bean was launched sideways away from the star. The rope snapped taut, and Bean flew forward. As the rope was stopped by each edge of the star in turn, his arc became tighter and his speed greater, until when he hit the wall only a few feet away from the gate, he was barely able to control his rebound to end up behind the star. But he immediately moved all his arms and legs so that those waiting inside the gate would know that the enemy hadn’t flashed him anywhere.

Ender dropped through the gate, and Bean quickly told him how Griffin Army was situated. “They’ve got two squares of stars, all the way around the gate. All their soldiers are under cover, and there’s no way to hit any of them until we’re clear to the bottom wall. Even with shields, we’d get there at half strength and we wouldn’t have a chance.”

“They moving?” Ender asked.

“Do they need to?”

“I would.” Ender thought for a moment. “This one’s tough. We’ll go for the gate, Bean.”

Griffin Army began to call out to them.

“Hey, is anybody there!”

“Wake up, there’s a war on!”

“We wanna join the picnic!”

They were still calling when Ender’s army came out from behind their star with a shield of fourteen frozen soldiers. William Bee, Griffin Army’s commander, waited patiently as the screen approached, his men waiting at the fringes of their stars for the moment when whatever was behind the screen became visible. About ten yards away the screen suddenly exploded as the soldiers behind it shoved the screen north. The momentum carried them south twice as fast, and at the same moment the rest of Dragon Army burst from behind their star at the opposite end of the room, firing rapidly.

William Bee’s boys joined battle immediately, of course, but William Bee was far more interested in what had been left behind when the shield disappeared. A formation of four frozen Dragon Army soldiers was moving headfirst toward the Griffin Army gate, held together by another frozen soldier whose feet and hands were hooked through their belts. A sixth soldier hung to his waist and trailed like the tail of a kite. Griffin Army was winning the battle easily, and William Bee concentrated on the formation as it approached the gate. Suddenly the soldier trailing in back moved—he wasn’t frozen at all! And even though William Bee flashed him immediately, the damage was done. The formation drifted to the Griffin Army gate, and their helmets touched all four corners simultaneously. A buzzer sounded, the gate reversed, and the frozen soldier in the middle was carried by momentum right through the gate. All the flashers stopped working, and the game was over.

The teachergate opened and Lieutenant Anderson came in. Anderson stopped himself with a slight movement of his hands when he reached the center of the battleroom. “Ender,” he called, breaking protocol. One of the frozen Dragon soldiers near the south wall tried to call through jaws that were clamped shut by the suit. Anderson drifted to him and unfroze him.

Ender was smiling.

“I beat you again, sir,” Ender said.

Anderson didn’t smile. “That’s nonsense, Ender,” Anderson said softly. “Your battle was with William Bee of Griffin Army.”

Ender raised an eyebrow.

“After that maneuver,” Anderson said, “the rules are being revised to require that all of the enemy’s soldiers must be immobilized before the gate can be reversed.”

“That’s all right,” Ender said. “It could only work once, anyway.” Anderson nodded, and was turning away when Ender added, “Is there going to be a new rule that armies be given equal positions to fight from?”

Anderson turned back around. “If you’re in one of the positions, Ender, you can hardly call them equal, whatever they are.”

William Bee counted carefully and wondered how in the world he had lost when not one of his soldiers had been flashed and only four of Ender’s soldiers were even mobile.

And that night as Ender came into the commanders’ mess hall, he was greeted with applause and cheers, and his table was crowded with respectful commanders, many of them two or three years older than he was. He was friendly, but while he ate he wondered what the teachers would do to him in his next battle. He didn’t need to worry. His next two battles were easy victories, and after that he never saw the battleroom again.

IT WAS 2100 and Ender was a little irritated to hear someone knock at his door. His army was exhausted, and he had ordered them all to be in bed after 2030. The last two days had been regular battles, and Ender was expecting the worst in the morning.

It was Bean. He came in sheepishly, and saluted.

Ender returned his salute and snapped, “Bean, I wanted everybody in bed.”

Bean nodded but didn’t leave. Ender considered ordering him out. But as he looked at Bean it occurred to him for the first time in weeks just how young Bean was. He had turned eight a week before, and he was still small and—no, Ender thought, he wasn’t young. Nobody was young. Bean had been in battle, and with a whole army depending on him he had come through and won. And even though he was small, Ender could never think of him as young again.

Ender shrugged and Bean came over and sat on the edge of the bed. The younger boy looked at his hands for a while, and finally Ender grew impatient and asked, “Well, what is it?”

“I’m transferred. Got orders just a few minutes ago.”

Ender closed his eyes for a moment. “I knew they’d pull something new. Now they’re taking—where are you going?”

“Rabbit Army.”

“How can they put you under an idiot like Carn Carby!”

“Carn was graduated. Support squads.”

Ender looked up. “Well, who’s commanding Rabbit then?”

Bean held his hands out helplessly.

“Me,” he said.

Ender nodded, and then smiled. “Of course. After all, you’re only four years younger than the regular age.”

“It isn’t funny,” Bean said. “I don’t know what’s going on here. First all the changes in the game. And now this. I wasn’t the only one transferred, either, Ender. Ren, Peder, Brian, Wins, Younger. All commanders now.”

Ender stood up angrily and strode to the wall. “Every damn toon leader I’ve got!” he said, and whirled to face Bean. “If they’re going to break up my army, Bean, why did they bother making me a commander at all?”

Bean shook his head. “I don’t know. You’re the best, Ender. Nobody’s ever done what you’ve done. Nineteen battles in fifteen days, sir, and you won every one of them, no matter what they did to you.”

“And now you and the others are commanders. You know every trick I’ve got, I trained you, and who am I supposed to replace you with? Are they going to stick me with six greenohs?”

“It stinks, Ender, but you know that if they gave you five crippled midgets and armed you with a roll of toilet paper you’d win.”

They both laughed, and then they noticed that the door was open.

Lieutenant Anderson stepped in. He was followed by Captain Graff.

“Ender Wiggins,” Graff said, holding his hands across his stomach.

“Yes, sir,” Ender answered.

“Orders.”

Anderson extended a slip of paper. Ender read it quickly, then crumpled it, still looking at the air where the paper had been. After a few moments he asked, “Can I tell my army?”

“They’ll find out,” Graff answered. “It’s better not to talk to them after orders. It makes it easier.”

“For you or for me?” Ender asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. He turned quickly to Bean, took his hand for a moment, and then headed for the door.

“Wait,” Bean said. “Where are you going? Tactical or Support School?”

“Command School,” Ender answered, and then he was gone and Anderson closed the door.

Command School, Bean thought. Nobody went to Command School until they had gone through three years of Tactical. But then, nobody went to Tactical until they had been through at least five years of Battle School. Ender had only had three.

The system was breaking up. No doubt about it, Bean thought. Either somebody at the top was going crazy, or something was going wrong with the war—the real war, the one they were training to fight in. Why else would they break down the training system, advance somebody—even somebody as good as Ender—straight to Command School? Why else would they ever have an eight-year-old greenoh like Bean command an army?

Bean wondered about it for a long time, and then he finally lay down on Ender’s bed and realized that he’d never see Ender again, probably. For some reason that made him want to cry. But he didn’t cry, of course. Training in the preschools had taught him how to force down emotions like that. He remembered how his first teacher, when he was three, would have been upset to see his lip quivering and his eyes full of tears.

Bean went through the relaxing routine until he didn’t feel like crying anymore. Then he drifted off to sleep. His hand was near his mouth. It lay on his pillow hesitantly, as if Bean couldn’t decide whether to bite his nails or suck on his fingertips. His forehead was creased and furrowed. His breathing was quick and light. He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn’t have known what they meant.

* * *

THERE’S A WAR on, they said, and that was excuse enough for all the hurry in the world. They said it like a password and flashed a little card at every ticket counter and customs check and guard station. It got them to the head of every line.

Ender Wiggins was rushed from place to place so quickly he had no time to examine anything. But he did see trees for the first time. He saw men who were not in uniform. He saw women. He saw strange animals that didn’t speak, but that followed docilely behind women and small children. He saw suitcases and conveyor belts and signs that said words he had never heard of. He would have asked someone what the words meant, except that purpose and authority surrounded him in the persons of four very high officers who never spoke to each other and never spoke to him.

Ender Wiggins was a stranger to the world he was being trained to save. He did not remember ever leaving Battle School before. His earliest memories were of childish war games under the direction of a teacher, of meals with other boys in the grey and green uniforms of the armed forces of his world. He did not know that the grey represented the sky and the green represented the great forests of his planet. All he knew of the world was from vague references to “outside.”

And before he could make any sense of the strange world he was seeing for the first time, they enclosed him again within the shell of the military, where nobody had to say “There’s a war on” anymore because no one within the shell of the military forgot it for a single instant of a single day.

They put him in a spaceship and launched him to a large artificial satellite that circled the world.

This space station was called Command School. It held the ansible.

On his first day Ender Wiggins was taught about the ansible and what it meant to warfare. It meant that even though the starships of today’s battles were launched a hundred years ago, the commanders of the starships were men of today, who used the ansible to send messages to the computers and the few men on each ship. The ansible sent words as they were spoken, orders as they were made. Battleplans as they were fought. Light was a pedestrian.

For two months Ender Wiggins didn’t meet a single person. They came to him namelessly, taught him what they knew, and left him to other teachers. He had no time to miss his friends at Battle School. He only had time to learn how to operate the simulator, which flashed battle patterns around him as if he were in a starship at the center of the battle. How to command mock ships in mock battle by manipulating the keys on the simulator and speaking words into the ansible. How to recognize instantly every enemy ship and the weapons it carried by the pattern that the simulator showed. How to transfer all that he learned in the nullo battles at Battle School to the starship battles at Command School.

He had thought the game was taken seriously before. Here they hurried him through every step, were angry and worried beyond reason every time he forgot something or made a mistake. But he worked as he had always worked, and learned as he had always learned. After a while he didn’t make any more mistakes. He used the simulator as if it were a part of himself. Then they stopped being worried and gave him a teacher.

MAEZR RACKHAM WAS sitting cross-legged on the floor when Ender awoke. He said nothing as Ender got up and showered and dressed, and Ender did not bother to ask him anything. He had long since learned that when something unusual was going on, he would often find out more information faster by waiting than by asking.

Maezr still hadn’t spoken when Ender was ready and went to the door to leave the room. The door didn’t open. Ender turned to face the man sitting on the floor. Maezr was at least forty, which made him the oldest man Ender had ever seen close up. He had a day’s growth of black and white whiskers that grizzled his face only slightly less than his close-cut hair. His face sagged a little and his eyes were surrounded by creases and lines. He looked at Ender without interest.

Ender turned back to the door and tried again to open it.

“All right,” he said, giving up. “Why’s the door locked?”

Maezr continued to look at him blankly.

Ender became impatient. “I’m going to be late. If I’m not supposed to be there until later, than tell me so I can go back to bed.” No answer. “Is it a guessing game?” Ender asked. No answer. Ender decided that maybe the man was trying to make him angry, so he went through a relaxing exercise as he leaned on the door, and soon he was calm again. Maezr didn’t take his eyes off Ender.

For the next two hours the silence endured, Maezr watching Ender constantly, Ender trying to pretend he didn’t notice the old man. The boy became more and more nervous, and finally ended up walking from one end of the room to the other in a sporadic pattern.

He walked by Maezr as he had several times before, and Maezr’s hand shot out and pushed Ender’s left leg into his right in the middle of a step. Ender fell flat on the floor.

He leaped to his feet immediately, furious. He found Maezr sitting calmly, cross-legged, as if he had never moved. Ender stood poised to fight. But the other’s immobility made it impossible for Ender to attack, and he found himself wondering if he had only imagined the old man’s hand tripping him up.

The pacing continued for another hour, with Ender Wiggins trying the door every now and then. At last he gave up and took off his uniform and walked to his bed.

As he leaned over to pull the covers back, he felt a hand jab roughly between his thighs and another hand grab his hair. In a moment he had been turned upside down. His face and shoulders were being pressed into the floor by the old man’s knee, while his back was excruciatingly bent and his legs were pinioned by Maezr’s arm. Ender was helpless to use his arms, and he couldn’t bend his back to gain slack so he could use his legs. In less than two seconds the old man had completely defeated Ender Wiggins.

“All right,” Ender gasped. “You win.”

Maezr’s knee thrust painfully downward.

“Since when,” Maezr asked in a soft, rasping voice, “do you have to tell the enemy when he has won?”

Ender remained silent.

“I surprised you once, Ender Wiggins. Why didn’t you destroy me immediately afterward? Just because I looked peaceful? You turned your back on me. Stupid. You have learned nothing. You have never had a teacher.”

Ender was angry now. “I’ve had too many damned teachers, how was I supposed to know you’d turn out to be a—” Ender hunted for a word. Maezr supplied one.

“An enemy, Ender Wiggins,” Maezr whispered. “I am your enemy, the first one you’ve ever had who was smarter than you. There is no teacher but the enemy, Ender Wiggins. No one but the enemy will ever tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. I am your enemy, from now on. From now on I am your teacher.”

Then Maezr let Ender’s legs fall to the floor. Because the old man still held Ender’s head to the floor, the boy couldn’t use his arms to compensate, and his legs hit the plastic surface with a loud crack and a sickening pain that made Ender wince. Then Maezr stood and let Ender rise.

Slowly the boy pulled his legs under him, with a faint groan of pain, and he knelt on all fours for a moment, recovering. Then his right arm flashed out. Maezr quickly danced back and Ender’s hand closed on air as his teacher’s foot shot forward to catch Ender on the chin.

Ender’s chin wasn’t there. He was lying flat on his back, spinning on the floor, and during the moment that Maezr was off balance from his kick Ender’s feet smashed into Maezr’s other leg. The old man fell on the ground in a heap.

What seemed to be a heap was really a hornet’s nest. Ender couldn’t find an arm or a leg that held still long enough to be grabbed, and in the meantime blows were landing on his back and arms. Ender was smaller—he couldn’t reach past the old man’s flailing limbs.

So he leaped back out of the way and stood poised near the door.

The old man stopped thrashing about and sat up, cross-legged again, laughing. “Better, this time, boy. But slow. You will have to be better with a fleet than you are with your body or no one will be safe with you in command. Lesson learned?”

Ender nodded slowly.

Maezr smiled. “Good. Then we’ll never have such a battle again. All the rest with the simulator. I will program your battles, I will devise the strategy of your enemy, and you will learn to be quick and discover what tricks the enemy has for you. Remember, boy. From now on the enemy is more clever than you. From now on the enemy is stronger than you. From now on you are always about to lose.”

Then Maezr’s face became serious again. “You will be about to lose, Ender, but you will win. You will learn to defeat the enemy. He will teach you how.”

Maezr got up and walked toward the door. Ender stepped back out of the way. As the old man touched the handle of the door, Ender leaped into the air and kicked Maezr in the small of the back with both feet. He hit hard enough that he rebounded onto his feet, as Maezr cried out and collapsed on the floor.

Maezr got up slowly, holding on to the door handle, his face contorted with pain. He seemed disabled, but Ender didn’t trust him. He waited warily. And yet in spite of his suspicion he was caught off guard by Maezr’s speed. In a moment he found himself on the floor near the opposite wall, his nose and lip bleeding where his face had hit the bed. He was able to turn enough to see Maezr open the door and leave. The old man was limping and walking slowly.

Ender smiled in spite of the pain, then rolled over onto his back and laughed until his mouth filled with blood and he started to gag. Then he got up and painfully made his way to the bed. He lay down and in a few minutes a medic came and took care of his injuries.

As the drug had its effect and Ender drifted off to sleep he remembered the way Maezr limped out of his room and laughed again. He was still laughing softly as his mind went blank and the medic pulled the blanket over him and snapped off the light. He slept until the pain woke him in the morning. He dreamed of defeating Maezr.

THE NEXT DAY Ender went to the simulator room with his nose bandaged and his lip still puffy. Maezr was not there. Instead, a captain who had worked with him before showed him an addition that had been made. The captain pointed to a tube with a loop at one end. “Radio. Primitive, I know, but it loops over your ear and we tuck the other end into your mouth like this.”

“Watch it,” Ender said as the captain pushed the end of the tube into his swollen lip.

“Sorry. Now you just talk.”

“Good. Who to?”

The captain smiled. “Ask and see.”

Ender shrugged and turned to the simulator. As he did a voice reverberated through his skull. It was too loud for him to understand, and he ripped the radio off his ear.

“What are you trying to do, make me deaf?”

The captain shook his head and turned a dial on a small box on a nearby table. Ender put the radio back on.

“Commander,” the radio said in a familiar voice.

Ender answered, “Yes.”

“Instructions, sir?”

The voice was definitely familiar. “Bean?” Ender asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Bean, this is Ender.”

Silence. And then a burst of laughter from the other side. Then six or seven more voices laughing, and Ender waited for silence to return. When it did, he asked, “Who else?”

A few voices spoke at once, but Bean drowned them out. “Me, I’m Bean, and Peder, Wins, Younger, Lee, and Vlad.”

Ender thought for a moment. Then he asked what the hell was going on. They laughed again.

“They can’t break up the group,” Bean said. “We were commanders for maybe two weeks, and here we are at Command School, training with the simulator, and all of a sudden they told us we were going to form a fleet with a new commander. And that’s you.”

Ender smiled. “Are you boys any good?”

“If we aren’t, you’ll let us know.”

Ender chuckled a little. “Might work out. A fleet.”

For the next ten days Ender trained his toon leaders until they could maneuver their ships like precision dancers. It was like being back in the battleroom again, except that now Ender could always see everything, and could speak to his toon leaders and change their orders at any time.

One day as Ender sat down at the control board and switched on the simulator, harsh green lights appeared in the space—the enemy.

“This is it,” Ender said. “X, Y, bullet, C, D, reserve screen, E, south loop, Bean, angle north.”

The enemy was grouped in a globe, and outnumbered Ender two to one. Half of Ender’s force was grouped in a tight, bulletlike formation, with the rest in a flat circular screen—except for a tiny force under Bean that moved off the simulator, heading behind the enemy’s formation. Ender quickly learned the enemy’s strategy: whenever Ender’s bullet formation came close, the enemy would give way, hoping to draw Ender inside the globe where he would be surrounded. So Ender obligingly fell into the trap, bringing his bullet to the center of the globe.

The enemy began to contract slowly, not wanting to come within range until all their weapons could be brought to bear at once. Then Ender began to work in earnest. His reserve screen approached the outside of the globe, and the enemy began to concentrate his forces there. Then Bean’s force appeared on the opposite side, and the enemy again deployed ships on that side.

Which left most of the globe only thinly defended. Ender’s bullet attacked, and since at the point of attack it outnumbered the enemy overwhelmingly, he tore a hole in the formation. The enemy reacted to try to plug the gap, but in the confusion the reserve force and Bean’s small force attacked simultaneously, with the bullet moved to another part of the globe. In a few more minutes the formation was shattered, most of the enemy ships destroyed, and the few survivors rushing away as fast as they could go.

Ender switched the simulator off. All the lights faded. Maezr was standing beside Ender, his hands in his pockets, his body tense. Ender looked up at him.

“I thought you said the enemy would be smart,” Ender said.

Maezr’s face remained expressionless. “What did you learn?”

“I learned that a sphere only works if your enemy’s a fool. He had his forces so spread out that I outnumbered him whenever I engaged him.”

“And?”

“And,” Ender said, “you can’t stay committed to one pattern. It makes you too easy to predict.”

“Is that all?” Maezr asked quietly.

Ender took off his radio. “The enemy could have defeated me by breaking the sphere earlier.”

Maezr nodded. “You had an unfair advantage.”

Ender looked up at him coldly. “I was outnumbered two to one.”

Maezr shook his head. “You have the ansible. The enemy doesn’t. We include that in the mock battles. Their messages travel at the speed of light.”

Ender glanced toward the simulator. “Is there enough space to make a difference?”

“Don’t you know?” Maezr asked. “None of the ships was ever closer than thirty thousand kilometers to any other.”

Ender tried to figure the size of the enemy’s sphere. Astronomy was beyond him. But now his curiosity was stirred.

“What kind of weapons are on those ships? To be able to strike so fast?”

Maezr shook his head. “The science is too much for you. You’d have to study many more years than you’ve lived to understand even the basics. All you need to know is that the weapons work.”

“Why do we have to come so close to be in range?”

“The ships are all protected by forcefields. A certain distance away the weapons are weaker and can’t get through. Closer in the weapons are stronger than the shields. But the computers take care of all that. They’re constantly firing in any direction that won’t hurt one of our ships. The computers pick targets, aim; they do all the detail work. You just tell them when and get them in a position to win. All right?”

“No.” Ender twisted the tube of the radio around his fingers. “I have to know how the weapons work.”

“I told you, it would take—”

“I can’t command a fleet—not even on the simulator—unless I know.” Ender waited a moment, then added, “Just the rough idea.”

Maezr stood up and walked a few steps away. “All right, Ender. It won’t make any sense, but I’ll try. As simply as I can.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “It’s this way, Ender. Everything is made up of atoms, little particles so small you can’t see them with your eyes. These atoms, there are only a few different types, and they’re all made up of even smaller particles that are pretty much the same. These atoms can be broken, so that they stop being atoms. So that this metal doesn’t hold together anymore. Or the plastic floor. Or your body. Or even the air. They just seem to disappear, if you break the atoms. All that’s left is the pieces. And they fly around and break more atoms. The weapons on the ships set up an area where it’s impossible for atoms of anything to stay together. They all break down. So things in that area—they disappear.”

Ender nodded. “You’re right, I don’t understand it. Can it be blocked?”

“No. But it gets wider and weaker the farther it goes from the ship, so that after a while a forcefield will block it. OK? And to make it strong at all, it has to be focused, so that a ship can only fire effectively in maybe three or four directions at once.”

Ender nodded again, but he didn’t really understand, not well enough. “If the pieces of the broken atoms go breaking more atoms, why doesn’t it just make everything disappear?”

“Space. Those thousands of kilometers between the ships, they’re empty. Almost no atoms. The pieces don’t hit anything, and when they finally do hit something, they’re so spread out they can’t do any harm.” Maezr cocked his head quizzically. “Anything else you need to know?”

“Do the weapons on the ships—do they work against anything besides ships?”

Maezr moved in close to Ender and said firmly, “We only use them against ships. Never anything else. If we used them against anything else, the enemy would use them against us. Got it?”

Maezr walked away, and was nearly out the door when Ender called to him.

“I don’t know your name yet,” Ender said blandly.

“Maezr Rackham.”

“Maezr Rackham,” Ender said, “I defeated you.”

Maezr laughed.

“Ender, you weren’t fighting me today,” he said. “You were fighting the stupidest computer in the Command School, set on a ten-year-old program. You don’t think I’d use a sphere, do you?” He shook his head. “Ender, my dear little fellow, when you fight me you’ll know it. Because you’ll lose.” And Maezr left the room.

ENDER STILL PRACTICED ten hours a day with his toon leaders. He never saw them, though, only heard their voices on the radio. Battles came every two or three days. The enemy had something new every time, something harder—but Ender coped with it. And won every time. And after every battle Maezr would point out mistakes and show Ender that he had really lost. Maezr only let Ender finish so that he would learn to handle the end of the game.

Until finally Maezr came in and solemnly shook Ender’s hand and said, “That, boy, was a good battle.”

Because the praise was so long in coming, it pleased Ender more than praise had ever pleased him before. And because it was so condescending, he resented it.

“So from now on,” Maezr said, “we can give you hard ones.”

From then on Ender’s life was a slow nervous breakdown.

He began fighting two battles a day, with problems that steadily grew more difficult. He had been trained in nothing but the game all his life, but now the game began to consume him. He woke in the morning with new strategies for the simulator and went fitfully to sleep at night with the mistakes of the day preying on him. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night crying for a reason he didn’t remember. Sometimes he woke with his knuckles bloody from biting them. But every day he went impassively to the simulator and drilled his toon leaders until the battles, and drilled his toon leaders after the battles, and endured and studied the harsh criticism that Maezr Rackham piled on him. He noted that Rackham perversely criticized him more after his hardest battles. He noted that every time he thought of a new strategy the enemy was using it within a few days. And he noted that while his fleet always stayed the same size, the enemy increased in numbers every day.

He asked his teacher.

“We are showing you what it will be like when you really command. The ratios of enemy to us.”

“Why does the enemy always outnumber us?”

Maezr bowed his grey head for a moment, as if deciding whether to answer. Finally he looked up and reached out his hand and touched Ender on the shoulder. “I will tell you, even though the information is secret. You see, the enemy attacked us first. He had good reason to attack us, but that is a matter for politicians, and whether the fault was ours or his, we could not let him win. So when the enemy came to our worlds, we fought back, hard, and spent the finest of our young men in the fleets. But we won, and the enemy retreated.”

Maezr smiled ruefully. “But the enemy was not through, boy. The enemy would never be through. They came again, with more numbers, and it was harder to beat them. And another generation of young men was spent. Only a few survived. So we came up with a plan—the big men came up with the plan. We knew that we had to destroy the enemy once and for all, totally, eliminate his ability to make war against us. To do that we had to go to his home worlds—his home world, really, since the enemy’s empire is all tied to his capital world.”

“And so?” Ender asked.

“And so we made a fleet. We made more ships than the enemy ever had. We made a hundred ships for every ship he had sent against us. And we launched them against his twenty-eight worlds. They started leaving a hundred years ago. And they carried on them the ansible, and only a few men. So that someday a commander could sit on a planet somewhere far from the battle and command the fleet. So that our best minds would not be destroyed by the enemy.”

Ender’s question had still not been answered. “Why do they outnumber us?”

Maezr laughed. “Because it took a hundred years for our ships to get there. They’ve had a hundred years to prepare for us. They’d be fools, don’t you think, boy, if they waited in old tugboats to defend their harbors. They have new ships, great ships, hundreds of ships. All we have is the ansible, that and the fact that they have to put a commander with every fleet, and when they lose—and they will lose—they lose one of their best minds every time.”

Ender started to ask another question.

“No more, Ender Wiggins. I’ve told you more than you ought to know as it is.”

Ender stood angrily and turned away. “I have a right to know. Do you think this can go on forever, pushing me through one school and another and never telling me what my life is for? You use me and the others as a tool, someday we’ll command your ships, someday maybe we’ll save your lives, but I’m not a computer, and I have to know!”

“Ask me a question, then, boy,” Maezr said, “and if I can answer, I will.”

“If you use your best minds to command the fleets, and you never lose any, then what do you need me for? Who am I replacing, if they’re all still there?”

Maezr shook his head. “I can’t tell you the answer to that, Ender. Be content that we will need you, soon. It’s late. Go to bed. You have a battle in the morning.”

Ender walked out of the simulator room. But when Maezr left by the same door a few moments later, the boy was waiting in the hall.

“All right, boy,” Maezr said impatiently, “what is it? I don’t have all night and you need to sleep.”

Ender wasn’t sure what his question was, but Maezr waited. Finally Ender asked softly, “Do they live?”

“Does who live?”

“The other commanders. The ones now. And before me.”

Maezr snorted. “Live. Of course they live. He wonders if they live.” Still chuckling, the old man walked off down the hall. Ender stood in the corridor for a while, but at last he was tired and he went off to bed. They live, he thought. They live, but he can’t tell me what happens to them.

That night Ender didn’t wake up crying. But he did wake up with blood on his hands.

MONTHS WORE ON with battles every day, until at last Ender settled into the routine of the destruction of himself. He slept less every night, dreamed more, and he began to have terrible pains in his stomach. They put him on a very bland diet, but soon he didn’t even have an appetite for that. “Eat,” Maezr said, and Ender would mechanically put food in his mouth. But if nobody told him to eat he didn’t eat.

One day as he was drilling his toon leaders the room went black and he woke up on the floor with his face bloody where he had hit the controls.

They put him to bed then, and for three days he was very ill. He remembered seeing faces in his dreams, but they weren’t real faces, and he knew it even while he thought he saw them. He thought he saw Bean sometimes, and sometimes he thought he saw Lieutenant Anderson and Captain Graff. And then he woke up and it was only his enemy Maezr Rackham.

“I’m awake,” he said to Maezr.

“So I see,” Maezr answered. “Took you long enough. You have a battle today.”

So Ender got up and fought the battle and he won it. But there was no second battle that day, and they let him go to bed earlier. His hands were shaking as he undressed.

During the night he thought he felt hands touching him gently, and he dreamed he heard voices saying, “How long can he go on?”

“Long enough.”

“So soon?”

“In a few days, then he’s through.”

“How will he do?”

“Fine. Even today, he was better than ever.”

Ender recognized the last voice as Maezr Rackham’s. He resented Rackham’s intruding even in his sleep.

He woke up and fought another battle and won.

Then he went to bed.

He woke up and won again.

And the next day was his last day in Command School, though he didn’t know it. He got up and went to the simulator for the battle.

MAEZR WAS WAITING for him. Ender walked slowly into the simulator room. He step was slightly shuffling, and he seemed tired and dull. Maezr frowned.

“Are you awake, boy?” If Ender had been alert, he would have cared more about the concern in his teacher’s voice. Instead, he simply went to the controls and sat down. Maezr spoke to him.

“Today’s game needs a little explanation, Ender Wiggins. Please turn around and pay strict attention.”

Ender turned around, and for the first time he noticed that there were people at the back of the room. He recognized Graff and Anderson from Battle School, and vaguely remembered a few of the men from Command School—teachers for a few hours at some time or another. But most of the people he didn’t know at all.

“Who are they?”

Maezr shook his head and answered, “Observers. Every now and then we let observers come in to watch the battle. If you don’t want them, we’ll send them out.”

Ender shrugged. Maezr began his explanation. “Today’s game, boy, has a new element. We’re staging this battle around a planet. This will complicate things in two ways. The planet isn’t large, on the scale we’re using, but the ansible can’t detect anything on the other side of it—so there’s a blind spot. Also, it’s against the rules to use weapons against the planet itself. All right?”

“Why, don’t the weapons work against planets?”

Maezr answered coldly, “There are rules of war, Ender, that apply even in training games.”

Ender shook his head slowly. “Can the planet attack?”

Maezr looked nonplussed for a moment, then smiled. “I guess you’ll have to find that one out, boy. And one more thing. Today, Ender, your opponent isn’t the computer. I am your enemy today, and today I won’t be letting you off so easily. Today is a battle to the end. And I’ll use any means I can to defeat you.”

Then Maezr was gone, and Ender expressionlessly led his toon leaders through maneuvers. Ender was doing well, of course, but several of the observers shook their heads, and Graff kept clasping and unclasping his hands, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Ender would be slow today, and today Ender couldn’t afford to be slow.

A warning buzzer sounded, and Ender cleared the simulator board, waiting for today’s game to appear. He felt muddled today, and wondered why people were there watching. Were they going to judge him today? Decide if he was good enough for something else? For another two years of grueling training, another two years of struggling to exceed his best? Ender was twelve. He felt very old. And as he waited for the game to appear, he wished he could simply lose it, lose the battle badly and completely so that they would remove him from the program, punish him however they wanted, he didn’t care, just so he could sleep.

Then the enemy formation appeared, and Ender’s weariness turned to desperation.

The enemy outnumbered him a thousand to one, the simulator glowed green with them, and Ender knew that he couldn’t win.

And the enemy was not stupid. There was no formation that Ender could study and attack. Instead the vast swarms of ships were constantly moving, constantly shifting from one momentary formation to another, so that a space that for one moment was empty was immediately filled with formidable enemy force. And even though Ender’s fleet was the largest he had ever had, there was no place he could deploy it where he would outnumber the enemy long enough to accomplish anything.

And behind the enemy was the planet. The planet, which Maezr had warned him about. What difference did a planet make, when Ender couldn’t hope to get near it? Ender waited, waited for the flash of insight that would tell him what to do, how to destroy the enemy. And as he waited, he heard the observers behind him begin to shift in their seats, wondering what Ender was doing, what plan he would follow. And finally it was obvious to everyone that Ender didn’t know what to do, that there was nothing to do, and a few of the men at the back of the room made quiet little sounds in their throats.

Then Ender heard Bean’s voice in his ear. Bean chuckled and said, “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.” A few of the other toon leaders laughed and Ender thought back to the simple games he had played and won in Battle School. They had put him against hopeless odds there, too. And he had beaten them. And he’d be damned if he’d let Maezr Rackham beat him with a cheap trick like outnumbering him a thousand to one. He had won a game in Battle School by going for something against the rules—he had won by going against the enemy’s gate.

And the enemy’s gate was down.

Ender smiled, and realized that if he broke this rule they’d probably kick him out of school, and that way he’d win for sure: He would never have to play a game again.

He whispered into the microphone. His six commanders each took a part of the fleet and launched themselves against the enemy. They pursued erratic courses, darting off in one direction and then another. The enemy immediately stopped his aimless maneuvering and began to group around Ender’s six fleets.

Ender took off his microphone, leaned back in his chair, and watched. The observers murmured out loud now. Ender was doing nothing—he had thrown the game away.

But a pattern began to emerge from the quick confrontations with the enemy. Ender’s six groups lost ships constantly as they brushed with each enemy force—but they never stopped for a fight, even when for a moment they could have won a small tactical victory. Instead they continued on their erratic course that led, eventually, down. Toward the enemy planet.

And because of their seemingly random course the enemy didn’t realize it until the same time that the observers did. By then it was too late, just as it had been too late for William Bee to stop Ender’s soldiers from activating the gate. More of Ender’s ships could be hit and destroyed, so that of the six fleets only two were able to get to the planet, and those were decimated. But those tiny groups did get through, and they opened fire on the planet.

Ender leaned forward now, anxious to see if his guess would pay off. He half expected a buzzer to sound and the game to be stopped, because he had broken the rule. But he was betting on the accuracy of the simulator. If it could simulate a planet, it could simulate what would happen to a planet under attack.

It did.

The weapons that blew up little ships didn’t blow up the entire planet at first. But they did cause terrible explosions. And on the planet there was no space to dissipate the chain reaction. On the planet the chain reaction found more and more fuel to feed it.

The planet’s surface seemed to be moving back and forth, but soon the surface gave way in an immense explosion that sent light flashing in all directions. It swallowed up Ender’s entire fleet. And then it reached the enemy ships.

The first simply vanished in the explosion. Then, as the explosion spread and became less bright, it was clear what happened to each ship. As the light reached them they flashed brightly for a moment and disappeared. They were all fuel for the fire of the planet.

It took more than three minutes for the explosion to reach the limits of the simulator, and by then it was much fainter. All the ships were gone, and if any had escaped before the explosion reached them, they were few and not worth worrying about. Where the planet had been there was nothing. The simulator was empty.

Ender had destroyed the enemy by sacrificing his entire fleet and breaking the rule against destroying the enemy planet. He wasn’t sure whether to feel triumphant at his victory or defiant at the rebuke he was certain would come. So instead he felt nothing. He was tired. He wanted to go to bed and sleep.

He switched off the simulator, and finally heard the noise behind him.

There were no longer two rows of dignified military observers. Instead there was chaos. Some of them were slapping each other on the back; some of them were bowed, head in hands; others were openly weeping. Captain Graff detached himself from the group and came to Ender. Tears streamed down his face, but he was smiling. He reached out his arms, and to Ender’s surprise he embraced the boy, held him tightly, and whispered, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ender.”

Soon all the observers were gathered around the bewildered child, thanking him and cheering him and patting him on the shoulder and shaking his hand. Ender tried to make sense of what they were saying. Had he passed the test after all? Why did it matter so much to them?

Then the crowd parted and Maezr Rackham walked through. He came straight up to Ender Wiggins and held out his hand.

“You made the hard choice, boy. But heaven knows there was no other way you could have done it. Congratulations. You beat them, and it’s all over.”

All over. Beat them. “I beat you, Maezr Rackham.”

Maezr laughed, a loud laugh that filled the room. “Ender Wiggins, you never played me. You never played a game since I was your teacher.”

Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.

Maezr reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Maezr then grew serious and said, “Ender Wiggins, for the last months you have been the commander of our fleets. There were no games. The battles were real. Your only enemy was the enemy. You won every battle. And finally today you fought them at their home world, and you destroyed their world, their fleet, you destroyed them completely, and they’ll never come against us again. You did it. You.”

Real. Not a game. Ender’s mind was too tired to cope with it all. He walked away from Maezr, walked silently through the crowd that still whispered thanks and congratulations to the boy, walked out of the simulator room and finally arrived in his bedroom and closed the door.

HE WAS ASLEEP when Graff and Maezr Rackham found him. They came in quietly and roused him. He awoke slowly, and when he recognized them he turned away to go back to sleep.

“Ender,” Graff said. “We need to talk to you.”

Ender rolled back to face them. He said nothing.

Graff smiled. “It was a shock to you yesterday, I know. But it must make you feel good to know you won the war.”

Ender nodded slowly.

“Maezr Rackham here, he never played against you. He only analyzed your battles to find out your weak spots, to help you improve. It worked, didn’t it?”

Ender closed his eyes tightly. They waited. He said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Maezr smiled. “A hundred years ago, Ender, we found out some things. That when a commander’s life is in danger he becomes afraid, and fear slows down his thinking. When a commander knows that he’s killing people, he becomes cautious or insane, and neither of those help him do well. And when he’s mature, when he has responsibilities and an understanding of the world, he becomes cautious and sluggish and can’t do his job. So we trained children, who didn’t know anything but the game, and never knew when it would become real. That was the theory, and you proved that the theory worked.”

Graff reached out and touched Ender’s shoulder. “We launched the ships so that they would all arrive at their destination during these few months. We knew that we’d probably have only one good commander, if we were lucky. In history it’s been very rare to have more than one genius in a war. So we planned on having a genius. We were gambling. And you came along and we won.”

Ender opened his eyes again and they realized that he was angry. “Yes, you won.”

Graff and Maezr Rackham looked at each other. “He doesn’t understand,” Graff whispered.

“I understand,” Ender said. “You needed a weapon, and you got it, and it was me.”

“That’s right,” Maezr answered.

“So tell me,” Ender went on, “how many people lived on that planet that I destroyed.”

They didn’t answer him. They waited awhile in silence, and then Graff spoke. “Weapons don’t need to understand what they’re pointed at, Ender. We did the pointing, and so we’re responsible. You just did your job.”

Maezr smiled. “Of course, Ender, you’ll be taken care of. The government will never forget you. You served us all very well.”

Ender rolled over and faced the wall, and even though they tried to talk to him, he didn’t answer them. Finally they left.

Ender lay in his bed for a long time before anyone disturbed him again. The door opened softly. Ender didn’t turn to see who it was. Then a hand touched him softly.

“Ender, it’s me, Bean.”

Ender turned over and looked at the little boy who was standing by his bed.

“Sit down,” Ender said.

Bean sat. “That last battle, Ender. I didn’t know how you’d get us out of it.”

Ender smiled. “I didn’t. I cheated. I thought they’d kick me out.”

“Can you believe it! We won the war. The whole war’s over, and we thought we’d have to wait till we grew up to fight in it, and it was us fighting it all the time. I mean, Ender, we’re little kids. I’m a little kid, anyway.” Bean laughed and Ender smiled. Then they were silent for a little while, Bean sitting on the edge of the bed, Ender watching him out of half-closed eyes.

Finally Bean thought of something else to say.

“What will we do now that the war’s over?” he said.

Ender closed his eyes and said, “I need some sleep, Bean.”

Bean got up and left and Ender slept.

GRAFF AND ANDERSON walked through the gates into the park. There was a breeze, but the sun was hot on their shoulders.

“Abba Technics? In the capital?” Graff asked.

“No, in Biggock County. Training division,” Anderson replied. “They think my work with children is good preparation. And you?”

Graff smiled and shook his head. “No plans. I’ll be here for a few more months. Reports, winding down. I’ve had offers. Personnel development for DCIA, executive vice-president for U and P, but I said no. Publisher wants me to do memoirs of the war. I don’t know.”

They sat on a bench and watched leaves shivering in the breeze. Children on the monkey bars were laughing and yelling, but the wind and the distance swallowed their words. “Look,” Graff said, pointing. A little boy jumped from the bars and ran near the bench where the two men sat. Another boy followed him, and holding his hands like a gun he made an explosive sound. The child he was shooting at didn’t stop. He fired again.

“I got you! Come back here!”

The other little boy ran on out of sight.

“Don’t you know when you’re dead?” The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked a rock back to the monkey bars. Anderson smiled and shook his head. “Kids,” he said. Then he and Graff stood up and walked on out of the park.

<p><emphasis>Orson Scott Card</emphasis></p>

Orson Scott Card’s landmark novels Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, made science fiction history when they became the first books ever to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in successive years. With Xenocide and Children of the Mind, they make up one of the most celebrated sagas of modern science fiction, a richly imagined and morally complex inquiry into issues of war, genocide, and human responsibility. Much of Card’s fantasy and science fiction interconnects to form inventive extended series, including The Worthing Chronicle, a linked group of stories related as the experiences as a messianic leader of a space colony, and his lengthy Hatrick River sequence, a folk history of an alternate United States whose individual volumes include Seventh Son, Prentice Alvin, and Heartfire. Card’s eloquent short fiction has been collected in Maps in a Mirror. He is also the author of the historical novel A Woman of Destiny, the dark fantasy novels Lost Boys, Treasure Box, and Homebody, and the Hugo Award–winning guide How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.


“WHATEVER YOUR GRAVITY is when you get to the door, remember—the enemy’s gate is down. If you step through your own door like you’re out for a stroll, you’re a big target and you deserve to get hit. With more than a flasher.” Ender Wiggins paused and looked over the group. Most were just watching him nervously. A few understanding. A few sullen and resisting.

First day with this army, all fresh from the teacher squads, and Ender had forgotten how young new kids could be. He’d been in it for three years, they’d had six months—nobody over nine years old in the whole bunch. But they were his. At eleven, he was half a year early to be a commander. He’d had a toon of his own and knew a few tricks, but there were forty in his new army. Green. All marksmen with a flasher, all in top shape, or they wouldn’t be here—but they were all just as likely as not to get wiped out first time into battle.

“Remember,” he went on, “they can’t see you till you get through that door. But the second you’re out, they’ll be on you. So hit that door the way you want to be when they shoot at you. Legs go under you, going straight down.” He pointed at a sullen kid who looked like he was only seven, the smallest of them all. “Which way is down, greenoh!”

“Toward the enemy door.” The answer was quick. It was also surly, as if to say, Yeah, yeah, now get on with the important stuff.

“Name, kid?”

“Bean.”

“Get that for size or for brains?”

Bean didn’t answer. The rest laughed a little. Ender had chosen right. The kid was younger than the rest, must have been advanced because he was sharp. The others didn’t like him much, they were happy to see him taken down a little. Like Ender’s first commander had taken him down.

“Well, Bean, you’re right onto things. Now I tell you this, nobody’s gonna get through that door without a good chance of getting hit. A lot of you are going to be turned into cement somewhere. Make sure it’s your legs. Right? If only your legs get hit, then only your legs get frozen, and in nullo that’s no sweat.” Ender turned to one of the dazed ones. “What’re legs for? Hmmm?”

Blank stare. Confusion. Stammer.

“Forget it. Guess I’ll have to ask Bean here.”

“Legs are for pushing off walls.” Still bored.

“Thanks, Bean. Get that, everybody?” They all got it, and didn’t like getting it from Bean. “Right. You can’t see with legs, you can’t shoot with legs, and most of the time they just get in the way. If they get frozen sticking straight out you’ve turned yourself into a blimp. No way to hide. So how do legs go?”

A few answered this time, to prove that Bean wasn’t the only one who knew anything. “Under you. Tucked up under.”

“Right. A shield. You’re kneeling on a shield, and the shield is your own legs. And there’s a trick to the suits. Even when your legs are flashed you can still kick off. I’ve never seen anybody do it but me—but you’re all gonna learn it.”

Ender Wiggins turned on his flasher. It glowed faintly green in his hand. Then he let himself rise in the weightless workout room, pulled his legs under him as though he were kneeling, and flashed both of them. Immediately his suit stiffened at the knees and ankles, so that he couldn’t bend at all.

“Okay, I’m frozen, see?”

He was floating a meter above them. They all looked up at him, puzzled. He leaned back and caught one of the handholds on the wall behind him, and pulled himself flush against the wall.

“I’m stuck at a wall. If I had legs, I’d use legs, and string myself out like a string bean, right?”

They laughed.

“But I don’t have legs, and that’s better, got it? Because of this.” Ender jackknifed at the waist, then straightened out violently. He was across the workout room in only a moment. From the other side he called to them. “Got that? I didn’t use hands, so I still had use of my flasher. And I didn’t have my legs floating five feet behind me. Now watch it again.”

He repeated the jackknife, and caught a handhold on the wall near them. “Now, I don’t just want you to do that when they’ve flashed your legs. I want you to do that when you’ve still got legs, because it’s better. And because they’ll never be expecting it. All right now, everybody up in the air and kneeling.”

Most were up in a few seconds. Ender flashed the stragglers, and they dangled, helplessly frozen, while the others laughed. “When I give an order, you move. Got it? When we’re at a door and they clear it, I’ll be giving you orders in two seconds, as soon as I see the setup. And when I give the order you better be out there, because whoever’s out there first is going to win, unless he’s a fool. I’m not. And you better not be, or I’ll have you back in the teacher squads.” He saw more than a few of them gulp, and the frozen ones looked at him with fear. “You guys who are hanging there. You watch. You’ll thaw out in about fifteen minutes, and let’s see if you can catch up to the others.”

For the next half hour Ender had them jackknifing off walls. He called a stop when he saw that they all had the basic idea. They were a good group, maybe. They’d get better.

“Now you’re warmed up,” he said to them, “we’ll start working.”

ENDER WAS THE last one out after practice, since he stayed to help some of the slower ones improve on technique. They’d had good teachers, but like all armies they were uneven, and some of them could be a real drawback in battle. Their first battle might be weeks away. It might be tomorrow. A schedule was never printed. The commander just woke up and found a note by his bunk, giving him the time of his battle and the name of his opponent. So for the first while he was going to drive his boys until they were in top shape—all of them. Ready for anything, at any time. Strategy was nice, but it was worth nothing if the soldiers couldn’t hold up under the strain.

He turned the corner into the residence wing and found himself face to face with Bean, the seven-year-old he had picked on all through practice that day. Problems. Ender didn’t want problems right now.

“Ho, Bean.”

“Ho, Ender.”

Pause.

“Sir,” Ender said softly.

“We’re not on duty.”

“In my army, Bean, we’re always on duty.” Ender brushed past him.

Bean’s high voice piped up behind him. “I know what you’re doing, Ender, sir, and I’m warning you.”

Ender turned slowly and looked at him. “Warning me?”

“I’m the best man you’ve got. But I’d better be treated like it.”

“Or what?” Ender smiled menacingly.

“Or I’ll be the worst man you’ve got. One or the other.”

“And what do you want? Love and kisses?” Ender was getting angry now.

Bean was unworried. “I want a toon.”

Ender walked back to him and stood looking down into his eyes. “I’ll give a toon,” he said, “to the boys who prove they’re worth something. They’ve got to be good soldiers, they’ve got to know how to take orders, they’ve got to be able to think for themselves in a pinch, and they’ve got to be able to keep respect. That’s how I got to be a commander. That’s how you’ll get to be a toon leader. Got it?”

Bean smiled. “That’s fair. If you actually work that way, I’ll be a toon leader in a month.”

Ender reached down and grabbed the front of his uniform and shoved him into the wall. “When I say I work a certain way, Bean, then that’s the way I work.”

Bean just smiled. Ender let go of him and walked away, and didn’t look back. He was sure, without looking, that Bean was still watching, still smiling, still just a little contemptuous. He might make a good toon leader at that. Ender would keep an eye on him.

CAPTAIN GRAFF, SIX foot two and a little chubby, stroked his belly as he leaned back in his chair. Across his desk sat Lieutenant Anderson, who was earnestly pointing out high points on a chart.

“Here it is, Captain,” Anderson said. “Ender’s already got them doing a tactic that’s going to throw off everyone who meets it. Doubled their speed.”

Graff nodded.

“And you know his test scores. He thinks well, too.”

Graff smiled. “All true, all true, Anderson, he’s a fine student, shows real promise.”

They waited.

Graff sighed. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Ender’s the one. He’s got to be.”

“He’ll never be ready in time, Lieutenant. He’s eleven, for heaven’s sake, man, what do you want, a miracle?”

“I want him into battles, every day starting tomorrow. I want him to have a year’s worth of battles in a month.”

Graff shook his head. “That would have his army in the hospital.”

“No, sir. He’s getting them into form. And we need Ender.”

“Correction, Lieutenant. We need somebody. You think it’s Ender.”

“All right, I think it’s Ender. Which of the commanders if it isn’t him?”

“I don’t know, Lieutenant.” Graff ran his hands over his slightly fuzzy bald head. “These are children, Anderson. Do you realize that? Ender’s army is nine years old. Are we going to put them against the older kids? Are we going to put them through hell for a month like that?”

Lieutenant Anderson leaned even farther over Graff’s desk.

“Ender’s test scores, Captain!”

“I’ve seen his bloody test scores! I’ve watched him in battle, I’ve listened to tapes of his training sessions. I’ve watched his sleep patterns, I’ve heard tapes of his conversations in the corridors and in the bathrooms, I’m more aware of Ender Wiggins than you could possibly imagine! And against all the arguments, against his obvious qualities, I’m weighing one thing. I have this picture of Ender a year from now, if you have your way. I see him completely useless, worn down, a failure, because he was pushed farther than he or any living person could go. But it doesn’t weigh enough, does it, Lieutenant, because there’s a war on, and our best talent is gone, and the biggest battles are ahead. So give Ender a battle every day this week. And then bring me a report.”

Anderson stood and saluted. “Thank you, sir.”

He had almost reached the door when Graff called his name. He turned and faced the captain.

“Anderson,” Captain Graff said. “Have you been outside, lately I mean?”

“Not since last leave, six months ago.”

“I didn’t think so. Not that it makes any difference. But have you ever been to Beaman Park, there in the city? Hmm? Beautiful park. Trees. Grass. No nullo, no battles, no worries. Do you know what else there is in Beaman Park?”

“What, sir?” Lieutenant Anderson asked.

“Children,” Graff answered.

“Of course, children,” said Anderson.

“I mean children. I mean kids who get up in the morning when their mothers call them and they go to school and then in the afternoons they go to Beaman Park and play. They’re happy, they smile a lot, they laugh, they have fun. Hmmm?”

“I’m sure they do, sir.”

“Is that all you can say, Anderson?”

Anderson cleared his throat. “It’s good for children to have fun, I think, sir. I know I did when I was a boy. But right now the world needs soldiers. And this is the way to get them.”

Graff nodded and closed his eyes. “Oh, indeed, you’re right, by statistical proof and by all the important theories, and dammit they work and the system is right but all the same Ender’s older than I am. He’s not a child. He’s barely a person.”

“If that’s true, sir, then at least we all know that Ender is making it possible for the others of his age to be playing in the park.”

“And Jesus died to save all men, of course.” Graff sat up and looked at Anderson almost sadly. “But we’re the ones,” Graff said, “we’re the ones who are driving in the nails.”

ENDER WIGGINS LAY on his bed staring at the ceiling. He never slept more than five hours a night—but the lights went off at 2200 and didn’t come on again until 0600. So he stared at the ceiling and thought.

He’d had his army for three and a half weeks. Dragon Army. The name was assigned, and it wasn’t a lucky one. Oh, the charts said that about nine years ago a Dragon Army had done fairly well. But for the next six years the name had been attached to inferior armies, and finally, because of the superstition that was beginning to play about the name, Dragon Army was retired. Until now. And now, Ender thought, smiling, Dragon Army was going to take them by surprise.

The door opened quietly. Ender did not turn his head. Someone stepped softly into his room, then left with the sound of the door shutting. When soft steps died away Ender rolled over and saw a white slip of paper lying on the floor. He reached down and picked it up.

“Dragon Army against Rabbit Army, Ender Wiggins and Carn Carby, 0700.”

The first battle. Ender got out of bed and quickly dressed. He went rapidly to the rooms of each of his toon leaders and told them to rouse their boys. In five minutes they were all gathered in the corridor, sleepy and slow. Ender spoke softly.

“First battle, 0700 against Rabbit Army. I’ve fought them twice before but they’ve got a new commander. Never heard of him. They’re an older group, though, and I know a few of their old tricks. Now wake up. Run, doublefast, warmup in workroom three.”

For an hour and a half they worked out, with three mock battles and calisthenics in the corridor out of the nullo. Then for fifteen minutes they all lay up in the air, totally relaxing in the weightlessness. At 0650 Ender roused them and they hurried into the corridor. Ender led them down the corridor, running again, and occasionally leaping to touch a light panel on the ceiling. The boys all touched the same light panel. And at 0658 they reached their gate to the battleroom.

The members of toons C and D grabbed the first eight handholds in the ceiling of the corridor. Toons A, B, and E crouched on the floor. Ender hooked his feet into two handholds in the middle of the ceiling, so he was out of everyone’s way.

“Which way is the enemy’s door?” he hissed.

“Down!” they whispered back, and laughed.

“Flashers on.” The boxes in their hands glowed green. They waited for a few seconds more, and then the grey wall in front of them disappeared and the battleroom was visible.

Ender sized it up immediately. The familiar open grid of most early games, like the monkey bars at the park, with seven or eight boxes scattered through the grid. They called the boxes stars. There were enough of them, and in forward enough positions, that they were worth going for. Ender decided this in a second, and he hissed, “Spread to near stars. E hold!”

The four groups in the corners plunged through the forcefield at the doorway and fell down into the battleroom. Before the enemy even appeared through the opposite gate Ender’s army had spread from the door to the nearest stars.

Then the enemy soldiers came through the door. From their stance Ender knew they had been in a different gravity, and didn’t know enough to disorient themselves from it. They came through standing up, their entire bodies spread and defenseless.

“Kill ’em, E!” Ender hissed, and threw himself out the door knees first, with his flasher between his legs and firing. While Ender’s group flew across the room the rest of Dragon Army lay down a protecting fire, so that E group reached a forward position with only one boy frozen completely, though they had all lost the use of their legs—which didn’t impair them in the least. There was a lull as Ender and his opponent, Carn Carnby, assessed their positions. Aside from Rabbit Army’s losses at the gate, there had been few casualties, and both armies were near full strength. But Carn had no originality—he was in a four-corner spread that any five-year-old in the teacher squads might have thought of. And Ender knew how to defeat it.

He called out, loudly, “E covers A, C down. B, D angle east wall.” Under E toon’s cover, B and D toons lunged away from their stars. While they were still exposed, A and C toons left their stars and drifted toward the near wall. They reached it together, and together jackknifed off the wall. At double the normal speed they appeared behind the enemy’s stars, and opened fire. In a few seconds the battle was over, with the enemy almost entirely frozen, including the commander, and the rest scattered to the corners. For the next five minutes, in squads of four, Dragon Army cleaned out the dark corners of the battleroom and shepherded the enemy into the center, where their bodies, frozen at impossible angles, jostled each other. Then Ender took three of his boys to the enemy gate and went through the formality of reversing the one-way field by simultaneously touching a Dragon Army helmet at each corner. Then Ender assembled his army in vertical files near the knot of frozen Rabbit Army soldiers.

Only three of Dragon Army’s soldiers were immobile. Their victory margin—38 to 0—was ridiculously high, and Ender began to laugh. Dragon Army joined him, laughing long and loud. They were still laughing when Lieutenant Anderson and Lieutenant Morris came in from the teachergate at the south end of the battleroom.

Lieutenant Anderson kept his face stiff and unsmiling, but Ender saw him wink as he held out his hand and offered the stiff, formal congratulations that were ritually given to the victor in the game.

Morris found Carn Carby and unfroze him, and the thirteen-year-old came and presented himself to Ender, who laughed without malice and held out his hand. Carn graciously took Ender’s hand and bowed his head over it. It was that or be flashed again.

Lieutenant Anderson dismissed Dragon Army, and they silently left the battleroom through the enemy’s door—again part of the ritual. A light was blinking on the north side of the square door, indicating where the gravity was in that corridor. Ender, leading his soldiers, changed his orientation and went through the forcefield and into gravity on his feet. His army followed him at a brisk run back to the workroom. When they got there they formed up into squads, and Ender hung in the air, watching them.

“Good first battle,” he said, which was excuse enough for a cheer, which he quieted. “Dragon Army did all right against Rabbits. But the enemy isn’t always going to be that bad. And if that had been a good army we would have been smashed. We still would have won, but we would have been smashed. Now let me see B and D toons out here. Your takeoff from the stars was way too slow. If Rabbit Army knew how to aim a flasher, you all would have been frozen solid before A and C even got to the wall.”

They worked out for the rest of the day.

That night Ender went for the first time to the commanders’ mess hall. No one was allowed there until he had won at least one battle, and Ender was the youngest commander ever to make it. There was no great stir when he came in. But when some of the other boys saw the Dragon on his breast pocket, they stared at him openly, and by the time he got his tray and sat at an empty table, the entire room was silent, with the other commanders watching him. Intensely self-conscious, Ender wondered how they all knew, and why they all looked so hostile.

Then he looked above the door he had just come through. There was a huge scoreboard across the entire wall. It showed the win/loss record for the commander of every army; that day’s battles were lit in red. Only four of them. The other three winners had barely made it—the best of them had only two men whole and eleven mobile at the end of the game. Dragon Army’s score of thirty-eight mobile was embarrassingly better.

Other new commanders had been admitted to the commanders’ mess hall with cheers and congratulations. Other new commanders hadn’t won thirty-eight to zero.

Ender looked for Rabbit Army on the scoreboard. He was surprised to find that Carn Carby’s score to date was eight wins and three losses. Was he that good? Or had he only fought against inferior armies? Whichever, there was still a zero in Carn’s mobile and whole columns, and Ender looked down from the scoreboard grinning. No one smiled back, and Ender knew that they were afraid of him, which meant that they would hate him, which meant that anyone who went into battle against Dragon Army would be scared and angry and less competent. Ender looked for Carn Carby in the crowd, and found him not too far away. He stared at Carby until one of the other boys nudged the Rabbit commander and pointed to Ender. Ender smiled again and waved slightly. Carby turned red, and Ender, satisfied, leaned over his dinner and began to eat.

AT THE END of the week Dragon Army had fought seven battles in seven days. The score stood 7 wins and 0 losses. Ender had never had more than five boys frozen in any game. It was no longer possible for the other commanders to ignore Ender. A few of them sat with him and quietly conversed about game strategies that Ender’s opponents had used. Other much larger groups were talking with the commanders that Ender had defeated, trying to find out what Ender had done to beat them.

In the middle of the meal the teacher door opened and the groups fell silent as Lieutenant Anderson stepped in and looked over the group. When he located Ender he strode quickly across the room and whispered in Ender’s ear. Ender nodded, finished his glass of water, and left with the lieutenant. On the way out, Anderson handed a slip of paper to one of the older boys. The room became very noisy with conversation as Anderson and Ender left.

Ender was escorted down corridors he had never seen before. They didn’t have the blue glow of the soldier corridors. Most were wood paneled, and the floors were carpeted. The doors were wood, with nameplates on them, and they stopped at one that said “Captain Graff, supervisor.” Anderson knocked softly, and a low voice said, “Come in.”

They went in. Captain Graff was seated behind a desk, his hands folded across his pot belly. He nodded, and Anderson sat. Ender also sat down. Graff cleared his throat and spoke.

“Seven days since your first battle, Ender.”

Ender did not reply.

“Won seven battles, one every day.”

Ender nodded.

“Scores unusually high, too.”

Ender blinked.

“Why?” Graff asked him.

Ender glanced at Anderson, and then spoke to the captain behind the desk. “Two new tactics, sir. Legs doubled up as a shield, so that a flash doesn’t immobilize. Jackknife takeoffs from the walls. Superior strategy, as Lieutenant Anderson taught, think places, not spaces. Five toons of eight instead of four of ten. Incompetent opponents. Excellent toon leaders, good soldiers.”

Graff looked at Ender without expression. Waiting for what, Ender wondered. Lieutenant Anderson spoke up.

“Ender, what’s the condition of your army?”

Do they want me to ask for relief? Not a chance, he decided. “A little tired, in peak condition, morale high, learning fast. Anxious for the next battle.”

Anderson looked at Graff. Graff shrugged slightly and turned to Ender.

“Is there anything you want to know?”

Ender held his hands loosely in his lap. “When are you going to put us up against a good army?”

Graff’s laughter rang in the room, and when it stopped, Graff handed a piece of paper to Ender.

“Now,” the captain said, and Ender read the paper: “Dragon Army against Leopard Army, Ender Wiggins and Pol Slattery, 2000.”

Ender looked up at Captain Graff. “That’s ten minutes from now, sir.”

Graff smiled. “Better hurry, then, boy.”

As Ender left he realized Pol Slattery was the boy who had been handed his orders as Ender left the mess hall.

He got to his army five minutes later. Three toon leaders were already undressed and lying naked on their beds. He sent them all flying down the corridors to rouse their toons, and gathered up their suits himself. When all his boys were assembled in the corridor, most of them still getting dressed, Ender spoke to them.

“This one’s hot and there’s no time. We’ll be late to the door, and the enemy’ll be deployed right outside our gate. Ambush, and I’ve never heard of it happening before. So we’ll take our time at the door. A and B toons, keep your belts loose, and give your flashers to the leaders and seconds of the other toons.”

Puzzled, his soldiers complied. By then all were dressed, and Ender led them at a trot to the gate. When they reached it the forcefield was already on one-way, and some of his soldiers were panting. They had had one battle that day and a full workout. They were tired.

Ender stopped at the entrance and looked at the placement of the enemy soldiers. Some of them were grouped not more than twenty feet out from the gate. There was no grid, there were no stars. A big empty space. Where were most of the enemy soldiers? There should have been thirty more.

“They’re flat against this wall,” Ender said, “where we can’t see them.”

He took A and B toons and made them kneel, their hands on their hips. Then he flashed them, so that their bodies were frozen rigid.

“You’re shields,” Ender said, and then had boys from C and D kneel on their legs and hook both arms under the frozen boys’ belts. Each boy was holding two flashers. Then Ender and the members of E toon picked up the duos, three at a time, and threw them out the door.

Of course, the enemy opened fire immediately. But they mainly hit the boys who were already flashed, and in a few moments pandemonium broke out in the battleroom. All the soldiers of Leopard Army were easy targets as they lay pressed flat against the wall or floated, unprotected, in the middle of the battleroom; and Ender’s soldiers, armed with two flashers each, carved them up easily. Pol Slattery reacted quickly, ordering his men away from the wall, but not quickly enough—only a few were able to move, and they were flashed before they could get a quarter of the way across the battleroom.

When the battle was over Dragon Army had only twelve boys whole, the lowest score they had ever had. But Ender was satisfied. And during the ritual of surrender Pol Slattery broke form by shaking hands and asking, “Why did you wait so long getting out of the gate?”

Ender glanced at Anderson, who was floating nearby. “I was informed late,” he said. “It was an ambush.”

Slattery grinned, and gripped Ender’s hand again. “Good game.”

Ender didn’t smile at Anderson this time. He knew that now the games would be arranged against him, to even up the odds. He didn’t like it.

IT WAS 2150, nearly time for lights out, when Ender knocked at the door of the room shared by Bean and three other soldiers. One of the others opened the door, then stepped back and held it wide. Ender stood for a moment, then asked if he could come in. They answered, of course, of course, come in, and he walked to the upper bunk, where Bean had set down his book and was leaning on one elbow to look at Ender.

“Bean, can you give me twenty minutes?”

“Near lights out,” Bean answered.

“My room,” Ender answered. “I’ll cover for you.”

Bean sat up and slid off his bed. Together he and Ender padded silently down the corridor to Ender’s room. Bean entered first, and Ender closed the door behind them.

“Sit down,” Ender said, and they both sat on the edge of the bed, looking at each other.

“Remember four weeks ago, Bean? When you told me to make you a toon leader?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve made five toon leaders since then, haven’t I? And none of them was you.”

Bean looked at him calmly.

“Was I right?” Ender asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bean answered.

Ender nodded. “How have you done in these battles?”

Bean cocked his head to one side. “I’ve never been immobilized, sir, and I’ve immobilized forty-three of the enemy. I’ve obeyed orders quickly, and I’ve commanded a squad in mop-up and never lost a soldier.”

“Then you’ll understand this.” Ender paused, then decided to back up and say something else first.

“You know you’re early, Bean, by a good half year. I was, too, and I’ve been made a commander six months early. Now they’ve put me into battles after only three weeks of training with my army. They’ve given me eight battles in seven days. I’ve already had more battles than boys who were made commander four months ago. I’ve won more battles than many who’ve been commanders for a year. And then tonight. You know what happened tonight.”

Bean nodded. “They told you late.”

“I don’t know what the teachers are doing. But my army is getting tired, and I’m getting tired, and now they’re changing the rules of the game. You see, Bean, I’ve looked in the old charts. No one has ever destroyed so many enemies and kept so many of his own soldiers whole in the history of the game. I’m unique—and I’m getting unique treatment.”

Bean smiled. “You’re the best, Ender.”

Ender shook his head. “Maybe. But it was no accident that I got the soldiers I got. My worst soldier could be a toon leader in another army. I’ve got the best. They’ve loaded things my way—but now they’re loading it all against me. I don’t know why. But I know I have to be ready for it. I need your help.”

“Why mine?”

“Because even though there are some better soldiers than you in Dragon Army—not many, but some—there’s nobody who can think better and faster than you.” Bean said nothing. They both knew it was true.

Ender continued, “I need to be ready, but I can’t retrain the whole army. So I’m going to cut every toon down by one, including you. With four others you’ll be a special squad under me. And you’ll learn to do some new things. Most of the time you’ll be in the regular toons just like you are now. But when I need you. See?”

Bean smiled and nodded. “That’s right, that’s good, can I pick them myself?”

“One from each toon except your own, and you can’t take any toon leaders.”

“What do you want us to do?”

“Bean, I don’t know. I don’t know what they’ll throw at us. What would you do if suddenly our flashers didn’t work, and the enemy’s did? What would you do if we had to face two armies at once? The only thing I know is—there may be a game where we don’t even try for score. Where we just go for the enemy’s gate. That’s when the battle is technically won—four helmets at the corners of the gate. I want you ready to do that any time I call for it. Got it? You take them for two hours a day during regular workout. Then you and I and your soldiers, we’ll work at night after dinner.”

“We’ll get tired.”

“I have a feeling we don’t know what tired is.” Ender reached out and took Bean’s hand, and gripped it. “Even when it’s rigged against us, Bean. We’ll win.”

Bean left in silence and padded down the corridor.

DRAGON ARMY WASN’T the only army working out after hours now. The other commanders had finally realized they had some catching up to do. From early morning to lights out soldiers all over Training and Command Center, none of them over fourteen years old, were learning to jackknife off walls and use each other as living shields.

But while other commanders mastered the techniques that Ender had used to defeat them, Ender and Bean worked on solutions to problems that had never come up.

There were still battles every day, but for a while they were normal, with grids and stars and sudden plunges through the gate. And after the battles, Ender and Bean and four other soldiers would leave the main group and practice strange maneuvers. Attacks without flashers, using feet to physically disarm or disorient an enemy. Using four frozen soldiers to reverse the enemy’s gate in less than two seconds. And one day Bean came to workout with a 300-meter cord.

“What’s that for?”

“I don’t know yet.” Absently Bean spun one end of the cord. It wasn’t more than an eighth of an inch thick, but it could have lifted ten adults without breaking.

“Where did you get it?”

“Commissary. They asked what for. I said to practice tying knots.”

Bean tied a loop in the end of the rope and slid it over his shoulders.

“Here, you two, hang on to the wall here. Now don’t let go of the rope. Give me about fifty yards of slack.” They complied, and Bean moved about ten feet from them along the wall. As soon as he was sure they were ready, he jackknifed off the wall and flew straight out, fifty yards. Then the rope snapped taut. It was so fine that it was virtually invisible, but it was strong enough to force Bean to veer off at almost a right angle. It happened so suddenly that he had inscribed a perfect arc and hit the wall hard before most of the other soldiers knew what had happened. Bean did a perfect rebound and drifted quickly back to where Ender and the others waited for him.

Many of the soldiers in the five regular squads hadn’t noticed the rope, and were demanding to know how it was done. It was impossible to change direction that abruptly in nullo. Bean just laughed.

“Wait till the next game without a grid! They’ll never know what hit them.”

They never did. The next game was only two hours later, but Bean and two others had become pretty good at aiming and shooting while they flew at ridiculous speeds at the end of the rope. The slip of paper was delivered, and Dragon Army trotted off to the gate, to battle with Griffin Army. Bean coiled the rope all the way.

When the gate opened, all they could see was a large brown star only fifteen feet away, completely blocking their view of the enemy’s gate.

Ender didn’t pause. “Bean, give yourself fifty feet of rope and go around the star.” Bean and his four soldiers dropped through the gate and in a moment Bean was launched sideways away from the star. The rope snapped taut, and Bean flew forward. As the rope was stopped by each edge of the star in turn, his arc became tighter and his speed greater, until when he hit the wall only a few feet away from the gate, he was barely able to control his rebound to end up behind the star. But he immediately moved all his arms and legs so that those waiting inside the gate would know that the enemy hadn’t flashed him anywhere.

Ender dropped through the gate, and Bean quickly told him how Griffin Army was situated. “They’ve got two squares of stars, all the way around the gate. All their soldiers are under cover, and there’s no way to hit any of them until we’re clear to the bottom wall. Even with shields, we’d get there at half strength and we wouldn’t have a chance.”

“They moving?” Ender asked.

“Do they need to?”

“I would.” Ender thought for a moment. “This one’s tough. We’ll go for the gate, Bean.”

Griffin Army began to call out to them.

“Hey, is anybody there!”

“Wake up, there’s a war on!”

“We wanna join the picnic!”

They were still calling when Ender’s army came out from behind their star with a shield of fourteen frozen soldiers. William Bee, Griffin Army’s commander, waited patiently as the screen approached, his men waiting at the fringes of their stars for the moment when whatever was behind the screen became visible. About ten yards away the screen suddenly exploded as the soldiers behind it shoved the screen north. The momentum carried them south twice as fast, and at the same moment the rest of Dragon Army burst from behind their star at the opposite end of the room, firing rapidly.

William Bee’s boys joined battle immediately, of course, but William Bee was far more interested in what had been left behind when the shield disappeared. A formation of four frozen Dragon Army soldiers was moving headfirst toward the Griffin Army gate, held together by another frozen soldier whose feet and hands were hooked through their belts. A sixth soldier hung to his waist and trailed like the tail of a kite. Griffin Army was winning the battle easily, and William Bee concentrated on the formation as it approached the gate. Suddenly the soldier trailing in back moved—he wasn’t frozen at all! And even though William Bee flashed him immediately, the damage was done. The formation drifted to the Griffin Army gate, and their helmets touched all four corners simultaneously. A buzzer sounded, the gate reversed, and the frozen soldier in the middle was carried by momentum right through the gate. All the flashers stopped working, and the game was over.

The teachergate opened and Lieutenant Anderson came in. Anderson stopped himself with a slight movement of his hands when he reached the center of the battleroom. “Ender,” he called, breaking protocol. One of the frozen Dragon soldiers near the south wall tried to call through jaws that were clamped shut by the suit. Anderson drifted to him and unfroze him.

Ender was smiling.

“I beat you again, sir,” Ender said.

Anderson didn’t smile. “That’s nonsense, Ender,” Anderson said softly. “Your battle was with William Bee of Griffin Army.”

Ender raised an eyebrow.

“After that maneuver,” Anderson said, “the rules are being revised to require that all of the enemy’s soldiers must be immobilized before the gate can be reversed.”

“That’s all right,” Ender said. “It could only work once, anyway.” Anderson nodded, and was turning away when Ender added, “Is there going to be a new rule that armies be given equal positions to fight from?”

Anderson turned back around. “If you’re in one of the positions, Ender, you can hardly call them equal, whatever they are.”

William Bee counted carefully and wondered how in the world he had lost when not one of his soldiers had been flashed and only four of Ender’s soldiers were even mobile.

And that night as Ender came into the commanders’ mess hall, he was greeted with applause and cheers, and his table was crowded with respectful commanders, many of them two or three years older than he was. He was friendly, but while he ate he wondered what the teachers would do to him in his next battle. He didn’t need to worry. His next two battles were easy victories, and after that he never saw the battleroom again.

IT WAS 2100 and Ender was a little irritated to hear someone knock at his door. His army was exhausted, and he had ordered them all to be in bed after 2030. The last two days had been regular battles, and Ender was expecting the worst in the morning.

It was Bean. He came in sheepishly, and saluted.

Ender returned his salute and snapped, “Bean, I wanted everybody in bed.”

Bean nodded but didn’t leave. Ender considered ordering him out. But as he looked at Bean it occurred to him for the first time in weeks just how young Bean was. He had turned eight a week before, and he was still small and—no, Ender thought, he wasn’t young. Nobody was young. Bean had been in battle, and with a whole army depending on him he had come through and won. And even though he was small, Ender could never think of him as young again.

Ender shrugged and Bean came over and sat on the edge of the bed. The younger boy looked at his hands for a while, and finally Ender grew impatient and asked, “Well, what is it?”

“I’m transferred. Got orders just a few minutes ago.”

Ender closed his eyes for a moment. “I knew they’d pull something new. Now they’re taking—where are you going?”

“Rabbit Army.”

“How can they put you under an idiot like Carn Carby!”

“Carn was graduated. Support squads.”

Ender looked up. “Well, who’s commanding Rabbit then?”

Bean held his hands out helplessly.

“Me,” he said.

Ender nodded, and then smiled. “Of course. After all, you’re only four years younger than the regular age.”

“It isn’t funny,” Bean said. “I don’t know what’s going on here. First all the changes in the game. And now this. I wasn’t the only one transferred, either, Ender. Ren, Peder, Brian, Wins, Younger. All commanders now.”

Ender stood up angrily and strode to the wall. “Every damn toon leader I’ve got!” he said, and whirled to face Bean. “If they’re going to break up my army, Bean, why did they bother making me a commander at all?”

Bean shook his head. “I don’t know. You’re the best, Ender. Nobody’s ever done what you’ve done. Nineteen battles in fifteen days, sir, and you won every one of them, no matter what they did to you.”

“And now you and the others are commanders. You know every trick I’ve got, I trained you, and who am I supposed to replace you with? Are they going to stick me with six greenohs?”

“It stinks, Ender, but you know that if they gave you five crippled midgets and armed you with a roll of toilet paper you’d win.”

They both laughed, and then they noticed that the door was open.

Lieutenant Anderson stepped in. He was followed by Captain Graff.

“Ender Wiggins,” Graff said, holding his hands across his stomach.

“Yes, sir,” Ender answered.

“Orders.”

Anderson extended a slip of paper. Ender read it quickly, then crumpled it, still looking at the air where the paper had been. After a few moments he asked, “Can I tell my army?”

“They’ll find out,” Graff answered. “It’s better not to talk to them after orders. It makes it easier.”

“For you or for me?” Ender asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. He turned quickly to Bean, took his hand for a moment, and then headed for the door.

“Wait,” Bean said. “Where are you going? Tactical or Support School?”

“Command School,” Ender answered, and then he was gone and Anderson closed the door.

Command School, Bean thought. Nobody went to Command School until they had gone through three years of Tactical. But then, nobody went to Tactical until they had been through at least five years of Battle School. Ender had only had three.

The system was breaking up. No doubt about it, Bean thought. Either somebody at the top was going crazy, or something was going wrong with the war—the real war, the one they were training to fight in. Why else would they break down the training system, advance somebody—even somebody as good as Ender—straight to Command School? Why else would they ever have an eight-year-old greenoh like Bean command an army?

Bean wondered about it for a long time, and then he finally lay down on Ender’s bed and realized that he’d never see Ender again, probably. For some reason that made him want to cry. But he didn’t cry, of course. Training in the preschools had taught him how to force down emotions like that. He remembered how his first teacher, when he was three, would have been upset to see his lip quivering and his eyes full of tears.

Bean went through the relaxing routine until he didn’t feel like crying anymore. Then he drifted off to sleep. His hand was near his mouth. It lay on his pillow hesitantly, as if Bean couldn’t decide whether to bite his nails or suck on his fingertips. His forehead was creased and furrowed. His breathing was quick and light. He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn’t have known what they meant.

* * *

THERE’S A WAR on, they said, and that was excuse enough for all the hurry in the world. They said it like a password and flashed a little card at every ticket counter and customs check and guard station. It got them to the head of every line.

Ender Wiggins was rushed from place to place so quickly he had no time to examine anything. But he did see trees for the first time. He saw men who were not in uniform. He saw women. He saw strange animals that didn’t speak, but that followed docilely behind women and small children. He saw suitcases and conveyor belts and signs that said words he had never heard of. He would have asked someone what the words meant, except that purpose and authority surrounded him in the persons of four very high officers who never spoke to each other and never spoke to him.

Ender Wiggins was a stranger to the world he was being trained to save. He did not remember ever leaving Battle School before. His earliest memories were of childish war games under the direction of a teacher, of meals with other boys in the grey and green uniforms of the armed forces of his world. He did not know that the grey represented the sky and the green represented the great forests of his planet. All he knew of the world was from vague references to “outside.”

And before he could make any sense of the strange world he was seeing for the first time, they enclosed him again within the shell of the military, where nobody had to say “There’s a war on” anymore because no one within the shell of the military forgot it for a single instant of a single day.

They put him in a spaceship and launched him to a large artificial satellite that circled the world.

This space station was called Command School. It held the ansible.

On his first day Ender Wiggins was taught about the ansible and what it meant to warfare. It meant that even though the starships of today’s battles were launched a hundred years ago, the commanders of the starships were men of today, who used the ansible to send messages to the computers and the few men on each ship. The ansible sent words as they were spoken, orders as they were made. Battleplans as they were fought. Light was a pedestrian.

For two months Ender Wiggins didn’t meet a single person. They came to him namelessly, taught him what they knew, and left him to other teachers. He had no time to miss his friends at Battle School. He only had time to learn how to operate the simulator, which flashed battle patterns around him as if he were in a starship at the center of the battle. How to command mock ships in mock battle by manipulating the keys on the simulator and speaking words into the ansible. How to recognize instantly every enemy ship and the weapons it carried by the pattern that the simulator showed. How to transfer all that he learned in the nullo battles at Battle School to the starship battles at Command School.

He had thought the game was taken seriously before. Here they hurried him through every step, were angry and worried beyond reason every time he forgot something or made a mistake. But he worked as he had always worked, and learned as he had always learned. After a while he didn’t make any more mistakes. He used the simulator as if it were a part of himself. Then they stopped being worried and gave him a teacher.

MAEZR RACKHAM WAS sitting cross-legged on the floor when Ender awoke. He said nothing as Ender got up and showered and dressed, and Ender did not bother to ask him anything. He had long since learned that when something unusual was going on, he would often find out more information faster by waiting than by asking.

Maezr still hadn’t spoken when Ender was ready and went to the door to leave the room. The door didn’t open. Ender turned to face the man sitting on the floor. Maezr was at least forty, which made him the oldest man Ender had ever seen close up. He had a day’s growth of black and white whiskers that grizzled his face only slightly less than his close-cut hair. His face sagged a little and his eyes were surrounded by creases and lines. He looked at Ender without interest.

Ender turned back to the door and tried again to open it.

“All right,” he said, giving up. “Why’s the door locked?”

Maezr continued to look at him blankly.

Ender became impatient. “I’m going to be late. If I’m not supposed to be there until later, than tell me so I can go back to bed.” No answer. “Is it a guessing game?” Ender asked. No answer. Ender decided that maybe the man was trying to make him angry, so he went through a relaxing exercise as he leaned on the door, and soon he was calm again. Maezr didn’t take his eyes off Ender.

For the next two hours the silence endured, Maezr watching Ender constantly, Ender trying to pretend he didn’t notice the old man. The boy became more and more nervous, and finally ended up walking from one end of the room to the other in a sporadic pattern.

He walked by Maezr as he had several times before, and Maezr’s hand shot out and pushed Ender’s left leg into his right in the middle of a step. Ender fell flat on the floor.

He leaped to his feet immediately, furious. He found Maezr sitting calmly, cross-legged, as if he had never moved. Ender stood poised to fight. But the other’s immobility made it impossible for Ender to attack, and he found himself wondering if he had only imagined the old man’s hand tripping him up.

The pacing continued for another hour, with Ender Wiggins trying the door every now and then. At last he gave up and took off his uniform and walked to his bed.

As he leaned over to pull the covers back, he felt a hand jab roughly between his thighs and another hand grab his hair. In a moment he had been turned upside down. His face and shoulders were being pressed into the floor by the old man’s knee, while his back was excruciatingly bent and his legs were pinioned by Maezr’s arm. Ender was helpless to use his arms, and he couldn’t bend his back to gain slack so he could use his legs. In less than two seconds the old man had completely defeated Ender Wiggins.

“All right,” Ender gasped. “You win.”

Maezr’s knee thrust painfully downward.

“Since when,” Maezr asked in a soft, rasping voice, “do you have to tell the enemy when he has won?”

Ender remained silent.

“I surprised you once, Ender Wiggins. Why didn’t you destroy me immediately afterward? Just because I looked peaceful? You turned your back on me. Stupid. You have learned nothing. You have never had a teacher.”

Ender was angry now. “I’ve had too many damned teachers, how was I supposed to know you’d turn out to be a—” Ender hunted for a word. Maezr supplied one.

“An enemy, Ender Wiggins,” Maezr whispered. “I am your enemy, the first one you’ve ever had who was smarter than you. There is no teacher but the enemy, Ender Wiggins. No one but the enemy will ever tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. I am your enemy, from now on. From now on I am your teacher.”

Then Maezr let Ender’s legs fall to the floor. Because the old man still held Ender’s head to the floor, the boy couldn’t use his arms to compensate, and his legs hit the plastic surface with a loud crack and a sickening pain that made Ender wince. Then Maezr stood and let Ender rise.

Slowly the boy pulled his legs under him, with a faint groan of pain, and he knelt on all fours for a moment, recovering. Then his right arm flashed out. Maezr quickly danced back and Ender’s hand closed on air as his teacher’s foot shot forward to catch Ender on the chin.

Ender’s chin wasn’t there. He was lying flat on his back, spinning on the floor, and during the moment that Maezr was off balance from his kick Ender’s feet smashed into Maezr’s other leg. The old man fell on the ground in a heap.

What seemed to be a heap was really a hornet’s nest. Ender couldn’t find an arm or a leg that held still long enough to be grabbed, and in the meantime blows were landing on his back and arms. Ender was smaller—he couldn’t reach past the old man’s flailing limbs.

So he leaped back out of the way and stood poised near the door.

The old man stopped thrashing about and sat up, cross-legged again, laughing. “Better, this time, boy. But slow. You will have to be better with a fleet than you are with your body or no one will be safe with you in command. Lesson learned?”

Ender nodded slowly.

Maezr smiled. “Good. Then we’ll never have such a battle again. All the rest with the simulator. I will program your battles, I will devise the strategy of your enemy, and you will learn to be quick and discover what tricks the enemy has for you. Remember, boy. From now on the enemy is more clever than you. From now on the enemy is stronger than you. From now on you are always about to lose.”

Then Maezr’s face became serious again. “You will be about to lose, Ender, but you will win. You will learn to defeat the enemy. He will teach you how.”

Maezr got up and walked toward the door. Ender stepped back out of the way. As the old man touched the handle of the door, Ender leaped into the air and kicked Maezr in the small of the back with both feet. He hit hard enough that he rebounded onto his feet, as Maezr cried out and collapsed on the floor.

Maezr got up slowly, holding on to the door handle, his face contorted with pain. He seemed disabled, but Ender didn’t trust him. He waited warily. And yet in spite of his suspicion he was caught off guard by Maezr’s speed. In a moment he found himself on the floor near the opposite wall, his nose and lip bleeding where his face had hit the bed. He was able to turn enough to see Maezr open the door and leave. The old man was limping and walking slowly.

Ender smiled in spite of the pain, then rolled over onto his back and laughed until his mouth filled with blood and he started to gag. Then he got up and painfully made his way to the bed. He lay down and in a few minutes a medic came and took care of his injuries.

As the drug had its effect and Ender drifted off to sleep he remembered the way Maezr limped out of his room and laughed again. He was still laughing softly as his mind went blank and the medic pulled the blanket over him and snapped off the light. He slept until the pain woke him in the morning. He dreamed of defeating Maezr.

THE NEXT DAY Ender went to the simulator room with his nose bandaged and his lip still puffy. Maezr was not there. Instead, a captain who had worked with him before showed him an addition that had been made. The captain pointed to a tube with a loop at one end. “Radio. Primitive, I know, but it loops over your ear and we tuck the other end into your mouth like this.”

“Watch it,” Ender said as the captain pushed the end of the tube into his swollen lip.

“Sorry. Now you just talk.”

“Good. Who to?”

The captain smiled. “Ask and see.”

Ender shrugged and turned to the simulator. As he did a voice reverberated through his skull. It was too loud for him to understand, and he ripped the radio off his ear.

“What are you trying to do, make me deaf?”

The captain shook his head and turned a dial on a small box on a nearby table. Ender put the radio back on.

“Commander,” the radio said in a familiar voice.

Ender answered, “Yes.”

“Instructions, sir?”

The voice was definitely familiar. “Bean?” Ender asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Bean, this is Ender.”

Silence. And then a burst of laughter from the other side. Then six or seven more voices laughing, and Ender waited for silence to return. When it did, he asked, “Who else?”

A few voices spoke at once, but Bean drowned them out. “Me, I’m Bean, and Peder, Wins, Younger, Lee, and Vlad.”

Ender thought for a moment. Then he asked what the hell was going on. They laughed again.

“They can’t break up the group,” Bean said. “We were commanders for maybe two weeks, and here we are at Command School, training with the simulator, and all of a sudden they told us we were going to form a fleet with a new commander. And that’s you.”

Ender smiled. “Are you boys any good?”

“If we aren’t, you’ll let us know.”

Ender chuckled a little. “Might work out. A fleet.”

For the next ten days Ender trained his toon leaders until they could maneuver their ships like precision dancers. It was like being back in the battleroom again, except that now Ender could always see everything, and could speak to his toon leaders and change their orders at any time.

One day as Ender sat down at the control board and switched on the simulator, harsh green lights appeared in the space—the enemy.

“This is it,” Ender said. “X, Y, bullet, C, D, reserve screen, E, south loop, Bean, angle north.”

The enemy was grouped in a globe, and outnumbered Ender two to one. Half of Ender’s force was grouped in a tight, bulletlike formation, with the rest in a flat circular screen—except for a tiny force under Bean that moved off the simulator, heading behind the enemy’s formation. Ender quickly learned the enemy’s strategy: whenever Ender’s bullet formation came close, the enemy would give way, hoping to draw Ender inside the globe where he would be surrounded. So Ender obligingly fell into the trap, bringing his bullet to the center of the globe.

The enemy began to contract slowly, not wanting to come within range until all their weapons could be brought to bear at once. Then Ender began to work in earnest. His reserve screen approached the outside of the globe, and the enemy began to concentrate his forces there. Then Bean’s force appeared on the opposite side, and the enemy again deployed ships on that side.

Which left most of the globe only thinly defended. Ender’s bullet attacked, and since at the point of attack it outnumbered the enemy overwhelmingly, he tore a hole in the formation. The enemy reacted to try to plug the gap, but in the confusion the reserve force and Bean’s small force attacked simultaneously, with the bullet moved to another part of the globe. In a few more minutes the formation was shattered, most of the enemy ships destroyed, and the few survivors rushing away as fast as they could go.

Ender switched the simulator off. All the lights faded. Maezr was standing beside Ender, his hands in his pockets, his body tense. Ender looked up at him.

“I thought you said the enemy would be smart,” Ender said.

Maezr’s face remained expressionless. “What did you learn?”

“I learned that a sphere only works if your enemy’s a fool. He had his forces so spread out that I outnumbered him whenever I engaged him.”

“And?”

“And,” Ender said, “you can’t stay committed to one pattern. It makes you too easy to predict.”

“Is that all?” Maezr asked quietly.

Ender took off his radio. “The enemy could have defeated me by breaking the sphere earlier.”

Maezr nodded. “You had an unfair advantage.”

Ender looked up at him coldly. “I was outnumbered two to one.”

Maezr shook his head. “You have the ansible. The enemy doesn’t. We include that in the mock battles. Their messages travel at the speed of light.”

Ender glanced toward the simulator. “Is there enough space to make a difference?”

“Don’t you know?” Maezr asked. “None of the ships was ever closer than thirty thousand kilometers to any other.”

Ender tried to figure the size of the enemy’s sphere. Astronomy was beyond him. But now his curiosity was stirred.

“What kind of weapons are on those ships? To be able to strike so fast?”

Maezr shook his head. “The science is too much for you. You’d have to study many more years than you’ve lived to understand even the basics. All you need to know is that the weapons work.”

“Why do we have to come so close to be in range?”

“The ships are all protected by forcefields. A certain distance away the weapons are weaker and can’t get through. Closer in the weapons are stronger than the shields. But the computers take care of all that. They’re constantly firing in any direction that won’t hurt one of our ships. The computers pick targets, aim; they do all the detail work. You just tell them when and get them in a position to win. All right?”

“No.” Ender twisted the tube of the radio around his fingers. “I have to know how the weapons work.”

“I told you, it would take—”

“I can’t command a fleet—not even on the simulator—unless I know.” Ender waited a moment, then added, “Just the rough idea.”

Maezr stood up and walked a few steps away. “All right, Ender. It won’t make any sense, but I’ll try. As simply as I can.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “It’s this way, Ender. Everything is made up of atoms, little particles so small you can’t see them with your eyes. These atoms, there are only a few different types, and they’re all made up of even smaller particles that are pretty much the same. These atoms can be broken, so that they stop being atoms. So that this metal doesn’t hold together anymore. Or the plastic floor. Or your body. Or even the air. They just seem to disappear, if you break the atoms. All that’s left is the pieces. And they fly around and break more atoms. The weapons on the ships set up an area where it’s impossible for atoms of anything to stay together. They all break down. So things in that area—they disappear.”

Ender nodded. “You’re right, I don’t understand it. Can it be blocked?”

“No. But it gets wider and weaker the farther it goes from the ship, so that after a while a forcefield will block it. OK? And to make it strong at all, it has to be focused, so that a ship can only fire effectively in maybe three or four directions at once.”

Ender nodded again, but he didn’t really understand, not well enough. “If the pieces of the broken atoms go breaking more atoms, why doesn’t it just make everything disappear?”

“Space. Those thousands of kilometers between the ships, they’re empty. Almost no atoms. The pieces don’t hit anything, and when they finally do hit something, they’re so spread out they can’t do any harm.” Maezr cocked his head quizzically. “Anything else you need to know?”

“Do the weapons on the ships—do they work against anything besides ships?”

Maezr moved in close to Ender and said firmly, “We only use them against ships. Never anything else. If we used them against anything else, the enemy would use them against us. Got it?”

Maezr walked away, and was nearly out the door when Ender called to him.

“I don’t know your name yet,” Ender said blandly.

“Maezr Rackham.”

“Maezr Rackham,” Ender said, “I defeated you.”

Maezr laughed.

“Ender, you weren’t fighting me today,” he said. “You were fighting the stupidest computer in the Command School, set on a ten-year-old program. You don’t think I’d use a sphere, do you?” He shook his head. “Ender, my dear little fellow, when you fight me you’ll know it. Because you’ll lose.” And Maezr left the room.

ENDER STILL PRACTICED ten hours a day with his toon leaders. He never saw them, though, only heard their voices on the radio. Battles came every two or three days. The enemy had something new every time, something harder—but Ender coped with it. And won every time. And after every battle Maezr would point out mistakes and show Ender that he had really lost. Maezr only let Ender finish so that he would learn to handle the end of the game.

Until finally Maezr came in and solemnly shook Ender’s hand and said, “That, boy, was a good battle.”

Because the praise was so long in coming, it pleased Ender more than praise had ever pleased him before. And because it was so condescending, he resented it.

“So from now on,” Maezr said, “we can give you hard ones.”

From then on Ender’s life was a slow nervous breakdown.

He began fighting two battles a day, with problems that steadily grew more difficult. He had been trained in nothing but the game all his life, but now the game began to consume him. He woke in the morning with new strategies for the simulator and went fitfully to sleep at night with the mistakes of the day preying on him. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night crying for a reason he didn’t remember. Sometimes he woke with his knuckles bloody from biting them. But every day he went impassively to the simulator and drilled his toon leaders until the battles, and drilled his toon leaders after the battles, and endured and studied the harsh criticism that Maezr Rackham piled on him. He noted that Rackham perversely criticized him more after his hardest battles. He noted that every time he thought of a new strategy the enemy was using it within a few days. And he noted that while his fleet always stayed the same size, the enemy increased in numbers every day.

He asked his teacher.

“We are showing you what it will be like when you really command. The ratios of enemy to us.”

“Why does the enemy always outnumber us?”

Maezr bowed his grey head for a moment, as if deciding whether to answer. Finally he looked up and reached out his hand and touched Ender on the shoulder. “I will tell you, even though the information is secret. You see, the enemy attacked us first. He had good reason to attack us, but that is a matter for politicians, and whether the fault was ours or his, we could not let him win. So when the enemy came to our worlds, we fought back, hard, and spent the finest of our young men in the fleets. But we won, and the enemy retreated.”

Maezr smiled ruefully. “But the enemy was not through, boy. The enemy would never be through. They came again, with more numbers, and it was harder to beat them. And another generation of young men was spent. Only a few survived. So we came up with a plan—the big men came up with the plan. We knew that we had to destroy the enemy once and for all, totally, eliminate his ability to make war against us. To do that we had to go to his home worlds—his home world, really, since the enemy’s empire is all tied to his capital world.”

“And so?” Ender asked.

“And so we made a fleet. We made more ships than the enemy ever had. We made a hundred ships for every ship he had sent against us. And we launched them against his twenty-eight worlds. They started leaving a hundred years ago. And they carried on them the ansible, and only a few men. So that someday a commander could sit on a planet somewhere far from the battle and command the fleet. So that our best minds would not be destroyed by the enemy.”

Ender’s question had still not been answered. “Why do they outnumber us?”

Maezr laughed. “Because it took a hundred years for our ships to get there. They’ve had a hundred years to prepare for us. They’d be fools, don’t you think, boy, if they waited in old tugboats to defend their harbors. They have new ships, great ships, hundreds of ships. All we have is the ansible, that and the fact that they have to put a commander with every fleet, and when they lose—and they will lose—they lose one of their best minds every time.”

Ender started to ask another question.

“No more, Ender Wiggins. I’ve told you more than you ought to know as it is.”

Ender stood angrily and turned away. “I have a right to know. Do you think this can go on forever, pushing me through one school and another and never telling me what my life is for? You use me and the others as a tool, someday we’ll command your ships, someday maybe we’ll save your lives, but I’m not a computer, and I have to know!”

“Ask me a question, then, boy,” Maezr said, “and if I can answer, I will.”

“If you use your best minds to command the fleets, and you never lose any, then what do you need me for? Who am I replacing, if they’re all still there?”

Maezr shook his head. “I can’t tell you the answer to that, Ender. Be content that we will need you, soon. It’s late. Go to bed. You have a battle in the morning.”

Ender walked out of the simulator room. But when Maezr left by the same door a few moments later, the boy was waiting in the hall.

“All right, boy,” Maezr said impatiently, “what is it? I don’t have all night and you need to sleep.”

Ender wasn’t sure what his question was, but Maezr waited. Finally Ender asked softly, “Do they live?”

“Does who live?”

“The other commanders. The ones now. And before me.”

Maezr snorted. “Live. Of course they live. He wonders if they live.” Still chuckling, the old man walked off down the hall. Ender stood in the corridor for a while, but at last he was tired and he went off to bed. They live, he thought. They live, but he can’t tell me what happens to them.

That night Ender didn’t wake up crying. But he did wake up with blood on his hands.

MONTHS WORE ON with battles every day, until at last Ender settled into the routine of the destruction of himself. He slept less every night, dreamed more, and he began to have terrible pains in his stomach. They put him on a very bland diet, but soon he didn’t even have an appetite for that. “Eat,” Maezr said, and Ender would mechanically put food in his mouth. But if nobody told him to eat he didn’t eat.

One day as he was drilling his toon leaders the room went black and he woke up on the floor with his face bloody where he had hit the controls.

They put him to bed then, and for three days he was very ill. He remembered seeing faces in his dreams, but they weren’t real faces, and he knew it even while he thought he saw them. He thought he saw Bean sometimes, and sometimes he thought he saw Lieutenant Anderson and Captain Graff. And then he woke up and it was only his enemy Maezr Rackham.

“I’m awake,” he said to Maezr.

“So I see,” Maezr answered. “Took you long enough. You have a battle today.”

So Ender got up and fought the battle and he won it. But there was no second battle that day, and they let him go to bed earlier. His hands were shaking as he undressed.

During the night he thought he felt hands touching him gently, and he dreamed he heard voices saying, “How long can he go on?”

“Long enough.”

“So soon?”

“In a few days, then he’s through.”

“How will he do?”

“Fine. Even today, he was better than ever.”

Ender recognized the last voice as Maezr Rackham’s. He resented Rackham’s intruding even in his sleep.

He woke up and fought another battle and won.

Then he went to bed.

He woke up and won again.

And the next day was his last day in Command School, though he didn’t know it. He got up and went to the simulator for the battle.

MAEZR WAS WAITING for him. Ender walked slowly into the simulator room. He step was slightly shuffling, and he seemed tired and dull. Maezr frowned.

“Are you awake, boy?” If Ender had been alert, he would have cared more about the concern in his teacher’s voice. Instead, he simply went to the controls and sat down. Maezr spoke to him.

“Today’s game needs a little explanation, Ender Wiggins. Please turn around and pay strict attention.”

Ender turned around, and for the first time he noticed that there were people at the back of the room. He recognized Graff and Anderson from Battle School, and vaguely remembered a few of the men from Command School—teachers for a few hours at some time or another. But most of the people he didn’t know at all.

“Who are they?”

Maezr shook his head and answered, “Observers. Every now and then we let observers come in to watch the battle. If you don’t want them, we’ll send them out.”

Ender shrugged. Maezr began his explanation. “Today’s game, boy, has a new element. We’re staging this battle around a planet. This will complicate things in two ways. The planet isn’t large, on the scale we’re using, but the ansible can’t detect anything on the other side of it—so there’s a blind spot. Also, it’s against the rules to use weapons against the planet itself. All right?”

“Why, don’t the weapons work against planets?”

Maezr answered coldly, “There are rules of war, Ender, that apply even in training games.”

Ender shook his head slowly. “Can the planet attack?”

Maezr looked nonplussed for a moment, then smiled. “I guess you’ll have to find that one out, boy. And one more thing. Today, Ender, your opponent isn’t the computer. I am your enemy today, and today I won’t be letting you off so easily. Today is a battle to the end. And I’ll use any means I can to defeat you.”

Then Maezr was gone, and Ender expressionlessly led his toon leaders through maneuvers. Ender was doing well, of course, but several of the observers shook their heads, and Graff kept clasping and unclasping his hands, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Ender would be slow today, and today Ender couldn’t afford to be slow.

A warning buzzer sounded, and Ender cleared the simulator board, waiting for today’s game to appear. He felt muddled today, and wondered why people were there watching. Were they going to judge him today? Decide if he was good enough for something else? For another two years of grueling training, another two years of struggling to exceed his best? Ender was twelve. He felt very old. And as he waited for the game to appear, he wished he could simply lose it, lose the battle badly and completely so that they would remove him from the program, punish him however they wanted, he didn’t care, just so he could sleep.

Then the enemy formation appeared, and Ender’s weariness turned to desperation.

The enemy outnumbered him a thousand to one, the simulator glowed green with them, and Ender knew that he couldn’t win.

And the enemy was not stupid. There was no formation that Ender could study and attack. Instead the vast swarms of ships were constantly moving, constantly shifting from one momentary formation to another, so that a space that for one moment was empty was immediately filled with formidable enemy force. And even though Ender’s fleet was the largest he had ever had, there was no place he could deploy it where he would outnumber the enemy long enough to accomplish anything.

And behind the enemy was the planet. The planet, which Maezr had warned him about. What difference did a planet make, when Ender couldn’t hope to get near it? Ender waited, waited for the flash of insight that would tell him what to do, how to destroy the enemy. And as he waited, he heard the observers behind him begin to shift in their seats, wondering what Ender was doing, what plan he would follow. And finally it was obvious to everyone that Ender didn’t know what to do, that there was nothing to do, and a few of the men at the back of the room made quiet little sounds in their throats.

Then Ender heard Bean’s voice in his ear. Bean chuckled and said, “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.” A few of the other toon leaders laughed and Ender thought back to the simple games he had played and won in Battle School. They had put him against hopeless odds there, too. And he had beaten them. And he’d be damned if he’d let Maezr Rackham beat him with a cheap trick like outnumbering him a thousand to one. He had won a game in Battle School by going for something against the rules—he had won by going against the enemy’s gate.

And the enemy’s gate was down.

Ender smiled, and realized that if he broke this rule they’d probably kick him out of school, and that way he’d win for sure: He would never have to play a game again.

He whispered into the microphone. His six commanders each took a part of the fleet and launched themselves against the enemy. They pursued erratic courses, darting off in one direction and then another. The enemy immediately stopped his aimless maneuvering and began to group around Ender’s six fleets.

Ender took off his microphone, leaned back in his chair, and watched. The observers murmured out loud now. Ender was doing nothing—he had thrown the game away.

But a pattern began to emerge from the quick confrontations with the enemy. Ender’s six groups lost ships constantly as they brushed with each enemy force—but they never stopped for a fight, even when for a moment they could have won a small tactical victory. Instead they continued on their erratic course that led, eventually, down. Toward the enemy planet.

And because of their seemingly random course the enemy didn’t realize it until the same time that the observers did. By then it was too late, just as it had been too late for William Bee to stop Ender’s soldiers from activating the gate. More of Ender’s ships could be hit and destroyed, so that of the six fleets only two were able to get to the planet, and those were decimated. But those tiny groups did get through, and they opened fire on the planet.

Ender leaned forward now, anxious to see if his guess would pay off. He half expected a buzzer to sound and the game to be stopped, because he had broken the rule. But he was betting on the accuracy of the simulator. If it could simulate a planet, it could simulate what would happen to a planet under attack.

It did.

The weapons that blew up little ships didn’t blow up the entire planet at first. But they did cause terrible explosions. And on the planet there was no space to dissipate the chain reaction. On the planet the chain reaction found more and more fuel to feed it.

The planet’s surface seemed to be moving back and forth, but soon the surface gave way in an immense explosion that sent light flashing in all directions. It swallowed up Ender’s entire fleet. And then it reached the enemy ships.

The first simply vanished in the explosion. Then, as the explosion spread and became less bright, it was clear what happened to each ship. As the light reached them they flashed brightly for a moment and disappeared. They were all fuel for the fire of the planet.

It took more than three minutes for the explosion to reach the limits of the simulator, and by then it was much fainter. All the ships were gone, and if any had escaped before the explosion reached them, they were few and not worth worrying about. Where the planet had been there was nothing. The simulator was empty.

Ender had destroyed the enemy by sacrificing his entire fleet and breaking the rule against destroying the enemy planet. He wasn’t sure whether to feel triumphant at his victory or defiant at the rebuke he was certain would come. So instead he felt nothing. He was tired. He wanted to go to bed and sleep.

He switched off the simulator, and finally heard the noise behind him.

There were no longer two rows of dignified military observers. Instead there was chaos. Some of them were slapping each other on the back; some of them were bowed, head in hands; others were openly weeping. Captain Graff detached himself from the group and came to Ender. Tears streamed down his face, but he was smiling. He reached out his arms, and to Ender’s surprise he embraced the boy, held him tightly, and whispered, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ender.”

Soon all the observers were gathered around the bewildered child, thanking him and cheering him and patting him on the shoulder and shaking his hand. Ender tried to make sense of what they were saying. Had he passed the test after all? Why did it matter so much to them?

Then the crowd parted and Maezr Rackham walked through. He came straight up to Ender Wiggins and held out his hand.

“You made the hard choice, boy. But heaven knows there was no other way you could have done it. Congratulations. You beat them, and it’s all over.”

All over. Beat them. “I beat you, Maezr Rackham.”

Maezr laughed, a loud laugh that filled the room. “Ender Wiggins, you never played me. You never played a game since I was your teacher.”

Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.

Maezr reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Maezr then grew serious and said, “Ender Wiggins, for the last months you have been the commander of our fleets. There were no games. The battles were real. Your only enemy was the enemy. You won every battle. And finally today you fought them at their home world, and you destroyed their world, their fleet, you destroyed them completely, and they’ll never come against us again. You did it. You.”

Real. Not a game. Ender’s mind was too tired to cope with it all. He walked away from Maezr, walked silently through the crowd that still whispered thanks and congratulations to the boy, walked out of the simulator room and finally arrived in his bedroom and closed the door.

HE WAS ASLEEP when Graff and Maezr Rackham found him. They came in quietly and roused him. He awoke slowly, and when he recognized them he turned away to go back to sleep.

“Ender,” Graff said. “We need to talk to you.”

Ender rolled back to face them. He said nothing.

Graff smiled. “It was a shock to you yesterday, I know. But it must make you feel good to know you won the war.”

Ender nodded slowly.

“Maezr Rackham here, he never played against you. He only analyzed your battles to find out your weak spots, to help you improve. It worked, didn’t it?”

Ender closed his eyes tightly. They waited. He said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Maezr smiled. “A hundred years ago, Ender, we found out some things. That when a commander’s life is in danger he becomes afraid, and fear slows down his thinking. When a commander knows that he’s killing people, he becomes cautious or insane, and neither of those help him do well. And when he’s mature, when he has responsibilities and an understanding of the world, he becomes cautious and sluggish and can’t do his job. So we trained children, who didn’t know anything but the game, and never knew when it would become real. That was the theory, and you proved that the theory worked.”

Graff reached out and touched Ender’s shoulder. “We launched the ships so that they would all arrive at their destination during these few months. We knew that we’d probably have only one good commander, if we were lucky. In history it’s been very rare to have more than one genius in a war. So we planned on having a genius. We were gambling. And you came along and we won.”

Ender opened his eyes again and they realized that he was angry. “Yes, you won.”

Graff and Maezr Rackham looked at each other. “He doesn’t understand,” Graff whispered.

“I understand,” Ender said. “You needed a weapon, and you got it, and it was me.”

“That’s right,” Maezr answered.

“So tell me,” Ender went on, “how many people lived on that planet that I destroyed.”

They didn’t answer him. They waited awhile in silence, and then Graff spoke. “Weapons don’t need to understand what they’re pointed at, Ender. We did the pointing, and so we’re responsible. You just did your job.”

Maezr smiled. “Of course, Ender, you’ll be taken care of. The government will never forget you. You served us all very well.”

Ender rolled over and faced the wall, and even though they tried to talk to him, he didn’t answer them. Finally they left.

Ender lay in his bed for a long time before anyone disturbed him again. The door opened softly. Ender didn’t turn to see who it was. Then a hand touched him softly.

“Ender, it’s me, Bean.”

Ender turned over and looked at the little boy who was standing by his bed.

“Sit down,” Ender said.

Bean sat. “That last battle, Ender. I didn’t know how you’d get us out of it.”

Ender smiled. “I didn’t. I cheated. I thought they’d kick me out.”

“Can you believe it! We won the war. The whole war’s over, and we thought we’d have to wait till we grew up to fight in it, and it was us fighting it all the time. I mean, Ender, we’re little kids. I’m a little kid, anyway.” Bean laughed and Ender smiled. Then they were silent for a little while, Bean sitting on the edge of the bed, Ender watching him out of half-closed eyes.

Finally Bean thought of something else to say.

“What will we do now that the war’s over?” he said.

Ender closed his eyes and said, “I need some sleep, Bean.”

Bean got up and left and Ender slept.

GRAFF AND ANDERSON walked through the gates into the park. There was a breeze, but the sun was hot on their shoulders.

“Abba Technics? In the capital?” Graff asked.

“No, in Biggock County. Training division,” Anderson replied. “They think my work with children is good preparation. And you?”

Graff smiled and shook his head. “No plans. I’ll be here for a few more months. Reports, winding down. I’ve had offers. Personnel development for DCIA, executive vice-president for U and P, but I said no. Publisher wants me to do memoirs of the war. I don’t know.”

They sat on a bench and watched leaves shivering in the breeze. Children on the monkey bars were laughing and yelling, but the wind and the distance swallowed their words. “Look,” Graff said, pointing. A little boy jumped from the bars and ran near the bench where the two men sat. Another boy followed him, and holding his hands like a gun he made an explosive sound. The child he was shooting at didn’t stop. He fired again.

“I got you! Come back here!”

The other little boy ran on out of sight.

“Don’t you know when you’re dead?” The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked a rock back to the monkey bars. Anderson smiled and shook his head. “Kids,” he said. Then he and Graff stood up and walked on out of the park.


Orson Scott Card

<p><emphasis>Orson Scott Card</emphasis></p>

Orson Scott Card’s landmark novels Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, made science fiction history when they became the first books ever to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in successive years. With Xenocide and Children of the Mind, they make up one of the most celebrated sagas of modern science fiction, a richly imagined and morally complex inquiry into issues of war, genocide, and human responsibility. Much of Card’s fantasy and science fiction interconnects to form inventive extended series, including The Worthing Chronicle, a linked group of stories related as the experiences as a messianic leader of a space colony, and his lengthy Hatrick River sequence, a folk history of an alternate United States whose individual volumes include Seventh Son, Prentice Alvin, and Heartfire. Card’s eloquent short fiction has been collected in Maps in a Mirror. He is also the author of the historical novel A Woman of Destiny, the dark fantasy novels Lost Boys, Treasure Box, and Homebody, and the Hugo Award–winning guide How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.


HANGMAN

David Drake

David Drake

<p>HANGMAN</p> <p>David Drake</p>

THE LIGHT IN the kitchen alcove glittered on Lt. Schilling’s blond curls; glittered also on the frost-spangled window beside her and from the armor of the tank parked outside. All the highlights looked cold to Capt. Danny Pritchard as he stepped closer to the infantry lieutenant.

“Sal—” Pritchard began. From the orderly room behind them came the babble of the radios ranked against one wall and, less muted, the laughter of soldiers waiting for action. “You can’t think like a Dutchman anymore. We’re Hammer’s Slammers, all of us. We’re mercs. Not Dutch, not Frisians—”

“You’re not,” Lt. Schilling snapped, looking up from the cup of bitter chocolate she had just drawn from the urn. She was a short woman and lightly built, but she had the unerring instinct of a bully who is willing to make a scene for a victim who is not willing to be part of one. “You’re a farmer from Dunstan, what d’you care about Dutch miners, whatever these bleeding French do to them. But a lot of us do care, Danny, and if you had a little compassion—”

“But Sal—” Pritchard repeated, only his right arm moving as he touched the blond girl’s shoulder.

“Get your hands off me, Captain!” she shouted. “That’s over!” She shifted the mug of steaming chocolate in her hand. The voices in the orderly room stilled. Then, simultaneously, someone turned up the volume of the radios and at least three people began to talk loudly on unconnected subjects.

Pritchard studied the back of his hand, turned it over to examine the calloused palm as well. He smiled. “Sorry, I’ll remember that,” he said in a normal voice. He turned and stepped back into the orderly room, a brown-haired man of 34 with a good set of muscles to cover his moderate frame and nothing at all to cover his heart. Those who knew Danny Pritchard slightly thought him a relaxed man, and he looked relaxed even now. But waiting around the electric grate were three troopers who knew Danny very well indeed: the crew of The Plow, Pritchard’s command tank.

Kowie drove the beast, a rabbit-eyed man whose fingers now flipped cards in another game of privy solitaire. His deck was so dirty that only familiarity allowed him to read the pips. Kowie’s hands and eyes were just as quick at the controls of the tank, sliding its bulbous hundred and fifty metric tons through spaces that were only big enough to pass it. When he had to, he drove nervelessly through objects instead of going around. Kowie would never be more than a tank driver; but he was the best tank driver in the Regiment.

Rob Jenne was big and as blond as Lt. Schilling. He grinned up at Pritchard, his expression changing from embarrassment to relief as he saw that his captain was able to smile also. Jenne had transferred from combat cars to tanks three years back, after the Slammers had pulled out of Squire’s World. He was sharp-eyed and calm in a crisis. Twice after his transfer Jenne had been offered a blower of his own to command if he would return to combat cars. He had refused both promotions, saying he would stay with tanks or buy back his contract, that there was no way he was going back to those open-topped coffins again. When a tank commander’s slot came open, Jenne got it; and Pritchard had made the blond sergeant his own blower chief when a directional mine had retired the previous man. Now Jenne straddled a chair backwards, his hands flexing a collapsible torsion device that kept his muscles as dense and hard as they had been the day he was recruited from a quarry on Burlage.

Line tanks carry only a driver and the blower chief who directs the tank and its guns when they are not under the direct charge of the Regiment’s computer. In addition to those two and a captain, command tanks have a Communications Technician to handle the multiplex burden of radio traffic focused on the vehicle. Pritchard’s commo tech was Margritte DiManzo, a slender widow who cropped her lustrous hair short so that it would not interfere with the radio helmet she wore most of her waking hours. She was off duty now, but she had not removed the bulky headgear which linked her to the six radios in the tank parked outside. Their simultaneous sound would have been unintelligible babbling to most listeners. The black-haired woman’s training, both conscious and hypnotic, broke that babbling into a set of discrete conversations. When Pritchard reentered the room, Margritte was speaking to Jenne. She did not look up at her commander until Jenne’s brightening expression showed her it was safe to do so.

Two commo people and a sergeant with Intelligence tabs were at consoles in the orderly room. They were from the Regiment’s HQ Battalion, assigned to Sector Two here on Kobold but in no sense a part of the sector’s combat companies: Capt. Riis’ S Company—infantry—and Pritchard’s own tanks.

Riis was the senior captain and in charge of the sector, a matter which neither he nor Pritchard ever forgot. Sally Schilling led his first platoon. Her aide, a black-haired corporal, sat with his huge boots up, humming as he polished the pieces of his field-stripped powergun. Its barrel gleamed orange in the light of the electric grate. Electricity was more general on Kobold than on some wealthier worlds, since mining and copper smelting made fusion units a practical necessity. But though the copper in the transmission cable might well have been processed on Kobold, the wire had probably been drawn off-world and shipped back here. Aurore and Friesland had refused to allow even such simple manufactures here on their joint colony. They had kept Kobold a market and a supplier of raw materials, but never a rival.

“Going to snow tonight?” Jenne asked.

“Umm, too cold,” Pritchard said, walking over to the grate. He pretended he did not hear Lt. Schilling stepping out of the alcove. “I figure—”

“Hold it,” said Margritte, her index finger curling out for a volume control before the duty man had time to react. One of the wall radios boomed loudly to the whole room. Prodding another switch, Margritte patched the signal separately through the link implanted in Pritchard’s right mastoid.

“—guns and looks like satchel charges. There’s only one man in each truck, but they’ve been on the horn too and we can figure on more Frenchies here any—”

“Red Alert,” Pritchard ordered, facing his commo tech so that she could read his lips. “Where is this?”

The headquarters radiomen stood nervously, afraid to interfere but unwilling to let an outsider run their equipment, however ably. “Red Alert,” Margritte was repeating over all bands. Then, through Pritchard’s implant, she said, “It’s Patrol Sigma three-nine, near Haacin. Dutch civilians’ve stopped three outbound provisions trucks from Barthe’s Company.”

“Scramble First Platoon,” Pritchard said, “but tell ’em to hold for us to arrive.” As Margritte coolly passed on the order, Pritchard picked up the commo helmet he had laid on his chair when he followed Lt. Schilling into the kitchen. The helmet gave him automatic switching and greater range than the bio-electric unit behind his ear.

The wall radio was saying, “—need some big friendlies fast or it’ll drop in the pot for sure.”

“Sigma three-niner,” Pritchard said, “this is Michael One.”

“Go ahead, Michael One,” replied the distant squad leader. Pritchard’s commo helmet added an airy boundlessness to his surroundings without really deadening the ambient noise.

“Hold what you’ve got, boys,” the tank captain said. “There’s help on the way.”

The door of the orderly room stood ajar the way Pritchard’s crewmen had left it. The captain slammed it shut as he too ran for his tank. Behind in the orderly room, Lt. Schilling was snapping out quick directions to her own platoon and to her awakened commander.

The Plow was already floating when Danny reached it. Ice crystals, spewed from beneath the skirts by the lift fans, made a blue-white dazzle in the vehicle’s running lights. Frost whitened the ladder up the high side of the tank’s plenum chamber and hull. Pritchard paused to pull on his gloves before mounting. Sgt. Jenne, anchoring himself with his left hand on the turret’s storage rack, reached down and lifted his captain aboard without noticeable effort. Side by side, the two men slid through the hatches to their battle stations.

“Ready,” Pritchard said over the intercom.

“Movin’ on,” replied Kowie, and with his words the tank slid forward over the frozen ground like grease on a hot griddle.

The command post had been a district road-maintenance center before all semblance of central government on Kobold had collapsed. The orderly room and officers’ quarters were in the supervisor’s house, a comfortable structure with shutters and mottoes embroidered in French on the walls. Some of the hangings had been defaced by short-range gunfire. The crew barracks across the road now served the troopers on headquarters duty. Many of the Slammers could read the Dutch periodicals abandoned there in the break-up. The equipment shed beside the barracks garaged the infantry skimmers because the battery-powered platforms could not shrug off the weather like the huge panzers of M Company. The shed doors were open, pluming the night with heated air as the duty platoon ran for its mounts. Some of the troopers had not yet donned their helmets and body armor. Jenne waved as the tank swept on by; then the road curved and the infantry was lost in the night.

Kobold was a joint colony of Aurore and Friesland. When eighty years of French oppression had driven the Dutch settlers to rebellion, their first act was to hire Hammer’s Slammers. The break between Hammer and Friesland had been sharp, but time has a way of blunting anger and letting old habits resume. The Regimental language was Dutch, and many of the Slammers’ officers were Frisians seconded from their own service. Friesland gained from the men’s experience when they returned home; Hammer gained company officers with excellent training from the Gröningen Academy.

To counter the Slammers, the settlers of Auroran descent had hired three Francophone regiments. If either group of colonists could have afforded to pay its mercenaries unaided, the fighting would have been immediate and brief. Kobold had been kept deliberately poor by its home worlds, however; so in their necessities the settlers turned to those home worlds for financial help.

And neither Aurore nor Friesland wanted a war on Kobold.

Friesland had let its settlers swing almost from the beginning, sloughing their interests for a half share of the copper produced and concessions elsewhere in its sphere of influence. The arrangement was still satisfactory to the Council of State, if Frisian public opinion could be mollified by apparent activity. Aurore was on the brink of war in the Zemla System. Her Parlement feared another proxy war which could in a moment explode full-fledged, even though Friesland had been weakened by a decade of severe internal troubles. So Aurore and Friesland reached a compromise. Then, under threat of abandonment, the warring parties were forced to transfer their mercenaries’ contracts to the home worlds. Finally, Aurore and Friesland mutually hired the four regiments: the Slammers; Compagnie de Barthe; the Alaudae; and Phenix Moirots. Mercs from either side were mixed and divided among eight sectors imposed on a map of inhabited Kobold. There the contract ordered them to keep peace between the factions; prevent the importation of modern weapons to either side; and—wait.

But Col. Barthe and the Auroran leaders had come to a further, secret agreement; and although Hammer had learned of it, he had informed only two men—Maj. Steuben, his aide and bodyguard; and Capt. Daniel Pritchard.

Pritchard scowled at the memory. Even without the details a traitor had sold Hammer, it would have been obvious that Barthe had his own plans. In the other sectors, Hammer’s men and their French counterparts ran joint patrols. Both sides scattered their camps throughout the sectors, just as the villages of either nationality were scattered. Barthe had split his sectors in halves, brusquely ordering the Slammers to keep to the west of the River Aillet because his own troops were mining the east of the basin heavily. Barthe’s Company was noted for its minefields. That skill was one of the reasons they had been hired by the French. Since most of Kobold was covered either by forests or by rugged hills, armor was limited to roads where well-placed mines could stack tanks like crushed boxes.

Hammer listened to Barthe’s pronouncement and laughed, despite the anger of most of his staff officers. Beside him, Joachim Steuben had grinned and traced the line of his cut-away holster. When Danny Pritchard was informed, he had only shivered a little and called a vehicle inspection for the next morning. That had been three months ago….

The night streamed by like smoke around the tank. Pritchard lowered his face shield, but he did not drop his seat into the belly of the tank. Vision blocks within gave a 360° view of the tank’s surroundings, but the farmer in Danny could not avoid the feeling of blindness within the impenetrable walls. Jenne sat beside his captain in a cupola fitted with a three-barrelled automatic weapon. He too rode with his head out of the hatch, but that was only for comradeship. The sergeant much preferred to be inside. He would button up at the first sign of hostile action. Jenne was in no sense a coward; it was just that he had quirks. Most combat veterans do.

Pritchard liked the whistle of the black wind past his helmet. Warm air from the tank’s resistance heaters jetted up through the hatch and kept his body quite comfortable. The vehicle’s huge mass required the power of a fusion plant to drive its lift motors, and the additional burden of climate control was inconsequential.

The tankers’ face shields automatically augmented the light of the moon, dim and red because the sun it reflected was dim and red as well. The boosted light level displayed the walls of forest, the boles snaking densely to either side of the road. At Kobold’s perihelion, the thin stems grew in days to their full six-meter height and spread a ceiling of red-brown leaves the size of blankets. Now, at aphelion, the chilled, sapless trees burned with almost explosive intensity. The wood was too dangerous to use for heating, even if electricity had not been common; but it fueled the gasogene engines of most vehicles on the planet.

Jenne gestured ahead. “Blowers,” he muttered on the intercom. His head rested on the gun switch though he knew the vehicles must be friendly. The Plow slowed.

Pritchard nodded agreement. “Michael First, this is Michael One,” he said. “Flash your running lights so we can be sure it’s you.”

“Roger,” replied the radio. Blue light flickered from the shapes hulking at the edge of the forest ahead. Kowie throttled the fans up to cruise, then chopped them and swung expertly into the midst of the four tanks of the outlying platoon.

“Michael One, this is Sigma One,” Capt. Riis’ angry voice demanded in the helmet.

“Go ahead.”

“Barthe’s sent a battalion across the river. I’m moving Lt. Schilling into position to block ’em and called Central for artillery support. You hold your first platoon at Haacin for reserve and any partisans up from Portela. I’ll take direct command of the rest of—”

“Negative, negative, Sigma One!” Pritchard snapped. The Plow was accelerating again, second in the line of five tanks. They were beasts of prey sliding across the landscape of snow and black trees at 80 kph and climbing. “Let the French through, Captain. There won’t be fighting, repeat, negative fighting.”

“There damned well will be fighting, Michael One, if Barthe tries to shove a battalion into my sector!” Riis thundered back. “Remember, this isn’t your command or a joint command. I’m in charge here.”

“Margritte, patch me through to Battalion,” Pritchard hissed on intercom. The Plow’s turret was cocked 30° to the right. It covered the forest sweeping by to that side and anything which might be hiding there. Pritchard’s mind was on Sally Schilling, riding a skimmer through forest like that flanking the tanks, hurrying with her fifty men to try to stop a battalion’s hasty advance.

The commo helmet popped quietly to itself. Pritchard tensed, groping for the words he would need to convince Lt. Col. Miezierk. Miezierk, under whom command of Sectors One and Two was grouped, had been a Frisian regular until five years ago. He was supposed to think like a merc now, not like a Frisian; but….

The voice that suddenly rasped, “Override, override!” was not Miezierk’s. “Sigma One, Michael One, this is Regiment.”

“Go ahead,” Pritchard blurted. Capt. Riis, equally rattled, said, “Yes, sir!” on the three-way link.

“Sigma, your fire order is cancelled. Keep your troops on alert, but keep ’em the hell out of Barthe’s way.”

“But Col. Hammer—”

“Riis, you’re not going to start a war tonight. Michael One, can your panzers handle whatever’s going on at Haacin without violating the contract?”

“Yes, sir.” Pritchard flashed a map briefly on his face shield to check his position. “We’re almost there now.”

“If you can’t handle it, Captain, you’d better hope you’re killed in action,” Col. Hammer said bluntly. “I haven’t nursed this regiment for twenty-three years to lose it because somebody forgets what his job is.” Then, more softly—Pritchard could imagine the colonel flicking his eyes side to side to gauge bystanders’ reactions—he added, “There’s support if you need it, Captain—if they’re the ones who breach the contract.”

“Affirmative.”

“Keep the lid on, boy. Regiment out.”

The trees had drunk the whine of the fans. Now the road curved and the tanks banked greasily to join the main highway from Dimo to Portela. The tailings pile of the Haacin Mine loomed to the right and hurled the drive noise back redoubled at the vehicles. The steel skirts of the lead tank touched the road metal momentarily, showering the night with orange sparks. Beyond the mine were the now-empty wheat fields and then the village itself.

Haacin, the largest Dutch settlement in Sector Two, sprawled to either side of the highway. Its houses were two- and three-story lumps of cemented mine tailings. They were roofed with tile or plastic rather than shakes of native timber, because of the wood’s lethal flammability. The highway was straight and broad. It gave Pritchard a good view of the three cargo vehicles pulled to one side. Men in local dress swarmed about them. Across the road were ten of Hammer’s khaki-clad infantry, patrol S-39, whose ported weapons half-threatened, half-protected the trio of drivers in their midst. Occasionally a civilian turned to hurl a curse at Barthe’s men, but mostly the Dutch busied themselves with offloading cartons from the trucks.

Pritchard gave a brief series of commands. The four line tanks grounded in a hedgehog at the edge of the village. Their main guns and automatics faced outward in all directions. Kowie swung the command vehicle around the tank which had been leading it. He cut the fans’ angle of attack, slowing The Plow without losing the ability to accelerate quickly. The command vehicle eased past the squad of infantry, then grounded behind the rearmost truck. Pritchard felt the fans’ hum through the metal of the hull.

“Who’s in charge here?” the captain demanded, his voice booming through the command vehicle’s public address system.

The Dutch unloading the trucks halted silently. A squat man in a parka of feathery native fur stepped forward. Unlike many of the other civilians, he was not armed. He did not flinch when Pritchard pinned him with the spotlight of the tank. “I am Paul van Oosten,” the man announced in the heavy Dutch of Kobold. “I am Mayor of Haacin. But if you mean who leads us in what we are doing here, well…perhaps Justice herself does. Klaus, show them what these trucks were carrying to Portela.”

Another civilian stepped forward, ripping the top off the box he carried. Flat plastic wafers spilled from it, glittering in the cold light: powergun ammunition, intended for shoulder weapons like those the infantry carried.

“They were taking powerguns to the beasts of Portela to use against us,” van Oosten said. He used the slang term “skepsels” to name the Francophone settlers. The mayor’s shaven jaw was jutting out in anger.

“Captain!” called one of Barthe’s truck drivers, brushing forward through the ring of Hammer’s men. “Let me explain.”

One of the civilians growled and lifted his heavy musket. Rob Jenne rang his knuckles twice on the receiver of his tribarrel, calling attention to the muzzles as he swept them down across the crowd. The Dutchman froze. Jenne smiled without speaking.

“We were sent to pick up wheat the regiment had purchased,” Barthe’s man began. Pritchard was not familiar with Barthe’s insigniae, but from the merc’s age and bearing he was a senior sergeant. An unlikely choice to be driving a provisions truck. “One of the vehicles happened to be partly loaded. We didn’t take the time to empty it because we were in a hurry to finish the run and go off duty—there was enough room and lift to handle that little bit of gear and the grain besides.

“In any case—” and here the sergeant began pressing, because the tank captain had not cut him off at the first sentence as expected—“you do not, and these fools surely do not, have the right to stop Col. Barthe’s transport. If you have questions about the way we pick up wheat, that’s between your CO and ours, sir.”

Pritchard ran his gloved index finger back and forth below his right eyesocket. He was ice inside, bubbling ice that tore and chilled him and had nothing to do with the weather. He turned back to Mayor van Oosten. “Reload the trucks,” he said, hoping that his voice did not break.

“You can’t!” van Oosten cried. “These powerguns are the only chance my village, my people have to survive when you leave. You know that’ll happen, don’t you? Friesland and Aurore, they’ll come to an agreement, a trade-off, they’ll call it, and all the troops will leave. It’s our lives they’re trading! The beasts in Dimo, in Portela if you let these go through, they’ll have powerguns that their mercenaries gave them. And we—”

Pritchard whispered a prepared order into his helmet mike. The rearmost of the four tanks at the edge of the village fired a single round from its main gun. The night flared cyan as the 200 mm bolt struck the middle of the tailings pile a kilometer away. Stone, decomposed by the enormous energy of the shot, recombined in a huge gout of flame. Vapor, lava, and cinders spewed in every direction. After a moment, bits of high-flung rock began pattering down on the roofs of Haacin.

The bolt caused a double thunder-clap, that of the heated air followed by the explosive release of energy at the point of impact. When the reverberations died away there was utter silence in Haacin. On the distant jumble of rock, a dying red glow marked where the charge had hit. The shot had also ignited some saplings rooted among the stones. They had blazed as white torches for a few moments but they were already collapsing as cinders.

“The Slammers are playing this by the rules,” Pritchard said. Loudspeakers flung his quiet words about the village like the echoes of the shot; but he was really speaking for the recorder in the belly of the tank, preserving his words for a later Bonding Authority hearing. “There’ll be no powerguns in civilian hands. Load every bit of this gear back in the truck. Remember, there’s satellites up there—” Pritchard waved generally at the sky—“that see everything that happens on Kobold. If one powergun is fired by a civilian in this sector, I’ll come for him. I promise you.”

The mayor sagged within his furs. Turning to the crowd behind him, he said, “Put the guns back on the truck. So that the Portelans can kill us more easily.”

“Are you mad, van Oosten?” demanded the gunman who had earlier threatened Barthe’s sergeant.

“Are you mad, Kruse?” the mayor shouted back without trying to hide his fury. “D’ye doubt what those tanks would do to Haacin? And do you doubt this butcher—” his back was to Pritchard but there was no doubt as to whom the mayor meant—“would use them on us? Perhaps tomorrow we could have….”

There was motion at the far edge of the crowd, near the corner of a building. Margritte, watching the vision blocks within, called a warning. Pritchard reached for his panic bar—Rob Jenne was traversing the tribarrel. All three of them were too late. The muzzle flash was red and it expanded in Pritchard’s eyes as a hammer blow smashed him in the middle of the forehead.

The bullet’s impact heaved the tanker up and backwards. His shattered helmet flew off into the night. The unyielding hatch coaming caught him in the small of the back, arching his torso over it as if he were being broken on the wheel. Pritchard’s eyes flared with sheets of light. As reaction flung him forward again, he realized he was hearing the reports of Jenne’s powergun and that some of the hellish flashes were real.

If the tribarrel’s discharges were less brilliant than that of the main gun, then they were more than a hundred times as close to the civilians. The burst snapped within a meter of one bystander, an old man who stumbled backwards into a wall. His mouth and staring eyes were three circles of empty terror. Jenne fired seven rounds. Every charge but one struck the sniper or the building he sheltered against. Powdered concrete sprayed from the wall. The sniper’s body spun backwards, chest gobbled away by the bolts. His right arm still gripped the musket he had fired at Pritchard. The arm had been flung alone onto the snowy pavement. The electric bite of ozone hung in the air with the ghostly afterimages of the shots. The dead man’s clothes were burning, tiny orange flames that rippled into smoke an inch from their bases.

Jenne’s big left hand was wrapped in the fabric of Pritchard’s jacket, holding the dazed officer upright. “There’s another rule you play by,” the sergeant roared to the crowd. “You shoot at Hammer’s Slammers and you get your balls kicked between your ears. Sure as God, boys; sure as death.” Jenne’s right hand swung the muzzles of his weapon across the faces of the civilians. “Now, load the bleeding trucks like the captain said, heroes.”

For a brief moment, nothing moved but the threatening powergun. Then a civilian turned and hefted a heavy crate back aboard the truck from which he had just taken it. Empty-handed, the colonist began to sidle away from the vehicle—and from the deadly tribarrel. One by one the other villagers reloaded the hijacked cargo, the guns and ammunition they had hoped would save them in the cataclysm they awaited. One by one they took the blower chief’s unspoken leave to return to their houses. One who did not leave was sobbing out her grief over the mangled body of the sniper. None of her neighbors had gone to her side. They could all appreciate—now—what it would have meant if that first shot had led to a general firefight instead of Jenne’s selective response.

“Rob, help me get him inside,” Pritchard heard Margritte say.

Pritchard braced himself with both hands and leaned away from his sergeant’s supporting arm. “No, I’m all right,” he croaked. His vision was clear enough, but the landscape was flashing bright and dim with varicolored light.

The side hatch of the turret clanked. Margritte was beside her captain. She had stripped off her cold weather gear in the belly of the tank and wore only her khaki uniform. “Get back inside there,” Pritchard muttered. “It’s not safe.” He was afraid of falling if he raised a hand to fend her away. He felt an injector prick the swelling flesh over his cheekbones. The flashing colors died away though Pritchard’s ears began to ring.

“They carried some into the nearest building,” the non-com from Barthe’s Company was saying. He spoke in Dutch, having sleep-trained in the language during the transit to Kobold just as Hammer’s men had in French.

“Get it,” Jenne ordered the civilians still near the trucks. Three of them were already scurrying toward the house the merc had indicated. They were back in moments, carrying the last of the arms chests.

Pritchard surveyed the scene. The cargo had been reloaded, except for the few spilled rounds winking from the pavement. Van Oosten and the furious Kruse were the only villagers still in sight. “All right,” Pritchard said to the truck drivers, “get aboard and get moving. And come back by way of Bitzen, not here. I’ll arrange an escort for you.”

The French non-com winked, grinned, and shouted a quick order to his men. The infantrymen stepped aside silently to pass the truckers. The French mercenaries mounted their vehicles and kicked them to life. Their fans whined and the trucks lifted, sending snow crystals dancing. With gathering speed, they slid westward along the forest-rimmed highway.

Jenne shook his head at the departing trucks, then stiffened as his helmet spat a message. “Captain,” he said, “we got company coming.”

Pritchard grunted. His own radio helmet had been smashed by the bullet, and his implant would only relay messages on the band to which it had been verbally keyed most recently. “Margritte, start switching for me,” he said. His slender commo tech was already slipping back inside through the side hatch. Pritchard’s blood raced with the chemicals Margritte had shot into it. His eyes and mind worked perfectly, though all his thoughts seemed to have razor edges on them.

“Use mine,” Jenne said, trying to hand the captain his helmet.

“I’ve got the implant,” Pritchard said. He started to shake his head and regretted the motion instantly. “That and Margritte’s worth a helmet any day.”

“It’s a whole battalion,” Jenne explained quietly, his eyes scanning the Bever Road down which Command Central had warned that Barthe’s troops were coming. “All but the artillery—that’s back in Dimo, but it’ll range here easy enough. Brought in anti-tank battery and a couple calliopes, though.”

“Slide us up ahead of Michael First,” Pritchard ordered his driver. As The Plow shuddered, then spun on its axis, the captain dropped his seat into the turret to use the vision blocks. He heard Jenne’s seat whirr down beside him and the cupola hatch snick closed. In front of Pritchard’s knees, pale in the instrument lights, Margritte DiManzo sat still and open-eyed at her communications console.

“Little friendlies,” Pritchard called through his loudspeakers to the ten infantrymen, “find yourselves a quiet alley and hope nothing happens. The Lord help you if you fire a shot without me ordering it.” The Lord help us all, Pritchard thought to himself.

Ahead of the command vehicle, the beetle shapes of First Platoon began to shift position. “Michael First,” Pritchard ordered sharply, “get back as you were. We’re not going to engage Barthe, we’re going to meet him.” Maybe.

Kowie slid them alongside, then a little forward of the point vehicle of the defensive lozenge. They set down. All of the tanks were buttoned up, save for the hatch over Pritchard’s head. The central vision block was a meter by 30 cm panel. It could be set for anything from a 360° view of the tank’s surroundings to a one-to-one image of an object a kilometer away. Pritchard focused and ran the gain to ten magnifications, then thirty. At the higher power, motion curling along the snow-smoothed grainfields between Haacin and its mine resolved into men. Barthe’s troops were clad in sooty-white coveralls and battle armor. The leading elements were hunched low on the meager platforms of their skimmers. Magnification and the augmented light made the skittering images grainy, but the tanker’s practiced eye caught the tubes of rocket launchers clipped to every one of the skimmers. The skirmish line swelled at two points where self-propelled guns were strung like beads on the cord of men: anti-tank weapons, 50 mm powerguns firing high-intensity charges. They were supposed to be able to burn through the heaviest armor. Barthe’s boys had come loaded for bear; oh yes. They thought they knew just what they were going up against. Well, the Slammers weren’t going to show them they were wrong. Tonight.

“Running lights, everybody,” Pritchard ordered. Then, taking a deep breath, he touched the lift on his seat and raised himself head and shoulders back into the chill night air. There was a hand light clipped to Pritchard’s jacket. He snapped it on, aiming the beam down onto the turret top so that the burnished metal splashed diffused radiance up over him. It bathed his torso and face plainly for the oncoming infantry. Through the open hatch, Pritchard could hear Rob cursing. Just possibly Margritte was mumbling a prayer.

“Batteries at Dimo and Harfleur in Sector One have received fire orders and are waiting for a signal to execute,” the implant grated. “If Barthe opens fire, Command Central will not, repeat, negative, use Michael First or Michael One to knock down the shells. Your guns will be clear for action, Michael One.”

Pritchard grinned starkly. His face would not have been pleasant even if livid bruises were not covering almost all of it. The Slammers’ central fire direction computer used radar and satellite reconnaissance to track shells in flight. Then the computer took control of any of the Regiment’s vehicle-mounted powerguns and swung them onto the target. Central’s message notified Pritchard that he would have full control of his weapons at all times, while guns tens or hundreds of kilometers away kept his force clear of artillery fire.

Margritte had blocked most of the commo traffic, Pritchard realized. She had let through only this message that was crucial to what they were about to do. A good commo tech; a very good person indeed.

The skirmish line grounded. The nearest infantrymen were within fifty meters of the tanks and their fellows spread off into the night like lethal wings. Barthe’s men rolled off their skimmers and lay prone. Pritchard began to relax when he noticed that their rocket launchers were still aboard the skimmers. The anti-tank weapons were in instant reach, but at least they were not being leveled for an immediate salvo. Barthe didn’t want to fight the Slammers. His targets were the Dutch civilians, just as Mayor van Oosten had suggested.

An air cushion jeep with a driver and two officers aboard drew close. It hissed slowly through the line of infantry, then stopped nearly touching the command vehicle’s bow armor. One of the officers dismounted. He was a tall man who was probably very thin when he was not wearing insulated coveralls and battle armor. He raised his face to Pritchard atop the high curve of the blower, sweeping up his reflective face shield as he did so. He was Lt. Col. Benoit, commander of the French mercenaries in Sector Two; a clean-shaven man with sharp features and a splash of gray hair displaced across his forehead by his helmet. Benoit grinned and waved at the muzzle of the 200 mm powergun pointed at him. Nobody had ever said Barthe’s chief subordinate was a coward.

Pritchard climbed out of the turret to the deck, then slid down the bow slope to the ground. Benoit was several inches taller than the tanker, with a force of personality which was daunting in a way that height alone could never be. It didn’t matter to Pritchard. He worked with tanks and with Col. Hammer; nothing else was going to face down a man who was accustomed to those.

“Sgt. Major Oberlie reported how well and…firmly you handled their little affair, Captain,” Benoit said, extending his hand to Pritchard. “I’ll admit that I was a little concerned that I would have to rescue my men myself.”

“Hammer’s Slammers can be depended on to keep their contracts,” the tanker replied, smiling with false warmth. “I told these squareheads that any civilian caught with a powergun was going to have to answer to me for it. Then we made sure nobody thinks we were kidding.”

Benoit chuckled. Little puffs of vapor spurted from his mouth with the sounds. “You’ve been sent to the Gröningen Academy, have you not, Capt. Pritchard?” the older man asked. “You understand that I take an interest in my opposite numbers in this sector.”

Pritchard nodded. “The Old Man picked me for the two year crash course on Friesland, yeah. Now and again he sends non-coms he wants to promote.”

“But you’re not a Frisian, though you have Frisian military training,” the other mercenary continued, nodding to himself. “As you know, Captain, promotion in some infantry regiments comes much faster than it does in the…Slammers. If you feel a desire to speak to Col. Barthe some time in the future, I assure you this evening’s business will not be forgotten.”

“Just doing my job, Colonel,” Pritchard simpered. Did Benoit think a job offer would make a traitor of him? Perhaps. Hammer had bought Barthe’s plans for very little, considering their military worth. “Enforcing the contract, just like you’d have done if things were the other way around.”

Benoit chuckled again and stepped back aboard his jeep. “Until we meet again, Capt. Pritchard,” he said. “For the moment, I think we’ll just proceed on into Portela. That’s permissible under the contract, of course.”

“Swing wide around Haacin, will you?” Pritchard called back. “The folks there’re pretty worked up. Nobody wants more trouble, do we?”

Benoit nodded. As his jeep lifted, he spoke into his helmet communicator. The skirmish company rose awkwardly and set off in a counterclockwise circuit of Haacin. Behind them, in a column re-formed from their support positions at the base of the tailings heap, came the truck-mounted men of the other three companies. Pritchard stood and watched until the last of them whined past.

Air stirred by the tank’s idling fans leaked out under the skirts. The jets formed tiny deltas of the snow which winked as Pritchard’s feet caused eddy currents. In their cold precision, the tanker recalled Col. Benoit’s grin.

“Command Central,” Pritchard said as he climbed his blower, “Michael One. Everything’s smooth here. Over.” Then, “Sigma One, this is Michael One. I’ll be back as quick as fans’ll move me, so if you have anything to say we can discuss it then.” Pritchard knew that Capt. Riis must have been burning the net up, trying to raise him for a report or to make demands. It wasn’t fair to make Margritte hold the bag now that Pritchard himself was free to respond to the sector chief; but neither did the Dunstan tanker have the energy to argue with Riis just at the moment. Already this night he’d faced death and Col. Benoit. Riis could wait another ten minutes.

* * *

THE PLOW’S ARMOR was a tight fit for its crew, the radios, and the central bulk of the main gun with its feed mechanism. The command vehicle rode glass-smooth over the frozen roadway, with none of the jouncing that a rougher surface might bring even through the air cushion. Margritte faced Pritchard over her console, her seat a meter lower than his so that she appeared a suppliant. Her short hair was the lustrous purple-black of a grackle’s throat in sunlight. Hidden illumination from the instruments brought her face to life.

“Gee, Captain,” Jenne was saying at Pritchard’s side, “I wish you’d a let me pick up that squarehead’s rifle. I know those groundpounders. They’re just as apt as not to claim the kill credit themselves, and if I can’t prove I stepped on the body they might get away with it. I remember on Paradise, me and Piet de Hagen—he was left wing gunner, I was right—both shot at a partisan. And then damned if Central didn’t decide the slope had blown herself up with a hand grenade after we’d wounded her. So neither of us got the credit. You’d think—”

“Lord’s blood, Sergeant,” Pritchard snarled, “are you so damned proud of killing one of the poor bastards who hired us to protect them?”

Jenne said nothing. Pritchard shrank up inside, realizing what he had said and unable to take the words back. “Oh, Lord, Rob,” he said without looking up, “I’m sorry. It…I’m shook, that’s all.”

After a brief silence, the blond sergeant laughed. “Never been shot in the head myself, Captain, but I can see it might shake a fellow, yeah.” Jenne let the whine of the fans stand for a moment as the only further comment while he decided whether he would go on. Then he said, “Captain, for a week after I first saw action I meant to get out of the Slammers, even if I had to sweep floors on Curwin for the rest of my life. Finally I decided I’d stick it. I didn’t like the…rules of the game, but I could learn to play by them.

“And I did. And one rule is that you get to be as good as you can at killing the people Col. Hammer wants killed. Yeah, I’m proud about that one just now. It was a tough snap shot and I made it. I don’t care why we’re on Kobold or who brought us here. But I know I’m supposed to kill anybody who shoots at us, and I will.”

“Well, I’m glad you did,” Pritchard said evenly as he looked the sergeant in the eyes. “You pretty well saved things from getting out of hand by the way you reacted.”

As if he had not heard his captain, Jenne went on, “I was afraid if I stayed in the Slammers I’d turn into an animal, like the dogs we trained back home to kill rats in the quarries. And I was right. But it’s the way I am now, so I don’t seem to mind.”

“You do care about those villagers, don’t you?” Margritte asked Pritchard unexpectedly.

The captain looked down and found her eyes on him. They were the rich powder-blue of chicory flowers. “You’re probably the only person in the Regiment who thinks that,” he said bitterly. “Except for me. And maybe Col. Hammer….”

Margritte smiled, a quick flash and as quickly gone. “There’re rule-book soldiers in the Slammers,” she said, “captains who’d never believe Barthe was passing arms to the Auroran settlements since he’d signed a contract that said he wouldn’t. You aren’t that kind. And the Lord knows Col. Hammer isn’t, and he’s backing you. I’ve been around you too long, Danny, to believe you like what you see the French doing.”

Pritchard shrugged. His whole face was stiff with bruises and the drugs Margritte had injected to control them. If he’d locked the helmet’s chin strap, the bullet’s impact would have broken his neck even though the lead itself did not penetrate. “No, I don’t like it,” the brown-haired captain said. “It reminds me too much of the way the Combine kept us so poor on Dunstan that a thousand of us signed on for birdseed to fight off-planet. Just because it was off-planet. And if Kobold only gets cop from the worlds who settled her, then the French skim the best of that…. Sure, I’ll tell the Lord I feel sorry for the Dutch here.”

Pritchard held the commo tech’s eyes with his own as he continued, “But it’s just like Rob said, Margritte: I’ll do my job, no matter who gets hurt. We can’t do a thing to Barthe or the French until they step over the line in a really obvious way. That’ll mean a lot of people get hurt too. But that’s what I’m waiting for.”

Margritte reached up and touched Pritchard’s hand where it rested on his knee. “You’ll do something when you can,” she said quietly.

He turned his palm up so that he could grasp the woman’s fingers. What if she knew he was planning an incident, not just waiting for one? “I’ll do something, yeah,” he said. “But it’s going to be too late for an awful lot of people.”

KOWIE KEPT THE Plow at cruising speed until they were actually in the yard of the command post. Then he cocked the fan shafts forward, lifting the bow and bringing the tank’s mass around in a curve that killed its velocity and blasted an arc of snow against the building. Someone inside had started to unlatch the door as they heard the vehicle approach. The air spilling from the tank’s skirts flung the panel against the inner wall and skidded the man within on his back.

The man was Capt. Riis, Pritchard noted without surprise. Well, the incident wouldn’t make the infantry captain any angrier than the rest of the evening had made him already.

Riis had regained his feet by the time Pritchard could jump from the deck of his blower to the fan-cleared ground in front of the building. The Frisian’s normally pale face was livid now with rage. He was of the same somatotype as Lt. Col. Benoit, his French counterpart in the sector: tall, thin, and proudly erect. Despite the fact that Riis was only 27, he was Pritchard’s senior in grade by two years. He had kept the rank he held in Friesland’s regular army when Col. Hammer recruited him. Many of the Slammers were like Riis, Frisian soldiers who had transferred for the action and pay of a fighting regiment in which their training would be appreciated.

“You cowardly filth!” the infantryman hissed as Pritchard approached. A squad in battle gear stood within the orderly room beyond Riis. He pursed his fine lips to spit.

“Hey Captain!” Rob Jenne called. Riis looked up. Pritchard turned, surprised that the big tank commander was not right on his heels. Jenne still smiled from The Plow’s cupola. He waved at the officers with his left hand. His right was on the butterfly trigger of the tribarrel.

The threat, unspoken as it was, made a professional of Riis again. “Come on into my office,” he muttered to the tank captain, turning his back on the armored vehicle as if it were only a part of the landscape.

The infantrymen inside parted to pass the captains. Sally Schilling was there. Her eyes were as hard as her porcelain armor as they raked over Pritchard. That didn’t matter, he lied to himself tiredly.

Riis’ office was at the top of the stairs, a narrow cubicle which had once been a child’s bedroom. The sloping roof pressed in on the occupants, though a dormer window brightened the room during daylight. One wall was decorated with a regimental battle flag—not Hammer’s rampant lion but a pattern of seven stars on a white field. It had probably come from the unit in which Riis had served on Friesland. Over the door hung another souvenir, a big-bore musket of local manufacture. Riis threw himself into the padded chair behind his desk. “Those bastards were carrying powerguns to Portela!” he snarled at Pritchard.

The tanker nodded. He was leaning with his right shoulder against the door jamb. “That’s what the folks at Haacin thought,” he agreed. “If they’ll put in a complaint with the Bonding Authority, I’ll testify to what I saw.”

“Testify, testify!” Riis shouted. “We’re not lawyers, we’re soldiers! You should’ve seized the trucks right then and—”

“No I should not have, Captain!” Pritchard shouted back, holding up a mirror to Riis’ anger. “Because if I had, Barthe would’ve complained to the Authority himself, and we’d at least’ve been fined. At least! The contract says the Slammers’ll cooperate with the other three units in keeping peace on Kobold. Just because we suspect Barthe is violating the contract doesn’t give us a right to violate it ourselves. Especially in a way any simpleton can see is a violation.”

“If Barthe can get away with it, we can,” Riis insisted, but he settled back in his chair. He was physically bigger than Pritchard, but the tanker had spent half his life with the Slammers. Years like those mark men; death is never very far behind their eyes.

“I don’t think Barthe can get away with it,” Pritchard lied quietly, remembering Hammer’s advice on how to handle Riis and calm the Frisian without telling him the truth. Barthe’s officers had been in on his plans; and one of them had talked. Any regiment might have one traitor.

The tanker lifted down the musket on the wall behind him and began turning it in his fingers. “If the Dutch settlers can prove to the Authority that Barthe’s been passing out powerguns to the French,” the tanker mused aloud, “well, they’re responsible for half Barthe’s pay, remember. It’s about as bad a violation as you’ll find. The Authority’ll forfeit his whole bond and pay it over to whoever they decide the injured parties are. That’s about three years’ gross earnings for Barthe, I’d judge—he won’t be able to replace it. And without a bond posted, well, he may get jobs, but they’ll be the kind nobody else’d touch for the risk and the pay. His best troops’ll sign on with other people. In a year or so, Barthe won’t have a regiment anymore.”

“He’s willing to take the chance,” said Riis.

“Col. Hammer isn’t!” Pritchard blazed back.

“You don’t know that. It isn’t the sort of thing the colonel could say—”

“Say?” Pritchard shouted. He waved the musket at Riis. Its breech was triple-strapped to take the shock of the industrial explosive it used for propellant. Clumsy and large, it was the best that could be produced on a mining colony whose home worlds had forbidden local manufacturing. “Say? I bet my life against one of these tonight that the colonel wanted us to obey the contract. Do you have the guts to ask him flat out if he wants us to run guns to the Dutch?”

“I don’t think that would be proper, Captain,” said Riis coldly as he stood up again.

“Then try not to ‘think it proper’ to go do some bloody stupid stunt on your own—sir,” Pritchard retorted. So much for good intentions. Hammer—and Pritchard—had expected Riis’ support of the Dutch civilians. They had even planned on it. But the man seemed to have lost all his common sense. Pritchard laid the musket on the desk because his hands were trembling too badly to hang it back on the hooks.

“If it weren’t for you, Captain,” Riis said, “there’s not a Slammer in this sector who’d object to our helping the only decent people on this planet the way we ought to. You’ve made your decision, and it sickens me. But I’ve made decisions too.”

Pritchard went out without being dismissed. He blundered into the jamb, but he did not try to slam the door. That would have been petty, and there was nothing petty in the tanker’s rage.

Blank-faced, he clumped down the stairs. His bunk was in a parlor which had its own door to the outside. Pritchard’s crew was still in The Plow. There they had listened intently to his half of the argument with Riis, transmitted by the implant. If Pritchard had called for help, Kowie would have sent the command vehicle through the front wall buttoned up, with Jenne ready to shoot if he had to, to rescue his CO. A tank looks huge when seen close-up. It is all howling steel and iridium, with black muzzles ready to spew death across a planet. On a battlefield, when the sky is a thousand shrieking colors no god ever made and the earth beneath trembles and gouts in sudden mountains, a tank is a small world indeed for its crew. Their loyalties are to nearer things than an abstraction like “The Regiment.”

Besides, tankers and infantrymen have never gotten along well together.

No one was in the orderly room except two radiomen. They kept their backs to the stairs. Pritchard glanced at them, then unlatched his door. The room was dark, as he had left it, but there was a presence. Pritchard said, “Sal—” as he stepped within and the club knocked him forward into the arms of the man waiting to catch his body.

The first thing Pritchard thought as his mind slipped toward oblivion was that the cloth rubbing his face was homespun, not the hard synthetic from which uniforms were made. The last thing Pritchard thought was that there could have been no civilians within the headquarters perimeter unless the guards had allowed them; and that Lt. Schilling was officer of the guard tonight.

PRITCHARD COULD NOT be quite certain when he regained consciousness. A heavy felt rug covered and hid his trussed body on the floor of a clattering surface vehicle. He had no memory of being carried to the truck, though presumably it had been parked some distance from the command post. Riis and his confederates would not have been so open as to have civilians drive to the door to take a kidnapped officer, even if Pritchard’s crew could have been expected to ignore the breach of security.

Kidnapped. Not for later murder, or he would already be dead instead of smothering under the musty rug. Thick as it was, the rug was still inadequate to keep the cold from his shivering body. The only lights Pritchard could see were the washings of icy color from the night’s doubled shock to his skull.

That bone-deep ache reminded Pritchard of the transceiver implanted in his mastoid. He said in a husky whisper which he hoped would not penetrate the rug, “Michael One to any unit, any unit at all. Come in please, any Slammer.”

Nothing. Well, no surprise. The implant had an effective range of less than twenty meters, enough for relaying to and from a base unit, but unlikely to be useful in Kobold’s empty darkness. Of course, if the truck happened to be passing one of M Company’s night defensive positions…. “Michael One to any unit,” the tanker repeated more urgently.

A boot slammed him in the ribs. A voice in guttural Dutch snarled, “Shut up, you, or you get what you gave Henrik.”

So he’d been shopped to the Dutch, not that there had been much question about it. And not that he might not have been safer in French hands, the way everybody on this cursed planet thought he was a traitor to his real employers. Well, it wasn’t fair; but Danny Pritchard had grown up a farmer, and no farmer is ever tricked into believing that life is fair.

The truck finally jolted to a stop. Gloved hands jerked the cover from Pritchard’s eyes. He was not surprised to recognize the concrete angles of Haacin as men passed him hand to hand into a cellar. The attempt to hijack Barthe’s powerguns had been an accident, an opportunity seized; but the crew which had kidnapped Pritchard must have been in position before the call from S-39 had intervened.

“Is this wise?” Pritchard heard someone demand from the background. “If they begin searching, surely they’ll begin in Haacin.”

The two men at the bottom of the cellar stairs took Pritchard’s shoulders and ankles to carry him to a spring cot. It had no mattress. The man at his feet called, “There won’t be a search, they don’t have enough men. Besides, the beast’ll be blamed—as they should be for so many things. If Pauli won’t let us kill the turncoat, then we’ll all have to stand the extra risk of him living.”

“You talk too much,” Mayor van Oosten muttered as he dropped Pritchard’s shoulders on the bunk. Many civilians had followed the captive into the cellar. The last of them swung the door closed. It lay almost horizontal to the ground. When it slammed, dust sprang from the ceiling. Someone switched on a dim incandescent light. The scores of men and women in the storage room were as hard and fell as the bare walls. There were three windows at street level, high on the wall. Slotted shutters blocked most of their dusty glass.

“Get some heat in this hole or you may as well cut my throat,” Pritchard grumbled.

A woman with a musket cursed and spat in his face. The man behind her took her arm before the gunbutt could smear the spittle. Almost in apology, the man said to Pritchard, “It was her husband you killed.”

“You’re being kept out of the way,” said a husky man—Kruse, the hothead from the hijack scene. His facial hair was pale and long, merging indistinguishably with the silky fringe of his parka. Like most of the others in the cellar, he carried a musket. “Without your meddling, there’ll be a chance for us to…get ready to protect ourselves, after the tanks leave and the beasts come to finish us with their powerguns.”

“Does Riis think I won’t talk when this is over?” Pritchard asked.

“I told you—” one of the men shouted at van Oosten. The heavy-set mayor silenced him with a tap on the chest and a bellowed, “Quiet!” The rising babble hushed long enough for van Oosten to say, “Captain, you will be released in a very few days. If you—cause trouble, then, it will only be an embarrassment to yourself. Even if your colonel believes you were doing right, he won’t be the one to bring to light a violation which was committed with—so you will claim—the connivance of his own officers.”

The mayor paused to clear his throat and glower around the room. “Though in fact we had no help from any of your fellows, either in seizing you or in arming ourselves for our own protection.”

“Are you all blind?” Pritchard demanded. He struggled with his elbows and back to raise himself against the wall. “Do you think a few lies will cover it all up? The only ships that’ve touched on Kobold in three months are the ones supplying us and the other mercs. Barthe maybe’s smuggled in enough guns in cans of lube oil and the like to arm some civilians. He won’t be able to keep that a secret, but maybe he can keep the Authority from proving who’s responsible.

“That’s with three months and pre-planning. If Riis tries to do anything on his own, that many of his own men are going to be short sidearms—they’re all issued by serial number, Lord take it!—and a blind Mongoloid could get enough proof to sink the Regiment.”

“You think we don’t understand,” said Kruse in a quiet voice. He transferred his musket to his left hand, then slapped Pritchard across the side of the head. “We understand very well,” the civilian said. “All the mercenaries will leave in a few days or weeks. If the French have powerguns and we do not, they will kill us, our wives, our children…. There’s a hundred and fifty villages on Kobold like this one, Dutch, and as many French ones scattered between. It was bad before, with no one but the beasts allowed any real say in the government; but now if they win, there’ll be French villages and French mines—and slave pens. Forever.”

“You think a few guns’ll save you?” Pritchard asked. Kruse’s blow left no visible mark in the tanker’s livid flesh, though a better judge than Kruse might have noted that Pritchard’s eyes were as hard as his voice was mild.

“They’ll help us save ourselves when the time comes,” Kruse retorted.

“If you’d gotten powerguns from French civilians instead of the mercs directly, you might have been all right,” the captain said. He was coldly aware that the lie he was telling was more likely to be believed in this situation than it would have been in any setting he might deliberately have contrived. There had to be an incident, the French civilians had to think they were safe in using their illegal weapons…. “The Portelans, say, couldn’t admit to having guns to lose. But anything you take from mercs—us or Barthe, it doesn’t matter—we’ll take back the hard way. You don’t know what you’re buying into.”

Kruse’s face did not change, but his fist drew back for another blow. The mayor caught the younger man’s arm and snapped, “Franz, we’re here to show him that it’s not a few of us, it’s every family in the village behind…our holding him,” van Oosten nodded around the room. “More of us than your colonel could dream of trying to punish,” he added naively to Pritchard. Then he flashed back at Kruse, “If you act like a fool, he’ll want revenge anyway.”

“You may never believe this,” Pritchard interjected wearily, “but I just want to do my job. If you let me go now, it—may be easier in the long run.”

“Fool,” Kruse spat, and turned his back on the tanker.

A trap door opened in the ceiling, spilling more light into the cellar. “Pauli!” a woman shouted down the opening, “Hals is on the radio. There’s tanks coming down the road, just like before!”

“The Lord’s wounds!” van Oosten gasped. “We must—”

“They can’t know!” Kruse insisted. “But we’ve got to get everybody out of here and back to their own houses. Everybody but me and him”—a nod at Pritchard—“and this.” The musket lowered so that its round black eye pointed straight into the bound man’s face.

“No, by the side door!” van Oosten called to the press of conspirators clumping up toward the street. “Don’t run right out in front of them.” Cursing and jostling, the villagers climbed the ladder to the ground floor, there presumably to exit on an alley.

Able only to twist his head and legs, Pritchard watched Kruse and the trembling muzzle of his weapon. The village must have watchmen with radios at either approach through the forests. If Hals was atop the heap of mine tailings—where Pritchard would have placed his outpost if he were in charge, certainly—then he’d gotten a nasty surprise when the main gun splashed the rocks with Hell. The captain grinned at the thought. Kruse misunderstood and snarled, “If they are coming for you, you’re dead, you treacherous bastard!” To the backs of his departing fellows, the young Dutchman called, “Turn out the light here, but leave the trap door open. That won’t show on the street, but it’ll give me enough light to shoot by.”

The tanks weren’t coming for him, Pritchard knew, because they couldn’t have any idea where he was. Perhaps his disappearance had stirred up some patrolling, for want of more directed action; perhaps a platoon was just changing ground because of its commander’s whim. Pritchard had encouraged random motion. Tanks that freeze in one place are sitting targets, albeit hard ones. But whatever the reason tanks were approaching Haacin, if they whined by in the street outside they would be well within range of his implanted transmitter.

The big blowers were audible now, nearing with an arrogant lack of haste as if bears headed for a beehive. They were moving at about 30 kph, more slowly than Pritchard would have expected even for a contact patrol. From the sound there were four or more of them, smooth and gray and deadly.

“Kruse, I’m serious,” the Slammer captain said. Light from the trap door back-lit the civilian into a hulking beast with a musket. “If you—”

“Shut up!” Kruse snarled, prodding his prisoner’s bruised forehead with the gun muzzle. “One more word, any word, and—”

Kruse’s right hand was so tense and white that the musket might fire even without his deliberate intent.

The first of the tanks slid by outside. Its cushion of air was so dense that the ground trembled even though none of the blower’s 170 tonnes was in direct contact with it. Squeezed between the pavement and the steel curtain of the plenum chamber, the air spurted sideways and rattled the cellar windows. The rattling was inaudible against the howling of the fans themselves, but the trembling shutters chopped facets in the play of the tank’s running lights. Kruse’s face and the far wall flickered in blotched abstraction.

The tank moved on without pausing. Pritchard had not tried to summon it.

“That power,” Kruse was mumbling to himself, “that should be for us to use to sweep the beasts—” The rest of his words were lost in the growing wail of the second tank in the column.

Pritchard tensed within. Even if a passing tank picked up his implant’s transmission, its crew would probably ignore the message. Unless Pritchard identified himself, the tankers would assume it was babbling thrown by the ionosphere. And if he did identify himself, Kruse—

Kruse thrust his musket against Pritchard’s skull again, banging the tanker’s head back against the cellar wall. The Dutchman’s voice was lost in the blower’s howling, but his blue-lit lips clearly were repeating, “One word….”

The tank moved on down the highway toward Portela.

“…and maybe I’ll shoot you anyway,” Kruse was saying. “That’s the way to serve traitors, isn’t it? Mercenary!

The third blower was approaching. Its note seemed slightly different, though that might be the aftereffect of the preceding vehicles’ echoing din. Pritchard was cold all the way to his heart, because in a moment he was going to call for help. He knew that Kruse would shoot him, knew also that he would rather die now than live after hope had come so near but passed on, passed on….

The third tank smashed through the wall of the house.

The Plow’s skirts were not a bulldozer blade, but they were thick steel and backed with the mass of a 150 tonne command tank. The slag wall repowdered at the impact. Ceiling joists buckled into pretzel shape and ripped the cellar open to the floor above. Kruse flung his musket up and fired through the cascading rubble. The boom and red flash were lost in the chaos, but the blue-green fire stabbing back across the cellar laid the Dutchman on his back with his parka aflame. Pritchard rolled to the floor at the first shock. He thrust himself with corded legs and arms back under the feeble protection of the bunk. When the sound of falling objects had died away, the captain slitted his eyelids against the rock dust and risked a look upward.

The collision had torn a gap ten feet long in the house wall, crushing it from street level to the beams supporting the second story. The tank blocked the hole with its gray bulk. Fresh scars brightened the patina of corrosion etched onto its skirts by the atmospheres of a dozen planets. Through the buckled flooring and the dust whipped into arabesques by the idling fans, Pritchard glimpsed a slight figure clinging lefthanded to the turret. Her right hand still threatened the wreckage with a submachinegun. Carpeting burned on the floor above, ignited by the burst that killed Kruse. Somewhere a woman was screaming in Dutch.

“Margritte!” Pritchard shouted. “Margritte! Down here!”

The helmeted woman swung up her face shield and tried to pierce the cellar gloom with her unaided eyes. The tank-battered opening had sufficed for the exchange of shots, but the tangle of structural members and splintered flooring was too tight to pass a man—or even a small woman. Sooty flames were beginning to shroud the gap. Margritte jumped to the ground and struggled for a moment before she was able to heave open the door. The Plow’s turret swung to cover her, though neither the main gun nor the tribarrel in the cupola could depress enough to rake the cellar. Margritte ran down the steps to Pritchard. Coughing in the rock dust, he rolled out over the rubble to meet her. Much of the smashed sidewall had collapsed onto the street when the tank backed after the initial impact. Still, the crumpled beams of the ground floor sagged further with the additional weight of the slag on them. Head-sized pieces had splanged on the cot above Pritchard.

Margritte switched the submachinegun to her left hand and began using a clasp knife on her captain’s bonds. The cord with which he was tied bit momentarily deeper at the blade’s pressure.

Pritchard winced, then began flexing his freed hands. “You know, Margi,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with a gun before.”

The commo tech’s face hardened as if the polarized helmet shield had slipped down over it again. “You hadn’t,” she said. The ankle bindings parted and she stood, the dust graying her helmet and her foam-filled coveralls. “Captain, Kowie had to drive and we needed Rob in the cupola at the gun. That left me to—do anything else that had to be done. I did what had to be done.”

Pritchard tried to stand, using the technician as a post on which to draw himself upright. Margritte looked frail, but with her legs braced she stood like a rock. Her arm around Pritchard’s back was as firm as a man’s.

“You didn’t ask Capt. Riis for help, I guess,” Pritchard said, pain making his breath catch. The line tanks had two-man crews with no one to spare for outrider, of course.

“We didn’t report you missing,” Margritte said, “even to First Platoon. They just went along like before, thinking you were in The Plow giving orders.” Together, captain and technician shuffled across the floor to the stairs. As they passed Kruse’s body, Margritte muttered cryptically, “That’s four.”

Pritchard assumed the tremors beginning to shake the woman’s body were from physical strain. He took as much weight off her as he could and found his numbed feet were beginning to function reasonably well. He would never have been able to board The Plow without Sgt. Jenne’s grip on his arm, however.

The battered officer settled in the turret with a groan of comfort. The seat cradled his body with gentle firmness, and the warm air blown across him was just the near side of heaven.

“Captain,” Jenne said, “what d’we do about the slopes who grabbed you? Shall we call in an interrogation team and—”

“We don’t do anything,” Pritchard interrupted. “We just pretend none of this happened and head back to….” He paused. His flesh wavered both hot and cold as Margritte sprayed his ankles with some of the apparatus from the medical kit. “Say, how did you find me, anyway?”

“We shut off coverage when you—went into your room,” Jenne said, seeing that the commo tech herself did not intend to speak. He meant, Pritchard knew, they had shut off the sound when their captain had said, “Sal.” None of the three of them were looking either of the other two in the eyes. “After a bit, though, Margi noticed the carrier line from your implant had dropped off her oscilloscope. I checked your room, didn’t find you. Didn’t see much point talking it over with the remfs on duty, either.

“So we got satellite recce and found two trucks’d left the area since we got back. One was Riis’, and the other was a civvie junker before that. It’d been parked in the woods out of sight, half a kay up the road from the buildings. Both trucks unloaded in Haacin. We couldn’t tell which load was you, but Margi said if we got close, she’d home on your carrier even though you weren’t calling us on the implant. Some girl we got here, hey?”

Pritchard bent forward and squeezed the commo tech’s shoulder. She did not look up, but she smiled. “Yeah, always knew she was something,” he agreed, “but I don’t think I realized quite what a person she was until just now.”

Margritte lifted her smile. “Rob ordered First Platoon to fall in with us,” she said. “He set up the whole rescue.” Her fine-fingered hands caressed Pritchard’s calves.

But there was other business in Haacin, now. Riis had been quicker to act than Pritchard had hoped. He asked, “You say one of the infantry’s trucks took a load here a little bit ago?”

“Yeah, you want the off-print?” Jenne agreed, searching for the flimsy copy of the satellite picture. “What the hell would they be doing, anyhow?”

“I got a suspicion,” his captain said grimly, “and I suppose it’s one we’ve got to check out.”

“Michael First-Three to Michael One,” the radio broke in. “Vehicles approaching from the east on the hardball.”

“Michael One to Michael First,” Pritchard said, letting the search for contraband arms wait for this new development. “Reverse and form a line abreast beyond the village. Twenty meter intervals. The Plow’ll take the road.” More weapons from Riis? More of Barthe’s troops when half his sector command was already in Portela? Pritchard touched switches beneath the vision blocks as Kowie slid the tank into position. He split the screen between satellite coverage and a ground-level view at top magnification. Six vehicles, combat cars, coming fast. Pritchard swore. Friendly, because only the Slammers had armored vehicles on Kobold, not that cars were a threat to tanks anyway. But no combat cars were assigned to this sector; and the unexpected is always bad news to a company commander juggling too many variables already.

“Platoon nearing Tango Sigma four-two, three-two, please identify to Michael One,” Pritchard requested, giving Haacin’s map coordinates.

Margritte turned up the volume of the main radio while she continued to bandage the captain’s rope cuts. The set crackled, “Michael One, this is Alpha One and Alpha First. Stand by.”

“God’s bleeding cunt!” Rob Jenne swore under his breath. Pritchard was nodding in equal agitation. Alpha was the Regiment’s special duty company. Its four combat car platoons were Col. Hammer’s bodyguards and police. The troopers of A Company were nicknamed the White Mice, and they were viewed askance even by the Slammers of other companies—men who prided themselves on being harder than any other combat force in the galaxy. The White Mice in turn feared their commander, Maj. Joachim Steuben; and if that slightly-built killer feared anyone, it was the man who was probably traveling with him this night. Pritchard sighed and asked the question. “Alpha One, this is Michael One. Are you flying a pennant, sir?”

“Affirmative, Michael One.”

Well, he’d figured Col. Hammer was along as soon as he heard what the unit was. What the Old Man was doing here was another question, and one whose answer Pritchard did not look forward to learning.

The combat cars glided to a halt under the guns of their bigger brethren. The tremble of their fans gave the appearance of heat ripples despite the snow. From his higher vantage point, Pritchard watched the second car slide out of line and fall alongside The Plow. The men at the nose and right wing guns were both short, garbed in nondescript battle gear. They differed from the other troopers only in that their helmet shields were raised and that the faces visible beneath were older than those of most Slammers: Col. Alois Hammer and his hatchetman.

“No need for radio, Captain,” Hammer called in a husky voice. “What are you doing here?”

Pritchard’s tongue quivered between the truth and a lie. His crew had been covering for him, and he wasn’t about to leave them holding the bag. All the breaches of regulations they had committed were for their captain’s sake. “Sir, I brought First Platoon back to Haacin to check whether any of the powerguns they’d hijacked from Barthe were still in civvie hands.” Pritchard could feel eyes behind the cracked shutters of every east-facing window in the village.

“And have you completed your check?” the colonel pressed, his voice mild but his eyes as hard as those of Maj. Steuben beside him; as hard as the iridium plates of the gun shields.

Pritchard swallowed. He owed nothing to Capt. Riis, but the young fool was his superior—and at least he hadn’t wanted the Dutch to kill Pritchard. He wouldn’t put Riis’ ass in the bucket if there were neutral ways to explain the contraband. Besides, they were going to need Riis and his Dutch contacts for the rest of the plan. “Sir, when you approached I was about to search a building where I suspect some illegal weapons are stored.”

“And instead you’ll provide back-up for the major here,” said Hammer, the false humor gone from his face. His words rattled like shrapnel. “He’ll retrieve the twenty-four powerguns which Capt. Riis saw fit to turn over to civilians tonight. If Joachim hadn’t chanced, chanced onto that requisition….” Hammer’s left glove shuddered with the strength of his grip on the forward tribarrel. Then the colonel lowered his eyes and voice, adding, “The quartermaster who filled a requisition for twenty-four pistols from Central Supply is in the infantry again tonight. And Capt. Riis is no longer with the Regiment.”

Steuben tittered, loose despite the tension of everyone around him. The cold was bitter, but Joachim’s right hand was bare. With it he traced the baroque intaglios of his holstered pistol. “Mr. Riis is lucky to be alive,” the slight Newlander said pleasantly. “Luckier than some would have wished. But Colonel, I think we’d best go pick up the merchandise before anybody nerves themself to use it on us.”

Hammer nodded, calm again. “Interfile your blowers with ours, Captain,” he ordered. “Your panzers watch street level while the cars take care of upper floors and roofs.”

Pritchard saluted and slid down into the tank, relaying the order to the rest of his platoon. Kowie blipped The Plow’s throttles, swinging the turreted mass in its own length and sending it back into the village behind the lead combat car. The tank felt light as a dancer, despite the constricting sidestreet Kowie followed the car into. Pritchard scanned the full circuit of the vision blocks. Nothing save the wind and armored vehicles moved in Haacin. When Steuben had learned a line company was requisitioning two dozen extra sidearms, the major had made the same deductions as Pritchard had and had inspected the same satellite tape of a truck unloading. Either Riis was insane or he really thought Col. Hammer was willing to throw away his life’s work to arm a village—inadequately. Lord and Martyrs! Riis would have had to be insane to believe that!

Their objective was a nondescript two-story building separated from its neighbors by narrow alleys. Hammer directed the four rearmost blowers down a parallel street to block the rear. The searchlights of the vehicles chilled the flat concrete and glared back from the windows of the building. A battered surface truck was parked in the street outside. It was empty. Nothing stirred in the house.

Hammer and Steuben dismounted without haste. The major’s helmet was slaved to a loudspeaker in the car. The speaker boomed, “Everyone out of the building. You have thirty seconds. Anyone found inside after that’ll be shot. Thirty seconds!”

Though the residents had not shown themselves earlier, the way they boiled out of the doors proved they had expected the summons. All told, there were eleven of them. From the front door came a well-dressed man and woman with their three children: a sexless infant carried by its mother in a zippered cocoon; a girl of eight with her hood down and her hair coiled in braids about her forehead; and a twelve-year-old boy who looked nearly as husky as his father. Outside staircases disgorged an aged couple on the one hand and four tough-looking men on the other.

Pritchard looked at his blower chief. The sergeant’s right hand was near the gun switch and he mumbled an old ballad under his breath. Chest tightening, Pritchard climbed out of his hatch. He jumped to the ground and paced quietly over to Hammer and his aide.

“There’s twenty-four pistols in this building,” Joachim’s amplified voice roared, “or at least you people know where they are. I want somebody to save trouble and tell me.”

The civilians tensed. The mother half-turned to swing her body between her baby and the officers.

Joachim’s pistol was in his hand, though Pritchard had not seen him draw it. “Nobody to speak?” Joachim queried. He shot the eight-year-old in the right knee. The spray of blood was momentary as the flesh exploded. The girl’s mouth pursed as her buckling leg dropped her facedown in the street. The pain would come later. Her parents screamed, the father falling to his knees to snatch up the child as the mother pressed her forehead against the door jamb in blind panic.

Pritchard shouted, “You son of a bitch!” and clawed for his own sidearm. Steuben turned with the precision of a turret lathe. His pistol’s muzzle was a white-hot ring from its previous discharge. Pritchard knew only that and the fact that his own weapon was not clear of its holster. Then he realized that Col. Hammer was shouting, “No!” and that his open hand had rocked Joachim’s head back.

Joachim’s face went pale except for the handprint burning on his cheek. His eyes were empty. After a moment, he holstered his weapon and turned back to the civilians. “Now, who’ll tell us where the guns are?” he asked in a voice like breaking glassware.

The tear-blind woman, still holding her infant, gurgled, “Here! In the basement!” as she threw open the door. Two troopers followed her within at a nod from Hammer. The father was trying to close the girl’s wounded leg with his hands, but his palms were not broad enough.

Pritchard vomited on the snowy street.

Margritte was out of the tank with a medikit in her hand. She flicked the civilian’s hands aside and began freezing the wound with a spray. The front door banged open again. The two White Mice were back with their submachineguns slung under their arms and a heavy steel weapons-chest between them. Hammer nodded and walked to them.

“You could have brought in an interrogation team!” Pritchard shouted at the backs of his superiors. “You don’t shoot children!”

“Machine interrogation takes time, Captain,” Steuben said mildly. He did not turn to acknowledge the tanker. “This was just as effective.”

“That’s a little girl!” Pritchard insisted with his hand clenched. The child was beginning to cry, though the local anesthetic in the skin-sealer had probably blocked the physical pain. The psychic shock of a body that would soon end at the right knee would be worse, though. The child was old enough to know that no local doctor could save the limb. “This isn’t something that human beings do!”

“Captain,” Steuben said, “they’re lucky I haven’t shot all of them.”

Hammer closed the arms chest. “We’ve got what we came for,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Stealing guns from my colonel,” the Newlander continued as if Hammer had not spoken. The handprint had faded to a dull blotch. “I really ought to—”

“Joachim, shut it off!” Hammer shouted. “We’re going to talk about what happened tonight, you and I. I’d rather do it when we were alone—but I’ll tell you now if I have to. Or in front of a court martial.”

Steuben squeezed his forehead with the fingers of his left hand. He said nothing.

“Let’s go,” the colonel repeated.

Pritchard caught Hammer’s arm. “Take the kid back to Central’s medics,” he demanded.

Hammer blinked. “I should have thought of that,” he said simply. “Sometimes I lose track of…things that aren’t going to shoot at me. But we don’t need this sort of reputation.”

“I don’t care cop for public relations,” Pritchard snapped. “Just save that little girl’s leg.”

Steuben reached for the child, now lying limp. Margritte had used a shot of general anesthetic. The girl’s father went wild-eyed and swung at Joachim from his crouch. Margritte jabbed with the injector from behind the civilian. He gasped as the drug took hold, then sagged as if his bones had dissolved. Steuben picked up the girl.

Hammer vaulted aboard the combat car and took the child from his subordinate’s arms. Cutting himself into the loudspeaker system, the stocky colonel thundered to the street, “Listen you people. If you take guns from mercs—either Barthe’s men or my own—we’ll grind you to dust. Take ’em from civilians if you think you can. You may have a chance then. If you rob mercs, you just get a chance to die.”

Hammer nodded to the civilians, nodded again to the brooding buildings to either side. He gave an unheard command to his driver. The combat cars began to rev their fans.

Pritchard gave Margritte a hand up and followed her. “Michael One to Michael First,” he said. “Head back with Alpha First.”

PRITCHARD RODE INSIDE the turret after they left Haacin, glad for once of the armor and the cabin lights. In the writhing tree-limbs he had seen the Dutch mother’s face as the shot maimed her daughter.

Margritte passed only one call to her commander. It came shortly after the combat cars had separated to return to their base camp near Midi, the planetary capital. The colonel’s voice was as smooth as it ever got. It held no hint of the rage which had blazed out in Haacin. “Capt. Pritchard,” Hammer said, “I’ve transferred command of Sigma Company to the leader of its First Platoon. The sector, of course, is in your hands now. I expect you to carry out your duties with the ability you’ve already shown.”

“Michael One to Regiment,” Pritchard replied curtly. “Acknowledged.”

Kowie drew up in front of the command post without the furious caracole which had marked their most recent approach. Pritchard slid his hatch open. His crewmen did not move. “I’ve got to worry about being sector chief for a while,” he said, “but you three can rack out in the barracks now. You’ve put in a full tour in my book.”

“Think I’ll sleep here,” Rob said. He touched a stud, rotating his seat into a couch alongside the receiver and loading tube of the main gun.

Pritchard frowned. “Margritte?” he asked.

She shrugged. “No, I’ll stay by my set for a while.” Her eyes were blue and calm.

On the intercom, Kowie chimed in with, “Yeah, you worry about the sector, we’ll worry about ourselves. Say, don’t you think a tank platoon’d be better for base security than these pongoes?”

“Shut up, Kowie,” Jenne snapped. The blond Burlager glanced at his captain. “Everything’ll be fine, so long as we’re here,” he said from one elbow. He patted the breech of the 200 mm gun.

Pritchard shrugged and climbed out into the cold night. He heard the hatch grind shut behind him.

Until Pritchard walked in the door of the building, it had not occurred to him that Riis’ replacement was Sally Schilling. The words “First Platoon leader” had not been a name to the tanker, not in the midst of the furor of his mind. The little blonde glanced up at Pritchard from the map display she was studying. She spat cracklingly on the electric stove and faced around again. Her aide, the big corporal, blinked in some embarrassment. None of the headquarters staff spoke.

“I need the display console from my room,” Pritchard said to the corporal.

The infantryman nodded and got up. Before he had taken three steps, Lt. Schilling’s voice cracked like pressure-heaved ice, “Cpl. Webbert!”

“Sir?” The big man’s face went tight as he found himself a pawn in a game whose stakes went beyond his interest.

“Go get the display console for our new commander. It’s in his room.”

Licking his lips with relief, the corporal obeyed. He carried the heavy four-legged console back without effort.

Sally was making it easier for him, Pritchard thought. But how he wished that Riis hadn’t made so complete a fool of himself that he had to be removed. Using Riis to set up a double massacre would have been a lot easier to justify when Danny awoke in the middle of the night and found himself remembering….

Pritchard positioned the console so that he sat with his back to the heater. It separated him from Schilling. The top of the instrument was a slanted, 40 cm screen which glowed when Pritchard switched it on. “Sector Two display,” he directed. In response to his words the screen sharpened into a relief map. “Population centers,” he said. They flashed on as well, several dozen of them ranging from a few hundred souls to the several thousand of Haacin and Dimo. Portela, the largest Francophone settlement west of the Aillet, was about twenty kilometers west of Haacin.

And there were now French mercenaries on both sides of that division line. Sally had turned from her own console and stood up to see what Pritchard was doing. The tanker said, “All mercenary positions, confirmed and calculated.”

The board spangled itself with red and green symbols, each of them marked in small letters with a unit designation. The reconnaissance satellites gave unit strengths very accurately, and computer analysis of radio traffic could generally name the forces. In the eastern half of the sector, Lt. Col. Benoit had spread out one battalion in platoon-strength billets. The guardposts were close enough to most points to put down trouble immediately. A full company near Dimo guarded the headquarters and two batteries of rocket howitzers.

The remaining battalion in the sector, Benoit’s own, was concentrated in positions blasted into the rocky highlands ten kays west of Portela. It was not a deployment that would allow the mercs to effectively police the west half of the sector, but it was a very good defensive arrangement. The forest that covered the center of the sector was ideal for hit-and-run sniping by small units of infantry. The tree boles were too densely woven for tanks to plow through them. Because the forest was so flammable at this season, however, it would be equally dangerous to ambushers. Benoit was wise to concentrate in the barren high-ground.

Besides the highlands, the fields cleared around every settlement were the only safe locations for a modern firefight. The fields, and the broad swathes cleared for roads through the forest….

“Incoming traffic for Sector Chief,” announced a radioman. “It’s from the skepsel colonel, sir.” He threw his words into the air, afraid to direct them at either of the officers in the orderly room.

“Voice only, or is there visual?” Pritchard asked. Schilling held her silence.

“Visual component, sir.”

“Patch him through to my console,” the tanker decided. “And son—watch your language. Otherwise, you say ‘beast’ when you shouldn’t.”

The map blurred from the display screen and was replaced by the hawk features of Lt. Col. Benoit. A pick-up on the screen’s surface threw Pritchard’s own image onto Benoit’s similar console.

The Frenchman blinked. “Capt. Pritchard? I’m very pleased to see you, but my words must be with Capt. Riis directly. Could you wake him?”

“There’ve been some changes,” the tanker said. In the back of his mind, he wondered what had happened to Riis. Pulled back under arrest, probably. “I’m in charge of Sector Two now. Co-charge with you, that is.”

Benoit’s face steadied as he absorbed the information without betraying an opinion about it. Then he beamed like a feasting wolf and said, “Congratulations, Captain. Some day you and I will have to discuss the…events of the past few days. But what I was calling about is far less pleasant, I’m afraid.”

Benoit’s image wavered on the screen as he paused. Pritchard touched his tongue to the corner of his mouth. “Go ahead, Colonel,” he said. “I’ve gotten enough bad news today that a little more won’t signify.”

Benoit quirked his brow in what might or might not have been humor. “When we were proceeding to Portela,” he said, “some of my troops mistook the situation and set up passive tank interdiction points. Mines, all over the sector. They’re booby-trapped, of course. The only safe way to remove them is for the troops responsible to do it. They will of course be punished later.”

Pritchard chuckled. “How long do you estimate it’ll take to clear the roads, Colonel?” he asked.

The Frenchman spread his hands, palms up. “Weeks, perhaps. It’s much harder to clear mines safely than to lay them, of course.”

“But there wouldn’t be anything between here and Haacin, would there?” the tanker prodded. It was all happening just as Hammer’s informant had said Barthe planned it. First, hem the tanks in with nets of forest and minefields; then, break the most important Dutch stronghold while your mercs were still around to back you up…. “The spur road toour HQ here wasn’t on your route; and besides, we just drove tanks over it a few minutes ago.”

Behind Pritchard, Sally Schilling was cursing in a sharp, carrying voice. Benoit could probably hear her, but the colonel kept his voice as smooth as milk as he said, “Actually, I’m afraid there is a field—gas, shaped charges, and glass-shard antipersonnel mines—somewhere on that road, yes. Fortunately, the field was signal activated. It wasn’t primed until after you had passed through. I assure you, Capt. Pritchard, that all the roads west of the Aillet may be too dangerous to traverse until I have cleared them. I warn you both as a friend and so that we will not be charged with damage to any of your vehicles—and men. You have been fully warned of the danger; anything that happens now is your responsibility.”

Pritchard leaned back in the console’s integral seat, chuckling again. “You know, Colonel,” the tank captain said, “I’m not sure that the Bonding Authority wouldn’t find those mines were a hostile act justifying our retaliation.” Benoit stiffened, more an internal hardness than anything that showed in his muscles. Pritchard continued to speak through a smile. “We won’t, of course. Mistakes happen. But one thing, Col. Benoit—”

The Frenchman nodded, waiting for the edge to bite. He knew as well as Pritchard did that, at best, if there were an Authority investigation, Barthe would have to throw a scapegoat out. A high-ranking scapegoat.

“Mistakes happen,” Pritchard repeated, “but they can’t be allowed to happen twice. You’ve got my permission to send out a ten-man team by daylight—only by daylight—to clear the road from Portela to Bever. That’ll give you a route back to your side of the sector. If any other troops leave their present position, for any reason, I’ll treat it as an attack.”

“Captain, this demarcation within the sector was not part of the contract—”

“It was at the demand of Col. Barthe,” Pritchard snapped, “and agreed to by the demonstrable practice of both regiments over the past three months.” Hammer had briefed Pritchard very carefully on the words to use here, to be recorded for the benefit of the Bonding Authority. “You’ve heard the terms, Colonel. You can either take them or we’ll put the whole thing—the minefields and some other matters that’ve come up recently—before the Authority right now. Your choice.”

Benoit stared at Pritchard, apparently calm but tugging at his upper lip with thumb and forefinger. “I think you are unwise, Captain, in taking full responsibility for an area in which your tanks cannot move; but that is your affair, of course. I will obey your mandate. We should have the Portela-Haacin segment cleared by evening; tomorrow we’ll proceed to Bever. Good day.”

The screen segued back to the map display. Pritchard stood up. A spare helmet rested beside one of the radiomen. The tank captain donned it—he had forgotten to requisition a replacement from stores—and said, “Michael One to all Michael units.” He paused for the acknowledgment lights from his four platoons and the command vehicle. Then, “Hold your present position. Don’t attempt to move by road, any road, until further notice. The roads have been mined. There are probably safe areas, and we’ll get you a map of them as soon as Command Central works it up. For the time being, just stay where you are. Michael One, out.”

“Are you really going to take that?” Lt. Schilling demanded in a low, harsh voice.

“Pass the same orders to your troops, Sally,” Pritchard said. “I know they can move through the woods where my tanks can’t, but I don’t want any friendlies in the forest right now either.” To the intelligence sergeant on watch, Pritchard added, “Samuels, get Central to run a plot of all activity by any of Benoit’s men. That won’t tell us where they’ve laid mines, but it’ll let us know where they can’t have.”

“What happens if the bleeding skepsels ignore you?” Sally blazed. “You’ve bloody taught them to ignore you, haven’t you? Knuckling under every time somebody whispers ‘contract’? You can’t move a tank to stop them if they do leave their base, and I’ve got 198 effectives. A battalion’d laugh at me, laugh!

Schilling’s arms were akimbo, her face as pale with rage as the snow outside. Speaking with deliberate calm, Pritchard said, “I’ll call in artillery if I need to. Benoit only brought two calliopes with him, and they can’t stop all the shells from three firebases at the same time. The road between his position and Portela’s just a snake-track cut between rocks. A couple firecracker rounds going off above infantry, strung out there—Via, it’ll be a butcher shop.”

Schilling’s eyes brightened. “Then for tonight, the sector’s just like it was before we came,” she thought out loud. “Well, I suppose you know best,” she added in false agreement, with false nonchalance. “I’m going back to the barracks. I’ll brief First Platoon in person and radio the others from there. Come along, Webbert.”

The corporal slammed the door behind himself and his lieutenant. The gust of air that licked about the walls was cold, but Pritchard was already shivering at what he had just done to a woman he loved.

It was daylight by now, and the frosted windows turned to flame in the ruddy sun. Speaking to no one but his console’s memory, Pritchard began to plot tracks from each tank platoon. He used a topographic display, ignoring the existence of the impenetrable forest which covered the ground.

Margritte’s resonant voice twanged in the implant, “Captain, would you come to the blower for half a sec?”

“On the way,” Pritchard said, shrugging into his coat. The orderly room staff glanced up at him.

Margritte poked her head out of the side hatch. Pritchard climbed onto the deck to avoid some of the generator whine. The skirts sang even when the fans were cut off completely. Rob Jenne, curious but at ease, was visible at his battle station beyond the commo tech. “Sir,” Margritte said, “we’ve been picking up signals from—there.” The blue-eyed woman thumbed briefly at the infantry barracks without letting her pupils follow the gesture.

Pritchard nodded. “Lt. Schilling’s passing on my orders to her company.”

“Danny, the transmission’s in code, and it’s not a code of ours.” Margritte hesitated, then touched the back of the officer’s gloved left hand. “There’s answering signals, too. I can’t triangulate without moving the blower, of course, but the source is in line with the tailings pile at Haacin.”

It was what he had planned, after all. Someone the villagers could trust had to get word of the situation to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t draw the Portelans and their mercenary backers into a fatal mistake. Hard luck for the villagers who were acting as bait, but very good for every other Dutchman on Kobold…. Pritchard had no reason to feel anything but relief that it had happened. He tried to relax the muscles which were crushing all the breath out of his lungs. Margritte’s fingers closed over his hand and squeezed it.

“Ignore the signals,” the captain said at last. “We’ve known all along they were talking to the civilians, haven’t we?” Neither of his crewmen spoke. Pritchard’s eyes closed tightly. He said, “We’ve known for months, Hammer and I, every damned thing that Barthe’s been plotting with the skepsels. They want a chance to break Haacin now, while they’re around to cover for the Portelans. We’ll give them their chance and ram it up their ass crosswise. The Old Man hasn’t spread the word for fear the story’d get out, the same way Barthe’s plans did. We’re all mercenaries, after all. But I want you three to know. And I’ll be glad when the only thing I have to worry about is the direction the shots are coming from.”

Abruptly, the captain dropped back to the ground. “Get some sleep,” he called. “I’ll be needing you sharp tonight.”

BACK AT HIS console, Pritchard resumed plotting courses and distances. After he figured each line, he called in a series of map coordinates to Command Central. He knew his radio traffic was being monitored and probably unscrambled by Barthe’s intelligence staff; knew also that even if he had read the coordinates out in clear, the French would have assumed it was a code. The locations made no sense unless one knew they were ground zero for incendiary shells.

As Pritchard worked, he kept close watch on the French battalions. Benoit’s own troops held their position, as Pritchard had ordered. They used the time to dig in. At first they had blasted slit trenches in the rock. Now they dug covered bunkers with the help of mining machinery tracked from Portela by civilians. Five of the six anti-tank guns were sited atop the eastern ridge of the position. They could rake the highway as it snaked and switched back among the foothills west of Portela.

Pritchard chuckled grimly again when Sgt. Samuels handed him high-magnification offprints from the satellites. Benoit’s two squat, bulky calliopes were sited in defilade behind the humps of the eastern ridge line. There the eight-barrelled powerguns were safe from the smashing fire of M Company’s tanks, but their ability to sweep artillery shells from the sky was degraded by the closer horizon. The Slammers did not bother with calliopes themselves. Their central fire director did a far better job by working through the hundreds of vehicle-mounted weapons. How much better, Benoit might learn very shortly.

The mine-sweeping team cleared the Portela-Haacin road, as directed. The men returned to Benoit’s encampment an hour before dusk. The French did not come within five kilometers of the Dutch village.

Pritchard watched the retiring mine sweepers, then snapped off the console. He stood. “I’m going out to my blower,” he said.

His crew had been watching for him. A hatch shot open, spouting condensate, as soon as Pritchard came out the door. The smooth bulk of the tank blew like a restive whale. On the horizon, the sun was so low that the treetops stood out in silhouette like a line of bayonets.

Wearily, the captain dropped through the hatch into his seat. Jenne and Margritte murmured greeting and waited, noticeably tense. “I’m going to get a couple hours’ sleep,” Pritchard said. He swung his seat out and up, so that he lay horizontal in the turret. His legs hid Margritte’s oval face from him. “Punch up coverage of the road west of Haacin, would you?” he asked. “I’m going to take a tab of Glirine. Slap me with the antidote when something moves there.”

“If something moves,” Jenne amended.

“When.” Pritchard sucked down the pill. “The squareheads think they’ve got one last chance to smack Portela and hijack the powerguns again. Thing is, the Portelans’ll have already distributed the guns and be waiting for the Dutch to come through. It’ll be a damn short fight, that one….” The drug took hold and Pritchard’s consciousness began to flow away like a sugar cube in water. “Damn short….”

AT FIRST PRITCHARD felt only the sting on the inside of his wrist. Then the narcotic haze ripped away and he was fully conscious again.

“There a line of trucks, looks like twenty, moving west out of Haacin, sir. They’re blacked out, but the satellite has ’em on infra-red.”

“Red alert,” Pritchard ordered. He locked his seat upright into its combat position. Margritte’s soft voice sounded the general alarm. Pritchard slipped on his radio helmet. “Michael One to all Michael units. Check off.” Five green lights flashed their silent acknowledgements across the top of the captain’s face-shield display. “Michael One to Sigma One,” Pritchard continued.

“Go ahead, Michael One.” Sally’s voice held a note of triumph.

“Sigma One, pull all your troops into large, clear areas—the fields around the towns are fine, but stay the hell away from Portela and Haacin. Get ready to slow down anybody coming this way from across the Aillet. Over.”

“Affirmative, Danny, affirmative!” Sally replied. Couldn’t she use the satellite reconnaissance herself and see the five blurred dots halfway between the villages? They were clearly the trucks which had brought the Portelans into their ambush positions. What would she say when she realized how she had set up the villagers she was trying to protect? Lambs to the slaughter….

The vision block showed the Dutch trucks more clearly than the camouflaged Portelans. The crushed stone of the roadway was dark on the screen, cooler than the surrounding trees and the vehicles upon it. Pritchard patted the breech of the main gun and looked across it to his blower chief. “We got a basic load for this aboard?” he asked.

“Do bears cop in the woods?” Jenne grinned. “We gonna get a chance to bust caps tonight, Captain?”

Pritchard nodded. “For three months we’ve been here, doing nothing but selling rope to the French. Tonight they’ve bought enough that we can hang ’em with it.” He looked at the vision block again. “You alive, Kowie?” he asked on intercom.

“Ready to slide any time you give me a course,” said the driver from his closed cockpit.

The vision block sizzled with bright streaks that seemed to hang on the screen though they had passed in microseconds. The leading blobs expanded and brightened as trucks blew up.

“Michael One to Fire Central,” Pritchard said.

“Go ahead, Michael One,” replied the machine voice.

“Prepare Fire Order Alpha.”

“Roger, Michael One.”

“Margritte, get me Benoit.”

“Go ahead, Captain.”

“Slammers to Benoit. Pritchard to Benoit. Come in please, Colonel.”

“Capt. Pritchard, Michel Benoit here.” The colonel’s voice was smooth but too hurried to disguise the concern underlying it. “I assure you that none of my men are involved in the present fighting. I have a company ready to go out and control the disturbance immediately, however.”

The tanker ignored him. The shooting had already stopped for lack of targets. “Colonel, I’ve got some artillery aimed to drop various places in the forest. It’s coming nowhere near your troops or any other human beings. If you interfere with this necessary shelling, the Slammer’ll treat it as an act of war. I speak with my colonel’s authority.”

“Captain, I don’t—”

Pritchard switched manually. “Michael One to Fire Central. Execute Fire Order Alpha.”

“On the way, Michael One.”

“Michael One to Michael First, Second, Fourth. Command Central has fed movement orders into your map displays. Incendiary clusters are going to burst over marked locations to ignite the forest. Use your own main guns to set the trees burning in front of your immediate positions. One round ought to do it. Button up and you can move through the fire—the trees just fall to pieces when they’ve burned.”

The turret whined as it slid under Rob’s control. “Michael Third, I’m attaching you to the infantry. More Frenchmen’re apt to be coming this way from the east. It’s up to you to see they don’t slam a door on us.”

The main gun fired, its discharge so sudden that the air rang like a solid thing. Seepage from the ejection system filled the hull with the reek of superheated polyurethane. The side vision blocks flashed cyan, then began to flood with the mounting white hell-light of the blazing trees. In the central block, still set on remote, all the Dutch trucks were burning, as were patches of forest which the ambush had ignited. The Portelans had left the concealment of the trees and swept across the road, mopping up the Dutch.

“Kowie, let’s move,” Jenne was saying on intercom, syncopated by the mild echo of his voice in the turret. Margritte’s face was calm, her lips moving subtly as she handled some traffic that she did not pass on to her captain. The tank slid forward like oil on a lake. From the far distance came the thumps of incendiary rounds scattering their hundreds of separate fireballs high over the trees.

Pritchard slapped the central vision block back on direct; the tank’s interior shone white with transmitted fire. The Plow’s bow slope sheared into a thicket of blazing trees. The wood tangled and sagged, then gave in a splash of fiery splinters whipped aloft by the blower’s fans. The tank was in hell on all sides, Kowie steering by instinct and his inertial compass. Even with his screens filtered all the way down, the driver would not be able to use his eyes effectively until more of the labyrinth had burned away.

Benoit’s calliopes had not tried to stop the shelling. Well, there were other ways to get the French mercs to take the first step over the line. For instance—

“Punch up Benoit again,” Pritchard ordered. Even through the dense iridium plating, the roar of the fire was a subaural presence in the tank.

“Go ahead,” Margritte said, flipping a switch on her console. She had somehow been holding the French officer in conversation all the time Pritchard was on other frequencies.

“Colonel,” Pritchard said, “we’ve got clear running through this fire. We’re going to chase down everybody who used a powergun tonight; then we’ll shoot them. We’ll shoot everybody in their families, everybody with them in this ambush, and we’ll blow up every house that anybody involved lived in. That’s likely to be every house in Portela, isn’t it?”

More than the heat and ions of the blazing forest distorted Benoit’s face. He shouted, “Are you mad? You can’t think of such a thing, Pritchard!”

The tanker’s lips parted like a wolf’s. He could think of mass murder, and there were plenty of men in the Slammers who would really be willing to carry out the threat. But Pritchard wouldn’t have to, because Benoit was like Riis and Schilling: too much of a nationalist to remember his first duty as a merc…. “Col. Benoit, the contract demands wekeep the peace and stay impartial. The record shows how we treated people in Haacin for having powerguns. For what the Portelans did tonight—don’t worry, we’ll be impartial. And they’ll never break the peace again.”

“Captain, I will not allow you to massacre French civilians,” Benoit stated flatly.

“Move a man out of your present positions and I’ll shoot him dead,” Pritchard said. “It’s your choice, Colonel. Over and out.”

The Plow bucked and rolled as it pulverized fire-shattered trucks, but the vehicle was meeting nothing solid enough to slam it to a halt. Pritchard used a side block on remote to examine Benoit’s encampment. The satellite’s enhanced infra-red showed a stream of sparks flowing from the defensive positions toward the Portela road: infantry on skimmers. The pair of larger, more diffuse blobs were probably anti-tank guns. Benoit wasn’t moving his whole battalion, only a reinforced company in a show of force to make Pritchard back off.

The fool. Nobody was going to back off now.

“Michael One to all Michael and Sigma units,” Pritchard said in a voice as clear as the white flames around his tank. “We’re now in a state of war with Barthe’s Company and its civilian auxiliaries. Michael First, Second, and Fourth, we’ll rendezvous at the ambush site as plotted on your displays. Anybody between there and Portela is fair game. If we take any fire from Portela, we go down the main drag in line and blow the cop out of it. If any of Barthe’s people are in the way, we keep on sliding west. Sigma One, mount a fluid defense, don’t push, and wait for help. It’s coming. If this works, it’s Barthe against Hammer—and that’s wheat against the scythe. Acknowledged?”

As Pritchard’s call board lit green, a raspy new voice broke into the sector frequency. “Wish I was with you, panzers. We’ll cover your butts and the other sectors—if anybody’s dumb enough to move. Good hunting!”

“I wish you were here and not me, Colonel,” Pritchard whispered, but that was to himself…and perhaps it was not true even in his heart. Danny’s guts were very cold, and his face was as cold as death.

To Pritchard’s left, a lighted display segregated the area of operations. It was a computer analog, not direct satellite coverage. Doubtful images were brightened and labeled—green for the Slammers, red for Barthe; blue for civilians unless they were fighting on one side or the other. The green dot of The Plow converged on the ambush site at the same time as the columns of First and Fourth Platoons. Second was a minute or two farther off. Pritchard’s breath caught. A sheaf of narrow red lines was streaking across the display toward his tanks. Barthe had ordered his Company’s artillery to support Benoit’s threatened battalion.

The salvo frayed and vanished more suddenly than it had appeared. Other Slammers’ vehicles had ripped the threat from the sky. Green lines darted from Hammer’s own three firebases, offscreen at the analog’s present scale. The fighting was no longer limited to Sector Two. If Pritchard and Hammer had played their hand right, though, it would stay limited to only the Slammers and Compagnie de Barthe. The other Francophone regiments would fear to join an unexpected battle which certainly resulted from someone’s contract violation. If the breach were Hammer’s, the Dutch would not be allowed to profit by the fighting. If the breach were Barthe’s, anybody who joined him was apt to be punished as sternly by the Bonding Authority.

So violent was the forest’s combustion that the flames were already dying down into sparks and black ashes. The command tank growled out into the broad avenue of the road west of Haacin. Dutch trucks were still burning—fabric, lubricants, and the very paint of their frames had been ignited by the powerguns. Many of the bodies sprawled beside the vehicles were smouldering also. Some corpses still clutched their useless muskets. The dead were victims of six centuries of progress which had come to Kobold pre-packaged, just in time to kill them. Barthe had given the Portelans only shoulder weapons, but even that meant the world here. The powerguns were repeaters with awesome destruction in every bolt. Without answering fire to rattle them, even untrained gunmen could be effective with weapons which shot line-straight and had no recoil. Certainly the Portelans had been effective.

Throwing ash and fire like sharks in the surf, the four behemoths of First Platoon slewed onto the road from the south. Almost simultaneously, Fourth joined through the dying hellstorm to the other side. The right of way was fifty meters wide and there was no reason to keep to the center of it. The forest, ablaze or glowing embers, held no ambushes anymore.

The Plow lurched as Kowie guided it through the bodies. Some of them were still moving. Pritchard wondered if any of the Dutch had lived through the night, but that was with the back of his mind. The Slammers were at war, and nothing else really mattered. “Triple line ahead,” he ordered. “First to the left, Fourth to the right; The Plow’ll take the center alone till Second joins. Second, wick up when you hit the hardball and fall in behind us. If it moves, shoot it.”

At 100 kph, the leading tanks caught the Portelans three kilometers east of their village. The settlers were in the trucks that had been hidden in the forest fringe until the fires had been started. The ambushers may not have known they were being pursued until the rearmost truck exploded. Rob Jenne had shredded it with his tribarrel at five kilometers’ distance. The cyan flicker and its answering orange blast signalled the flanking tanks to fire. They had just enough parallax to be able to rake the four remaining trucks without being blocked by the one which had blown up. A few snapping discharges proved that some Portelans survived to use their new powerguns on tougher meat than before. Hits streaked ashes on the tanks’ armor. No one inside noticed.

From Portela’s eastern windows, children watched their parents burn.

A hose of cyan light played from a distant roof top. It touched the command tank as Kowie slewed to avoid a Portelan truck. The burst was perfectly aimed, an automatic weapon served by professionals. Professionals should have known how useless it would be against heavy armor. A vision block dulled as a few receptors fused. Jenne cursed and trod the foot-switch of the main gun. A building leaped into dazzling prominence in the microsecond flash. Then it and most of the block behind collapsed into internal fires, burying the machinegun and everything else in the neighborhood. A moment later, a salvo of Hammer’s high explosive got through the calliopes’ inadequate screen. The village began to spew skyward in white flashes.

The Portelans had wanted to play soldier, Pritchard thought. He had dammed up all pity for the villagers of Haacin; he would not spend it now on these folk.

“Line ahead—First, Fourth, and Second,” Pritchard ordered. The triple column slowed and re-formed, with The Plow the second vehicle in the new line. The shelling lifted from Portela as the tanks plunged into the village. Green trails on the analog terminated over the road crowded with Benoit’s men and over the main French position, despite anything the calliopes could do. The sky over Benoit’s bunkers rippled and flared as firecracker rounds sleeted down their thousands of individual bomblets. The defensive fire cut off entirely. Pritchard could imagine the carnage among the unprotected calliope crews when the shrapnel whirred through them.

The tanks were firing into the houses on either side, using tribarrels and occasional wallops from their main guns. The blue-green flashes were so intense they colored even the flames they lit among the wreckage. At 50 kph the thirteen tanks swept through the center of town, hindered only by the rubble of houses spilled across the street. Barthe’s men were skittering white shadows who burst when powerguns hit them point blank.

The copper mine was just west of the village and three hundred meters north of the highway. As the lead tank bellowed out around the last houses, a dozen infantrymen rose from where they had sheltered in the pit head and loosed a salvo of buzzbombs. The tank’s automatic defense system was live. White fire rippled from just above the skirts as the charges there flailed pellets outward to intersect the rockets. Most of the buzzbombs exploded ten meters distant against the steel hail. One missile soared harmlessly over its target, its motor a tiny flare against the flickering sky. Only one of the shaped charges burst alongside the turret, forming a bell of light momentarily bigger than the tank. Even that was only a near miss. It gouged the iridium armor like a misthrust rapier which tears skin but does not pierce the skull.

Main guns and tribarrels answered the rockets instantly. Men dropped, some dead, some reloading. “Second Platoon, go put some HE down the shaft and rejoin,” Pritchard ordered. The lead tank now had expended half its defensive charges. “Michael First-Three, fall in behind First-One. Michael One leads,” he went on.

Kowie grunted acknowledgement. The Plow revved up to full honk. Benoit’s men were on the road, those who had not reached Portela when the shooting started or who had fled when the artillery churned the houses to froth. The infantry skimmers were trapped between sheer rocks and sheer drop-offs, between their own slow speed and the onrushing frontal slope of The Plow. There were trees where the rocks had given them purchase. Scattered incendiaries had made them blazing cressets lighting a charnel procession.

Jenne’s tribarrel scythed through body armor and dismembered men in short bursts. One of the anti-tank guns—was the other buried in Portela?—lay skewed against a rock wall, its driver killed by a shell fragment. Rob put a round from the main gun into it. So did each of the next two tanks. At the third shot, the ammunition ignited in a blinding secondary explosion.

The anti-tank guns still emplaced on the ridge line had not fired, though they swept several stretches of the road. Perhaps the crews had been rattled by the shelling, perhaps Benoit had held his fire for fear of hitting his own men. A narrow defile notched the final ridge. The Plow heaved itself up the rise, and at the top three bolts slapped it from different angles.

Because the bow was lifted, two of the shots vaporized portions of the skirt and the front fans. The tank nosed down and sprayed sparks with half its length. The third bolt grazed the left top of the turret, making the iridium ring as it expanded. The interior of the armor streaked white though it was not pierced. The temperature inside the tank rose 30°. Even as The Plow skidded, Sgt. Jenne was laying his main gun on the hot spot that was the barrel of the leftmost anti-tank weapon. The Plow’s shot did what heavy top cover had prevented Hammer’s rocket howitzers from accomplishing with shrapnel. The anti-tank gun blew up in a distance-muffled flash. One of its crewmen was silhouetted high in the air by the vaporizing metal of his gun.

Then the two remaining weapons ripped the night and the command blower with their charges.

The bolt that touched the right side of the turret spewed droplets of iridium across the interior of the hull. Air pistoned Pritchard’s eardrums. Rob Jenne lurched in his harness, right arm burned away by the shot. His left hand blackened where it touched bare metal that sparked and sang as circuits shorted. Margritte’s radios were exploding one by one under the overloads. The vision blocks worked and the turret hummed placidly as Pritchard rotated it to the right with his duplicate controls.

“Cut the power! Rob’s burning!” Margritte was shrieking. She had torn off her helmet. Her thick hair stood out like tendrils of bread mold in the gathering charge. Then Pritchard had the main gun bearing and it lit the ridge line with another secondary explosion.

“Danny, our ammunition! It’ll—”

Benoit’s remaining gun blew the tribarrel and the cupola away deafeningly. The automatic’s loading tube began to gang-fire down into the bowels of the tank. It reached a bright tendril up into the sky. But the turret still rolled.

Electricity crackled around Pritchard’s boot and the foot trip as he fired again. The bolt stabbed the night. There was no answering blast. Pritchard held down the switch, his nostrils thick with ozone and superheated plastic and the sizzling flesh of his friend. There was still no explosion from the target bunker. The rock turned white between the cyan flashes. It cracked and flowed away like sun-melted snow, and the anti-tank gun never fired again.

The loading tube emptied. Pritchard slapped the main switch and cut off the current. The interior light and the dancing arcs died, leaving only the dying glow of the bolt-heated iridium. Tank after tank edged by the silent command vehicle and roared on toward the ridge. Benoit’s demoralized men were already beginning to throw down their weapons and surrender.

Pritchard manually unlatched Jenne’s harness and swung it horizontal. The blower chief was breathing but unconscious. Pritchard switched on a battery-powered handlight. He held it steady as Margritte began to spray sealant on the burns. Occasionally she paused to separate clothing from flesh with a stylus.

“It had to be done,” Pritchard whispered. By sacrificing Haacin, he had mousetrapped Benoit into starting a war the infantry could not win. Hammer was now crushing Barthe’s Company, one on one, in an iridium vise. Friesland’s Council of State would not have let Hammer act had they known his intentions, but in the face of a stunning victory they simply could not avoid dictating terms to the French.

“It had to be done. But I look at what I did—” Pritchard swung his right hand in a gesture that would have included both the fuming wreck of Portela and the raiders from Haacin, dead on the road beyond. He struck the breech of the main gun instead. Clenching his fist, he slammed it again into the metal in self-punishment. Margritte cried out and blocked his arm with her own.

“Margi,” Pritchard repeated in anguish, “it isn’t something that human beings do to each other.”

But soldiers do.

And hangmen.

<p><emphasis>David Drake</emphasis></p>

David Drake’s multivolume series of novels and short fiction featuring Hammer’s Slammers (Hammer’s Slammers, Cross the Stars, At Any Price, Counting the Cost, Rolling Hot, The Warrior, The Sharp End), a team of interstellar mercenaries, has helped to establish him as one of the leading exponents of modern military science fiction. With Bill Fawcett, he coedited the six-book shared world Fleet series of future war fiction, as well as both volumes of its sequel, the Battlestation series. Other anthology credits include Space Gladiators, Space Dreadnoughts, Space Infantry, and two volumes in tribute to Rudyard Kipling and his influence on science fiction, Heads to the Storm and A Separate Star. Ancient Rome serves as a setting for some of Drake’s most inventive science fiction and fantasy, in the time travel tale Birds of Prey, the alien contact story Ranks of Bronze, and the fantasy collection Vettius and His Friends. His many other books include the Arthurian fantasy The Dragon Lord and an outstanding collection of horror, fantasy, and science fiction short stories, From the Heart of Darkness, many of which have war-based themes.


THE LIGHT IN the kitchen alcove glittered on Lt. Schilling’s blond curls; glittered also on the frost-spangled window beside her and from the armor of the tank parked outside. All the highlights looked cold to Capt. Danny Pritchard as he stepped closer to the infantry lieutenant.

“Sal—” Pritchard began. From the orderly room behind them came the babble of the radios ranked against one wall and, less muted, the laughter of soldiers waiting for action. “You can’t think like a Dutchman anymore. We’re Hammer’s Slammers, all of us. We’re mercs. Not Dutch, not Frisians—”

“You’re not,” Lt. Schilling snapped, looking up from the cup of bitter chocolate she had just drawn from the urn. She was a short woman and lightly built, but she had the unerring instinct of a bully who is willing to make a scene for a victim who is not willing to be part of one. “You’re a farmer from Dunstan, what d’you care about Dutch miners, whatever these bleeding French do to them. But a lot of us do care, Danny, and if you had a little compassion—”

“But Sal—” Pritchard repeated, only his right arm moving as he touched the blond girl’s shoulder.

“Get your hands off me, Captain!” she shouted. “That’s over!” She shifted the mug of steaming chocolate in her hand. The voices in the orderly room stilled. Then, simultaneously, someone turned up the volume of the radios and at least three people began to talk loudly on unconnected subjects.

Pritchard studied the back of his hand, turned it over to examine the calloused palm as well. He smiled. “Sorry, I’ll remember that,” he said in a normal voice. He turned and stepped back into the orderly room, a brown-haired man of 34 with a good set of muscles to cover his moderate frame and nothing at all to cover his heart. Those who knew Danny Pritchard slightly thought him a relaxed man, and he looked relaxed even now. But waiting around the electric grate were three troopers who knew Danny very well indeed: the crew of The Plow, Pritchard’s command tank.

Kowie drove the beast, a rabbit-eyed man whose fingers now flipped cards in another game of privy solitaire. His deck was so dirty that only familiarity allowed him to read the pips. Kowie’s hands and eyes were just as quick at the controls of the tank, sliding its bulbous hundred and fifty metric tons through spaces that were only big enough to pass it. When he had to, he drove nervelessly through objects instead of going around. Kowie would never be more than a tank driver; but he was the best tank driver in the Regiment.

Rob Jenne was big and as blond as Lt. Schilling. He grinned up at Pritchard, his expression changing from embarrassment to relief as he saw that his captain was able to smile also. Jenne had transferred from combat cars to tanks three years back, after the Slammers had pulled out of Squire’s World. He was sharp-eyed and calm in a crisis. Twice after his transfer Jenne had been offered a blower of his own to command if he would return to combat cars. He had refused both promotions, saying he would stay with tanks or buy back his contract, that there was no way he was going back to those open-topped coffins again. When a tank commander’s slot came open, Jenne got it; and Pritchard had made the blond sergeant his own blower chief when a directional mine had retired the previous man. Now Jenne straddled a chair backwards, his hands flexing a collapsible torsion device that kept his muscles as dense and hard as they had been the day he was recruited from a quarry on Burlage.

Line tanks carry only a driver and the blower chief who directs the tank and its guns when they are not under the direct charge of the Regiment’s computer. In addition to those two and a captain, command tanks have a Communications Technician to handle the multiplex burden of radio traffic focused on the vehicle. Pritchard’s commo tech was Margritte DiManzo, a slender widow who cropped her lustrous hair short so that it would not interfere with the radio helmet she wore most of her waking hours. She was off duty now, but she had not removed the bulky headgear which linked her to the six radios in the tank parked outside. Their simultaneous sound would have been unintelligible babbling to most listeners. The black-haired woman’s training, both conscious and hypnotic, broke that babbling into a set of discrete conversations. When Pritchard reentered the room, Margritte was speaking to Jenne. She did not look up at her commander until Jenne’s brightening expression showed her it was safe to do so.

Two commo people and a sergeant with Intelligence tabs were at consoles in the orderly room. They were from the Regiment’s HQ Battalion, assigned to Sector Two here on Kobold but in no sense a part of the sector’s combat companies: Capt. Riis’ S Company—infantry—and Pritchard’s own tanks.

Riis was the senior captain and in charge of the sector, a matter which neither he nor Pritchard ever forgot. Sally Schilling led his first platoon. Her aide, a black-haired corporal, sat with his huge boots up, humming as he polished the pieces of his field-stripped powergun. Its barrel gleamed orange in the light of the electric grate. Electricity was more general on Kobold than on some wealthier worlds, since mining and copper smelting made fusion units a practical necessity. But though the copper in the transmission cable might well have been processed on Kobold, the wire had probably been drawn off-world and shipped back here. Aurore and Friesland had refused to allow even such simple manufactures here on their joint colony. They had kept Kobold a market and a supplier of raw materials, but never a rival.

“Going to snow tonight?” Jenne asked.

“Umm, too cold,” Pritchard said, walking over to the grate. He pretended he did not hear Lt. Schilling stepping out of the alcove. “I figure—”

“Hold it,” said Margritte, her index finger curling out for a volume control before the duty man had time to react. One of the wall radios boomed loudly to the whole room. Prodding another switch, Margritte patched the signal separately through the link implanted in Pritchard’s right mastoid.

“—guns and looks like satchel charges. There’s only one man in each truck, but they’ve been on the horn too and we can figure on more Frenchies here any—”

“Red Alert,” Pritchard ordered, facing his commo tech so that she could read his lips. “Where is this?”

The headquarters radiomen stood nervously, afraid to interfere but unwilling to let an outsider run their equipment, however ably. “Red Alert,” Margritte was repeating over all bands. Then, through Pritchard’s implant, she said, “It’s Patrol Sigma three-nine, near Haacin. Dutch civilians’ve stopped three outbound provisions trucks from Barthe’s Company.”

“Scramble First Platoon,” Pritchard said, “but tell ’em to hold for us to arrive.” As Margritte coolly passed on the order, Pritchard picked up the commo helmet he had laid on his chair when he followed Lt. Schilling into the kitchen. The helmet gave him automatic switching and greater range than the bio-electric unit behind his ear.

The wall radio was saying, “—need some big friendlies fast or it’ll drop in the pot for sure.”

“Sigma three-niner,” Pritchard said, “this is Michael One.”

“Go ahead, Michael One,” replied the distant squad leader. Pritchard’s commo helmet added an airy boundlessness to his surroundings without really deadening the ambient noise.

“Hold what you’ve got, boys,” the tank captain said. “There’s help on the way.”

The door of the orderly room stood ajar the way Pritchard’s crewmen had left it. The captain slammed it shut as he too ran for his tank. Behind in the orderly room, Lt. Schilling was snapping out quick directions to her own platoon and to her awakened commander.

The Plow was already floating when Danny reached it. Ice crystals, spewed from beneath the skirts by the lift fans, made a blue-white dazzle in the vehicle’s running lights. Frost whitened the ladder up the high side of the tank’s plenum chamber and hull. Pritchard paused to pull on his gloves before mounting. Sgt. Jenne, anchoring himself with his left hand on the turret’s storage rack, reached down and lifted his captain aboard without noticeable effort. Side by side, the two men slid through the hatches to their battle stations.

“Ready,” Pritchard said over the intercom.

“Movin’ on,” replied Kowie, and with his words the tank slid forward over the frozen ground like grease on a hot griddle.

The command post had been a district road-maintenance center before all semblance of central government on Kobold had collapsed. The orderly room and officers’ quarters were in the supervisor’s house, a comfortable structure with shutters and mottoes embroidered in French on the walls. Some of the hangings had been defaced by short-range gunfire. The crew barracks across the road now served the troopers on headquarters duty. Many of the Slammers could read the Dutch periodicals abandoned there in the break-up. The equipment shed beside the barracks garaged the infantry skimmers because the battery-powered platforms could not shrug off the weather like the huge panzers of M Company. The shed doors were open, pluming the night with heated air as the duty platoon ran for its mounts. Some of the troopers had not yet donned their helmets and body armor. Jenne waved as the tank swept on by; then the road curved and the infantry was lost in the night.

Kobold was a joint colony of Aurore and Friesland. When eighty years of French oppression had driven the Dutch settlers to rebellion, their first act was to hire Hammer’s Slammers. The break between Hammer and Friesland had been sharp, but time has a way of blunting anger and letting old habits resume. The Regimental language was Dutch, and many of the Slammers’ officers were Frisians seconded from their own service. Friesland gained from the men’s experience when they returned home; Hammer gained company officers with excellent training from the Gröningen Academy.

To counter the Slammers, the settlers of Auroran descent had hired three Francophone regiments. If either group of colonists could have afforded to pay its mercenaries unaided, the fighting would have been immediate and brief. Kobold had been kept deliberately poor by its home worlds, however; so in their necessities the settlers turned to those home worlds for financial help.

And neither Aurore nor Friesland wanted a war on Kobold.

Friesland had let its settlers swing almost from the beginning, sloughing their interests for a half share of the copper produced and concessions elsewhere in its sphere of influence. The arrangement was still satisfactory to the Council of State, if Frisian public opinion could be mollified by apparent activity. Aurore was on the brink of war in the Zemla System. Her Parlement feared another proxy war which could in a moment explode full-fledged, even though Friesland had been weakened by a decade of severe internal troubles. So Aurore and Friesland reached a compromise. Then, under threat of abandonment, the warring parties were forced to transfer their mercenaries’ contracts to the home worlds. Finally, Aurore and Friesland mutually hired the four regiments: the Slammers; Compagnie de Barthe; the Alaudae; and Phenix Moirots. Mercs from either side were mixed and divided among eight sectors imposed on a map of inhabited Kobold. There the contract ordered them to keep peace between the factions; prevent the importation of modern weapons to either side; and—wait.

But Col. Barthe and the Auroran leaders had come to a further, secret agreement; and although Hammer had learned of it, he had informed only two men—Maj. Steuben, his aide and bodyguard; and Capt. Daniel Pritchard.

Pritchard scowled at the memory. Even without the details a traitor had sold Hammer, it would have been obvious that Barthe had his own plans. In the other sectors, Hammer’s men and their French counterparts ran joint patrols. Both sides scattered their camps throughout the sectors, just as the villages of either nationality were scattered. Barthe had split his sectors in halves, brusquely ordering the Slammers to keep to the west of the River Aillet because his own troops were mining the east of the basin heavily. Barthe’s Company was noted for its minefields. That skill was one of the reasons they had been hired by the French. Since most of Kobold was covered either by forests or by rugged hills, armor was limited to roads where well-placed mines could stack tanks like crushed boxes.

Hammer listened to Barthe’s pronouncement and laughed, despite the anger of most of his staff officers. Beside him, Joachim Steuben had grinned and traced the line of his cut-away holster. When Danny Pritchard was informed, he had only shivered a little and called a vehicle inspection for the next morning. That had been three months ago….

The night streamed by like smoke around the tank. Pritchard lowered his face shield, but he did not drop his seat into the belly of the tank. Vision blocks within gave a 360° view of the tank’s surroundings, but the farmer in Danny could not avoid the feeling of blindness within the impenetrable walls. Jenne sat beside his captain in a cupola fitted with a three-barrelled automatic weapon. He too rode with his head out of the hatch, but that was only for comradeship. The sergeant much preferred to be inside. He would button up at the first sign of hostile action. Jenne was in no sense a coward; it was just that he had quirks. Most combat veterans do.

Pritchard liked the whistle of the black wind past his helmet. Warm air from the tank’s resistance heaters jetted up through the hatch and kept his body quite comfortable. The vehicle’s huge mass required the power of a fusion plant to drive its lift motors, and the additional burden of climate control was inconsequential.

The tankers’ face shields automatically augmented the light of the moon, dim and red because the sun it reflected was dim and red as well. The boosted light level displayed the walls of forest, the boles snaking densely to either side of the road. At Kobold’s perihelion, the thin stems grew in days to their full six-meter height and spread a ceiling of red-brown leaves the size of blankets. Now, at aphelion, the chilled, sapless trees burned with almost explosive intensity. The wood was too dangerous to use for heating, even if electricity had not been common; but it fueled the gasogene engines of most vehicles on the planet.

Jenne gestured ahead. “Blowers,” he muttered on the intercom. His head rested on the gun switch though he knew the vehicles must be friendly. The Plow slowed.

Pritchard nodded agreement. “Michael First, this is Michael One,” he said. “Flash your running lights so we can be sure it’s you.”

“Roger,” replied the radio. Blue light flickered from the shapes hulking at the edge of the forest ahead. Kowie throttled the fans up to cruise, then chopped them and swung expertly into the midst of the four tanks of the outlying platoon.

“Michael One, this is Sigma One,” Capt. Riis’ angry voice demanded in the helmet.

“Go ahead.”

“Barthe’s sent a battalion across the river. I’m moving Lt. Schilling into position to block ’em and called Central for artillery support. You hold your first platoon at Haacin for reserve and any partisans up from Portela. I’ll take direct command of the rest of—”

“Negative, negative, Sigma One!” Pritchard snapped. The Plow was accelerating again, second in the line of five tanks. They were beasts of prey sliding across the landscape of snow and black trees at 80 kph and climbing. “Let the French through, Captain. There won’t be fighting, repeat, negative fighting.”

“There damned well will be fighting, Michael One, if Barthe tries to shove a battalion into my sector!” Riis thundered back. “Remember, this isn’t your command or a joint command. I’m in charge here.”

“Margritte, patch me through to Battalion,” Pritchard hissed on intercom. The Plow’s turret was cocked 30° to the right. It covered the forest sweeping by to that side and anything which might be hiding there. Pritchard’s mind was on Sally Schilling, riding a skimmer through forest like that flanking the tanks, hurrying with her fifty men to try to stop a battalion’s hasty advance.

The commo helmet popped quietly to itself. Pritchard tensed, groping for the words he would need to convince Lt. Col. Miezierk. Miezierk, under whom command of Sectors One and Two was grouped, had been a Frisian regular until five years ago. He was supposed to think like a merc now, not like a Frisian; but….

The voice that suddenly rasped, “Override, override!” was not Miezierk’s. “Sigma One, Michael One, this is Regiment.”

“Go ahead,” Pritchard blurted. Capt. Riis, equally rattled, said, “Yes, sir!” on the three-way link.

“Sigma, your fire order is cancelled. Keep your troops on alert, but keep ’em the hell out of Barthe’s way.”

“But Col. Hammer—”

“Riis, you’re not going to start a war tonight. Michael One, can your panzers handle whatever’s going on at Haacin without violating the contract?”

“Yes, sir.” Pritchard flashed a map briefly on his face shield to check his position. “We’re almost there now.”

“If you can’t handle it, Captain, you’d better hope you’re killed in action,” Col. Hammer said bluntly. “I haven’t nursed this regiment for twenty-three years to lose it because somebody forgets what his job is.” Then, more softly—Pritchard could imagine the colonel flicking his eyes side to side to gauge bystanders’ reactions—he added, “There’s support if you need it, Captain—if they’re the ones who breach the contract.”

“Affirmative.”

“Keep the lid on, boy. Regiment out.”

The trees had drunk the whine of the fans. Now the road curved and the tanks banked greasily to join the main highway from Dimo to Portela. The tailings pile of the Haacin Mine loomed to the right and hurled the drive noise back redoubled at the vehicles. The steel skirts of the lead tank touched the road metal momentarily, showering the night with orange sparks. Beyond the mine were the now-empty wheat fields and then the village itself.

Haacin, the largest Dutch settlement in Sector Two, sprawled to either side of the highway. Its houses were two- and three-story lumps of cemented mine tailings. They were roofed with tile or plastic rather than shakes of native timber, because of the wood’s lethal flammability. The highway was straight and broad. It gave Pritchard a good view of the three cargo vehicles pulled to one side. Men in local dress swarmed about them. Across the road were ten of Hammer’s khaki-clad infantry, patrol S-39, whose ported weapons half-threatened, half-protected the trio of drivers in their midst. Occasionally a civilian turned to hurl a curse at Barthe’s men, but mostly the Dutch busied themselves with offloading cartons from the trucks.

Pritchard gave a brief series of commands. The four line tanks grounded in a hedgehog at the edge of the village. Their main guns and automatics faced outward in all directions. Kowie swung the command vehicle around the tank which had been leading it. He cut the fans’ angle of attack, slowing The Plow without losing the ability to accelerate quickly. The command vehicle eased past the squad of infantry, then grounded behind the rearmost truck. Pritchard felt the fans’ hum through the metal of the hull.

“Who’s in charge here?” the captain demanded, his voice booming through the command vehicle’s public address system.

The Dutch unloading the trucks halted silently. A squat man in a parka of feathery native fur stepped forward. Unlike many of the other civilians, he was not armed. He did not flinch when Pritchard pinned him with the spotlight of the tank. “I am Paul van Oosten,” the man announced in the heavy Dutch of Kobold. “I am Mayor of Haacin. But if you mean who leads us in what we are doing here, well…perhaps Justice herself does. Klaus, show them what these trucks were carrying to Portela.”

Another civilian stepped forward, ripping the top off the box he carried. Flat plastic wafers spilled from it, glittering in the cold light: powergun ammunition, intended for shoulder weapons like those the infantry carried.

“They were taking powerguns to the beasts of Portela to use against us,” van Oosten said. He used the slang term “skepsels” to name the Francophone settlers. The mayor’s shaven jaw was jutting out in anger.

“Captain!” called one of Barthe’s truck drivers, brushing forward through the ring of Hammer’s men. “Let me explain.”

One of the civilians growled and lifted his heavy musket. Rob Jenne rang his knuckles twice on the receiver of his tribarrel, calling attention to the muzzles as he swept them down across the crowd. The Dutchman froze. Jenne smiled without speaking.

“We were sent to pick up wheat the regiment had purchased,” Barthe’s man began. Pritchard was not familiar with Barthe’s insigniae, but from the merc’s age and bearing he was a senior sergeant. An unlikely choice to be driving a provisions truck. “One of the vehicles happened to be partly loaded. We didn’t take the time to empty it because we were in a hurry to finish the run and go off duty—there was enough room and lift to handle that little bit of gear and the grain besides.

“In any case—” and here the sergeant began pressing, because the tank captain had not cut him off at the first sentence as expected—“you do not, and these fools surely do not, have the right to stop Col. Barthe’s transport. If you have questions about the way we pick up wheat, that’s between your CO and ours, sir.”

Pritchard ran his gloved index finger back and forth below his right eyesocket. He was ice inside, bubbling ice that tore and chilled him and had nothing to do with the weather. He turned back to Mayor van Oosten. “Reload the trucks,” he said, hoping that his voice did not break.

“You can’t!” van Oosten cried. “These powerguns are the only chance my village, my people have to survive when you leave. You know that’ll happen, don’t you? Friesland and Aurore, they’ll come to an agreement, a trade-off, they’ll call it, and all the troops will leave. It’s our lives they’re trading! The beasts in Dimo, in Portela if you let these go through, they’ll have powerguns that their mercenaries gave them. And we—”

Pritchard whispered a prepared order into his helmet mike. The rearmost of the four tanks at the edge of the village fired a single round from its main gun. The night flared cyan as the 200 mm bolt struck the middle of the tailings pile a kilometer away. Stone, decomposed by the enormous energy of the shot, recombined in a huge gout of flame. Vapor, lava, and cinders spewed in every direction. After a moment, bits of high-flung rock began pattering down on the roofs of Haacin.

The bolt caused a double thunder-clap, that of the heated air followed by the explosive release of energy at the point of impact. When the reverberations died away there was utter silence in Haacin. On the distant jumble of rock, a dying red glow marked where the charge had hit. The shot had also ignited some saplings rooted among the stones. They had blazed as white torches for a few moments but they were already collapsing as cinders.

“The Slammers are playing this by the rules,” Pritchard said. Loudspeakers flung his quiet words about the village like the echoes of the shot; but he was really speaking for the recorder in the belly of the tank, preserving his words for a later Bonding Authority hearing. “There’ll be no powerguns in civilian hands. Load every bit of this gear back in the truck. Remember, there’s satellites up there—” Pritchard waved generally at the sky—“that see everything that happens on Kobold. If one powergun is fired by a civilian in this sector, I’ll come for him. I promise you.”

The mayor sagged within his furs. Turning to the crowd behind him, he said, “Put the guns back on the truck. So that the Portelans can kill us more easily.”

“Are you mad, van Oosten?” demanded the gunman who had earlier threatened Barthe’s sergeant.

“Are you mad, Kruse?” the mayor shouted back without trying to hide his fury. “D’ye doubt what those tanks would do to Haacin? And do you doubt this butcher—” his back was to Pritchard but there was no doubt as to whom the mayor meant—“would use them on us? Perhaps tomorrow we could have….”

There was motion at the far edge of the crowd, near the corner of a building. Margritte, watching the vision blocks within, called a warning. Pritchard reached for his panic bar—Rob Jenne was traversing the tribarrel. All three of them were too late. The muzzle flash was red and it expanded in Pritchard’s eyes as a hammer blow smashed him in the middle of the forehead.

The bullet’s impact heaved the tanker up and backwards. His shattered helmet flew off into the night. The unyielding hatch coaming caught him in the small of the back, arching his torso over it as if he were being broken on the wheel. Pritchard’s eyes flared with sheets of light. As reaction flung him forward again, he realized he was hearing the reports of Jenne’s powergun and that some of the hellish flashes were real.

If the tribarrel’s discharges were less brilliant than that of the main gun, then they were more than a hundred times as close to the civilians. The burst snapped within a meter of one bystander, an old man who stumbled backwards into a wall. His mouth and staring eyes were three circles of empty terror. Jenne fired seven rounds. Every charge but one struck the sniper or the building he sheltered against. Powdered concrete sprayed from the wall. The sniper’s body spun backwards, chest gobbled away by the bolts. His right arm still gripped the musket he had fired at Pritchard. The arm had been flung alone onto the snowy pavement. The electric bite of ozone hung in the air with the ghostly afterimages of the shots. The dead man’s clothes were burning, tiny orange flames that rippled into smoke an inch from their bases.

Jenne’s big left hand was wrapped in the fabric of Pritchard’s jacket, holding the dazed officer upright. “There’s another rule you play by,” the sergeant roared to the crowd. “You shoot at Hammer’s Slammers and you get your balls kicked between your ears. Sure as God, boys; sure as death.” Jenne’s right hand swung the muzzles of his weapon across the faces of the civilians. “Now, load the bleeding trucks like the captain said, heroes.”

For a brief moment, nothing moved but the threatening powergun. Then a civilian turned and hefted a heavy crate back aboard the truck from which he had just taken it. Empty-handed, the colonist began to sidle away from the vehicle—and from the deadly tribarrel. One by one the other villagers reloaded the hijacked cargo, the guns and ammunition they had hoped would save them in the cataclysm they awaited. One by one they took the blower chief’s unspoken leave to return to their houses. One who did not leave was sobbing out her grief over the mangled body of the sniper. None of her neighbors had gone to her side. They could all appreciate—now—what it would have meant if that first shot had led to a general firefight instead of Jenne’s selective response.

“Rob, help me get him inside,” Pritchard heard Margritte say.

Pritchard braced himself with both hands and leaned away from his sergeant’s supporting arm. “No, I’m all right,” he croaked. His vision was clear enough, but the landscape was flashing bright and dim with varicolored light.

The side hatch of the turret clanked. Margritte was beside her captain. She had stripped off her cold weather gear in the belly of the tank and wore only her khaki uniform. “Get back inside there,” Pritchard muttered. “It’s not safe.” He was afraid of falling if he raised a hand to fend her away. He felt an injector prick the swelling flesh over his cheekbones. The flashing colors died away though Pritchard’s ears began to ring.

“They carried some into the nearest building,” the non-com from Barthe’s Company was saying. He spoke in Dutch, having sleep-trained in the language during the transit to Kobold just as Hammer’s men had in French.

“Get it,” Jenne ordered the civilians still near the trucks. Three of them were already scurrying toward the house the merc had indicated. They were back in moments, carrying the last of the arms chests.

Pritchard surveyed the scene. The cargo had been reloaded, except for the few spilled rounds winking from the pavement. Van Oosten and the furious Kruse were the only villagers still in sight. “All right,” Pritchard said to the truck drivers, “get aboard and get moving. And come back by way of Bitzen, not here. I’ll arrange an escort for you.”

The French non-com winked, grinned, and shouted a quick order to his men. The infantrymen stepped aside silently to pass the truckers. The French mercenaries mounted their vehicles and kicked them to life. Their fans whined and the trucks lifted, sending snow crystals dancing. With gathering speed, they slid westward along the forest-rimmed highway.

Jenne shook his head at the departing trucks, then stiffened as his helmet spat a message. “Captain,” he said, “we got company coming.”

Pritchard grunted. His own radio helmet had been smashed by the bullet, and his implant would only relay messages on the band to which it had been verbally keyed most recently. “Margritte, start switching for me,” he said. His slender commo tech was already slipping back inside through the side hatch. Pritchard’s blood raced with the chemicals Margritte had shot into it. His eyes and mind worked perfectly, though all his thoughts seemed to have razor edges on them.

“Use mine,” Jenne said, trying to hand the captain his helmet.

“I’ve got the implant,” Pritchard said. He started to shake his head and regretted the motion instantly. “That and Margritte’s worth a helmet any day.”

“It’s a whole battalion,” Jenne explained quietly, his eyes scanning the Bever Road down which Command Central had warned that Barthe’s troops were coming. “All but the artillery—that’s back in Dimo, but it’ll range here easy enough. Brought in anti-tank battery and a couple calliopes, though.”

“Slide us up ahead of Michael First,” Pritchard ordered his driver. As The Plow shuddered, then spun on its axis, the captain dropped his seat into the turret to use the vision blocks. He heard Jenne’s seat whirr down beside him and the cupola hatch snick closed. In front of Pritchard’s knees, pale in the instrument lights, Margritte DiManzo sat still and open-eyed at her communications console.

“Little friendlies,” Pritchard called through his loudspeakers to the ten infantrymen, “find yourselves a quiet alley and hope nothing happens. The Lord help you if you fire a shot without me ordering it.” The Lord help us all, Pritchard thought to himself.

Ahead of the command vehicle, the beetle shapes of First Platoon began to shift position. “Michael First,” Pritchard ordered sharply, “get back as you were. We’re not going to engage Barthe, we’re going to meet him.” Maybe.

Kowie slid them alongside, then a little forward of the point vehicle of the defensive lozenge. They set down. All of the tanks were buttoned up, save for the hatch over Pritchard’s head. The central vision block was a meter by 30 cm panel. It could be set for anything from a 360° view of the tank’s surroundings to a one-to-one image of an object a kilometer away. Pritchard focused and ran the gain to ten magnifications, then thirty. At the higher power, motion curling along the snow-smoothed grainfields between Haacin and its mine resolved into men. Barthe’s troops were clad in sooty-white coveralls and battle armor. The leading elements were hunched low on the meager platforms of their skimmers. Magnification and the augmented light made the skittering images grainy, but the tanker’s practiced eye caught the tubes of rocket launchers clipped to every one of the skimmers. The skirmish line swelled at two points where self-propelled guns were strung like beads on the cord of men: anti-tank weapons, 50 mm powerguns firing high-intensity charges. They were supposed to be able to burn through the heaviest armor. Barthe’s boys had come loaded for bear; oh yes. They thought they knew just what they were going up against. Well, the Slammers weren’t going to show them they were wrong. Tonight.

“Running lights, everybody,” Pritchard ordered. Then, taking a deep breath, he touched the lift on his seat and raised himself head and shoulders back into the chill night air. There was a hand light clipped to Pritchard’s jacket. He snapped it on, aiming the beam down onto the turret top so that the burnished metal splashed diffused radiance up over him. It bathed his torso and face plainly for the oncoming infantry. Through the open hatch, Pritchard could hear Rob cursing. Just possibly Margritte was mumbling a prayer.

“Batteries at Dimo and Harfleur in Sector One have received fire orders and are waiting for a signal to execute,” the implant grated. “If Barthe opens fire, Command Central will not, repeat, negative, use Michael First or Michael One to knock down the shells. Your guns will be clear for action, Michael One.”

Pritchard grinned starkly. His face would not have been pleasant even if livid bruises were not covering almost all of it. The Slammers’ central fire direction computer used radar and satellite reconnaissance to track shells in flight. Then the computer took control of any of the Regiment’s vehicle-mounted powerguns and swung them onto the target. Central’s message notified Pritchard that he would have full control of his weapons at all times, while guns tens or hundreds of kilometers away kept his force clear of artillery fire.

Margritte had blocked most of the commo traffic, Pritchard realized. She had let through only this message that was crucial to what they were about to do. A good commo tech; a very good person indeed.

The skirmish line grounded. The nearest infantrymen were within fifty meters of the tanks and their fellows spread off into the night like lethal wings. Barthe’s men rolled off their skimmers and lay prone. Pritchard began to relax when he noticed that their rocket launchers were still aboard the skimmers. The anti-tank weapons were in instant reach, but at least they were not being leveled for an immediate salvo. Barthe didn’t want to fight the Slammers. His targets were the Dutch civilians, just as Mayor van Oosten had suggested.

An air cushion jeep with a driver and two officers aboard drew close. It hissed slowly through the line of infantry, then stopped nearly touching the command vehicle’s bow armor. One of the officers dismounted. He was a tall man who was probably very thin when he was not wearing insulated coveralls and battle armor. He raised his face to Pritchard atop the high curve of the blower, sweeping up his reflective face shield as he did so. He was Lt. Col. Benoit, commander of the French mercenaries in Sector Two; a clean-shaven man with sharp features and a splash of gray hair displaced across his forehead by his helmet. Benoit grinned and waved at the muzzle of the 200 mm powergun pointed at him. Nobody had ever said Barthe’s chief subordinate was a coward.

Pritchard climbed out of the turret to the deck, then slid down the bow slope to the ground. Benoit was several inches taller than the tanker, with a force of personality which was daunting in a way that height alone could never be. It didn’t matter to Pritchard. He worked with tanks and with Col. Hammer; nothing else was going to face down a man who was accustomed to those.

“Sgt. Major Oberlie reported how well and…firmly you handled their little affair, Captain,” Benoit said, extending his hand to Pritchard. “I’ll admit that I was a little concerned that I would have to rescue my men myself.”

“Hammer’s Slammers can be depended on to keep their contracts,” the tanker replied, smiling with false warmth. “I told these squareheads that any civilian caught with a powergun was going to have to answer to me for it. Then we made sure nobody thinks we were kidding.”

Benoit chuckled. Little puffs of vapor spurted from his mouth with the sounds. “You’ve been sent to the Gröningen Academy, have you not, Capt. Pritchard?” the older man asked. “You understand that I take an interest in my opposite numbers in this sector.”

Pritchard nodded. “The Old Man picked me for the two year crash course on Friesland, yeah. Now and again he sends non-coms he wants to promote.”

“But you’re not a Frisian, though you have Frisian military training,” the other mercenary continued, nodding to himself. “As you know, Captain, promotion in some infantry regiments comes much faster than it does in the…Slammers. If you feel a desire to speak to Col. Barthe some time in the future, I assure you this evening’s business will not be forgotten.”

“Just doing my job, Colonel,” Pritchard simpered. Did Benoit think a job offer would make a traitor of him? Perhaps. Hammer had bought Barthe’s plans for very little, considering their military worth. “Enforcing the contract, just like you’d have done if things were the other way around.”

Benoit chuckled again and stepped back aboard his jeep. “Until we meet again, Capt. Pritchard,” he said. “For the moment, I think we’ll just proceed on into Portela. That’s permissible under the contract, of course.”

“Swing wide around Haacin, will you?” Pritchard called back. “The folks there’re pretty worked up. Nobody wants more trouble, do we?”

Benoit nodded. As his jeep lifted, he spoke into his helmet communicator. The skirmish company rose awkwardly and set off in a counterclockwise circuit of Haacin. Behind them, in a column re-formed from their support positions at the base of the tailings heap, came the truck-mounted men of the other three companies. Pritchard stood and watched until the last of them whined past.

Air stirred by the tank’s idling fans leaked out under the skirts. The jets formed tiny deltas of the snow which winked as Pritchard’s feet caused eddy currents. In their cold precision, the tanker recalled Col. Benoit’s grin.

“Command Central,” Pritchard said as he climbed his blower, “Michael One. Everything’s smooth here. Over.” Then, “Sigma One, this is Michael One. I’ll be back as quick as fans’ll move me, so if you have anything to say we can discuss it then.” Pritchard knew that Capt. Riis must have been burning the net up, trying to raise him for a report or to make demands. It wasn’t fair to make Margritte hold the bag now that Pritchard himself was free to respond to the sector chief; but neither did the Dunstan tanker have the energy to argue with Riis just at the moment. Already this night he’d faced death and Col. Benoit. Riis could wait another ten minutes.

* * *

THE PLOW’S ARMOR was a tight fit for its crew, the radios, and the central bulk of the main gun with its feed mechanism. The command vehicle rode glass-smooth over the frozen roadway, with none of the jouncing that a rougher surface might bring even through the air cushion. Margritte faced Pritchard over her console, her seat a meter lower than his so that she appeared a suppliant. Her short hair was the lustrous purple-black of a grackle’s throat in sunlight. Hidden illumination from the instruments brought her face to life.

“Gee, Captain,” Jenne was saying at Pritchard’s side, “I wish you’d a let me pick up that squarehead’s rifle. I know those groundpounders. They’re just as apt as not to claim the kill credit themselves, and if I can’t prove I stepped on the body they might get away with it. I remember on Paradise, me and Piet de Hagen—he was left wing gunner, I was right—both shot at a partisan. And then damned if Central didn’t decide the slope had blown herself up with a hand grenade after we’d wounded her. So neither of us got the credit. You’d think—”

“Lord’s blood, Sergeant,” Pritchard snarled, “are you so damned proud of killing one of the poor bastards who hired us to protect them?”

Jenne said nothing. Pritchard shrank up inside, realizing what he had said and unable to take the words back. “Oh, Lord, Rob,” he said without looking up, “I’m sorry. It…I’m shook, that’s all.”

After a brief silence, the blond sergeant laughed. “Never been shot in the head myself, Captain, but I can see it might shake a fellow, yeah.” Jenne let the whine of the fans stand for a moment as the only further comment while he decided whether he would go on. Then he said, “Captain, for a week after I first saw action I meant to get out of the Slammers, even if I had to sweep floors on Curwin for the rest of my life. Finally I decided I’d stick it. I didn’t like the…rules of the game, but I could learn to play by them.

“And I did. And one rule is that you get to be as good as you can at killing the people Col. Hammer wants killed. Yeah, I’m proud about that one just now. It was a tough snap shot and I made it. I don’t care why we’re on Kobold or who brought us here. But I know I’m supposed to kill anybody who shoots at us, and I will.”

“Well, I’m glad you did,” Pritchard said evenly as he looked the sergeant in the eyes. “You pretty well saved things from getting out of hand by the way you reacted.”

As if he had not heard his captain, Jenne went on, “I was afraid if I stayed in the Slammers I’d turn into an animal, like the dogs we trained back home to kill rats in the quarries. And I was right. But it’s the way I am now, so I don’t seem to mind.”

“You do care about those villagers, don’t you?” Margritte asked Pritchard unexpectedly.

The captain looked down and found her eyes on him. They were the rich powder-blue of chicory flowers. “You’re probably the only person in the Regiment who thinks that,” he said bitterly. “Except for me. And maybe Col. Hammer….”

Margritte smiled, a quick flash and as quickly gone. “There’re rule-book soldiers in the Slammers,” she said, “captains who’d never believe Barthe was passing arms to the Auroran settlements since he’d signed a contract that said he wouldn’t. You aren’t that kind. And the Lord knows Col. Hammer isn’t, and he’s backing you. I’ve been around you too long, Danny, to believe you like what you see the French doing.”

Pritchard shrugged. His whole face was stiff with bruises and the drugs Margritte had injected to control them. If he’d locked the helmet’s chin strap, the bullet’s impact would have broken his neck even though the lead itself did not penetrate. “No, I don’t like it,” the brown-haired captain said. “It reminds me too much of the way the Combine kept us so poor on Dunstan that a thousand of us signed on for birdseed to fight off-planet. Just because it was off-planet. And if Kobold only gets cop from the worlds who settled her, then the French skim the best of that…. Sure, I’ll tell the Lord I feel sorry for the Dutch here.”

Pritchard held the commo tech’s eyes with his own as he continued, “But it’s just like Rob said, Margritte: I’ll do my job, no matter who gets hurt. We can’t do a thing to Barthe or the French until they step over the line in a really obvious way. That’ll mean a lot of people get hurt too. But that’s what I’m waiting for.”

Margritte reached up and touched Pritchard’s hand where it rested on his knee. “You’ll do something when you can,” she said quietly.

He turned his palm up so that he could grasp the woman’s fingers. What if she knew he was planning an incident, not just waiting for one? “I’ll do something, yeah,” he said. “But it’s going to be too late for an awful lot of people.”

KOWIE KEPT THE Plow at cruising speed until they were actually in the yard of the command post. Then he cocked the fan shafts forward, lifting the bow and bringing the tank’s mass around in a curve that killed its velocity and blasted an arc of snow against the building. Someone inside had started to unlatch the door as they heard the vehicle approach. The air spilling from the tank’s skirts flung the panel against the inner wall and skidded the man within on his back.

The man was Capt. Riis, Pritchard noted without surprise. Well, the incident wouldn’t make the infantry captain any angrier than the rest of the evening had made him already.

Riis had regained his feet by the time Pritchard could jump from the deck of his blower to the fan-cleared ground in front of the building. The Frisian’s normally pale face was livid now with rage. He was of the same somatotype as Lt. Col. Benoit, his French counterpart in the sector: tall, thin, and proudly erect. Despite the fact that Riis was only 27, he was Pritchard’s senior in grade by two years. He had kept the rank he held in Friesland’s regular army when Col. Hammer recruited him. Many of the Slammers were like Riis, Frisian soldiers who had transferred for the action and pay of a fighting regiment in which their training would be appreciated.

“You cowardly filth!” the infantryman hissed as Pritchard approached. A squad in battle gear stood within the orderly room beyond Riis. He pursed his fine lips to spit.

“Hey Captain!” Rob Jenne called. Riis looked up. Pritchard turned, surprised that the big tank commander was not right on his heels. Jenne still smiled from The Plow’s cupola. He waved at the officers with his left hand. His right was on the butterfly trigger of the tribarrel.

The threat, unspoken as it was, made a professional of Riis again. “Come on into my office,” he muttered to the tank captain, turning his back on the armored vehicle as if it were only a part of the landscape.

The infantrymen inside parted to pass the captains. Sally Schilling was there. Her eyes were as hard as her porcelain armor as they raked over Pritchard. That didn’t matter, he lied to himself tiredly.

Riis’ office was at the top of the stairs, a narrow cubicle which had once been a child’s bedroom. The sloping roof pressed in on the occupants, though a dormer window brightened the room during daylight. One wall was decorated with a regimental battle flag—not Hammer’s rampant lion but a pattern of seven stars on a white field. It had probably come from the unit in which Riis had served on Friesland. Over the door hung another souvenir, a big-bore musket of local manufacture. Riis threw himself into the padded chair behind his desk. “Those bastards were carrying powerguns to Portela!” he snarled at Pritchard.

The tanker nodded. He was leaning with his right shoulder against the door jamb. “That’s what the folks at Haacin thought,” he agreed. “If they’ll put in a complaint with the Bonding Authority, I’ll testify to what I saw.”

“Testify, testify!” Riis shouted. “We’re not lawyers, we’re soldiers! You should’ve seized the trucks right then and—”

“No I should not have, Captain!” Pritchard shouted back, holding up a mirror to Riis’ anger. “Because if I had, Barthe would’ve complained to the Authority himself, and we’d at least’ve been fined. At least! The contract says the Slammers’ll cooperate with the other three units in keeping peace on Kobold. Just because we suspect Barthe is violating the contract doesn’t give us a right to violate it ourselves. Especially in a way any simpleton can see is a violation.”

“If Barthe can get away with it, we can,” Riis insisted, but he settled back in his chair. He was physically bigger than Pritchard, but the tanker had spent half his life with the Slammers. Years like those mark men; death is never very far behind their eyes.

“I don’t think Barthe can get away with it,” Pritchard lied quietly, remembering Hammer’s advice on how to handle Riis and calm the Frisian without telling him the truth. Barthe’s officers had been in on his plans; and one of them had talked. Any regiment might have one traitor.

The tanker lifted down the musket on the wall behind him and began turning it in his fingers. “If the Dutch settlers can prove to the Authority that Barthe’s been passing out powerguns to the French,” the tanker mused aloud, “well, they’re responsible for half Barthe’s pay, remember. It’s about as bad a violation as you’ll find. The Authority’ll forfeit his whole bond and pay it over to whoever they decide the injured parties are. That’s about three years’ gross earnings for Barthe, I’d judge—he won’t be able to replace it. And without a bond posted, well, he may get jobs, but they’ll be the kind nobody else’d touch for the risk and the pay. His best troops’ll sign on with other people. In a year or so, Barthe won’t have a regiment anymore.”

“He’s willing to take the chance,” said Riis.

“Col. Hammer isn’t!” Pritchard blazed back.

“You don’t know that. It isn’t the sort of thing the colonel could say—”

“Say?” Pritchard shouted. He waved the musket at Riis. Its breech was triple-strapped to take the shock of the industrial explosive it used for propellant. Clumsy and large, it was the best that could be produced on a mining colony whose home worlds had forbidden local manufacturing. “Say? I bet my life against one of these tonight that the colonel wanted us to obey the contract. Do you have the guts to ask him flat out if he wants us to run guns to the Dutch?”

“I don’t think that would be proper, Captain,” said Riis coldly as he stood up again.

“Then try not to ‘think it proper’ to go do some bloody stupid stunt on your own—sir,” Pritchard retorted. So much for good intentions. Hammer—and Pritchard—had expected Riis’ support of the Dutch civilians. They had even planned on it. But the man seemed to have lost all his common sense. Pritchard laid the musket on the desk because his hands were trembling too badly to hang it back on the hooks.

“If it weren’t for you, Captain,” Riis said, “there’s not a Slammer in this sector who’d object to our helping the only decent people on this planet the way we ought to. You’ve made your decision, and it sickens me. But I’ve made decisions too.”

Pritchard went out without being dismissed. He blundered into the jamb, but he did not try to slam the door. That would have been petty, and there was nothing petty in the tanker’s rage.

Blank-faced, he clumped down the stairs. His bunk was in a parlor which had its own door to the outside. Pritchard’s crew was still in The Plow. There they had listened intently to his half of the argument with Riis, transmitted by the implant. If Pritchard had called for help, Kowie would have sent the command vehicle through the front wall buttoned up, with Jenne ready to shoot if he had to, to rescue his CO. A tank looks huge when seen close-up. It is all howling steel and iridium, with black muzzles ready to spew death across a planet. On a battlefield, when the sky is a thousand shrieking colors no god ever made and the earth beneath trembles and gouts in sudden mountains, a tank is a small world indeed for its crew. Their loyalties are to nearer things than an abstraction like “The Regiment.”

Besides, tankers and infantrymen have never gotten along well together.

No one was in the orderly room except two radiomen. They kept their backs to the stairs. Pritchard glanced at them, then unlatched his door. The room was dark, as he had left it, but there was a presence. Pritchard said, “Sal—” as he stepped within and the club knocked him forward into the arms of the man waiting to catch his body.

The first thing Pritchard thought as his mind slipped toward oblivion was that the cloth rubbing his face was homespun, not the hard synthetic from which uniforms were made. The last thing Pritchard thought was that there could have been no civilians within the headquarters perimeter unless the guards had allowed them; and that Lt. Schilling was officer of the guard tonight.

PRITCHARD COULD NOT be quite certain when he regained consciousness. A heavy felt rug covered and hid his trussed body on the floor of a clattering surface vehicle. He had no memory of being carried to the truck, though presumably it had been parked some distance from the command post. Riis and his confederates would not have been so open as to have civilians drive to the door to take a kidnapped officer, even if Pritchard’s crew could have been expected to ignore the breach of security.

Kidnapped. Not for later murder, or he would already be dead instead of smothering under the musty rug. Thick as it was, the rug was still inadequate to keep the cold from his shivering body. The only lights Pritchard could see were the washings of icy color from the night’s doubled shock to his skull.

That bone-deep ache reminded Pritchard of the transceiver implanted in his mastoid. He said in a husky whisper which he hoped would not penetrate the rug, “Michael One to any unit, any unit at all. Come in please, any Slammer.”

Nothing. Well, no surprise. The implant had an effective range of less than twenty meters, enough for relaying to and from a base unit, but unlikely to be useful in Kobold’s empty darkness. Of course, if the truck happened to be passing one of M Company’s night defensive positions…. “Michael One to any unit,” the tanker repeated more urgently.

A boot slammed him in the ribs. A voice in guttural Dutch snarled, “Shut up, you, or you get what you gave Henrik.”

So he’d been shopped to the Dutch, not that there had been much question about it. And not that he might not have been safer in French hands, the way everybody on this cursed planet thought he was a traitor to his real employers. Well, it wasn’t fair; but Danny Pritchard had grown up a farmer, and no farmer is ever tricked into believing that life is fair.

The truck finally jolted to a stop. Gloved hands jerked the cover from Pritchard’s eyes. He was not surprised to recognize the concrete angles of Haacin as men passed him hand to hand into a cellar. The attempt to hijack Barthe’s powerguns had been an accident, an opportunity seized; but the crew which had kidnapped Pritchard must have been in position before the call from S-39 had intervened.

“Is this wise?” Pritchard heard someone demand from the background. “If they begin searching, surely they’ll begin in Haacin.”

The two men at the bottom of the cellar stairs took Pritchard’s shoulders and ankles to carry him to a spring cot. It had no mattress. The man at his feet called, “There won’t be a search, they don’t have enough men. Besides, the beast’ll be blamed—as they should be for so many things. If Pauli won’t let us kill the turncoat, then we’ll all have to stand the extra risk of him living.”

“You talk too much,” Mayor van Oosten muttered as he dropped Pritchard’s shoulders on the bunk. Many civilians had followed the captive into the cellar. The last of them swung the door closed. It lay almost horizontal to the ground. When it slammed, dust sprang from the ceiling. Someone switched on a dim incandescent light. The scores of men and women in the storage room were as hard and fell as the bare walls. There were three windows at street level, high on the wall. Slotted shutters blocked most of their dusty glass.

“Get some heat in this hole or you may as well cut my throat,” Pritchard grumbled.

A woman with a musket cursed and spat in his face. The man be