Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
Copyright ©1987 by William C. Dietz
The incredible heat of Freehold's sun beat down on the little pre-fab hut, turning its interior into an oven. In spite of the air conditioning, sweat poured off Bram's face as he bent over the open connector box. His blunt, capable fingers made the last connection and he straightened with a groan. His short, stocky body ached from hours of bending over.
The problem was sand. The problem was always sand. Sand in the windings, sand in the gears and, this time, in the connector box. Somehow the damned stuff managed to penetrate the triple-sealed box and pile up till it shorted out half the weather hut's instrumentation. And on Freehold, weather reports were very important indeed.
Bram picked up the tool pak, slipped his arms through the straps, and pulled it up onto his back. He snapped on his polarized goggles, sealed his sand suit, checked the action on his autorifle, and hit the release switch by the door. It opened, and he stepped out into the blowing sand, allowing the door to hiss shut behind him. Cursing steadily, Bram fought his way up the side of the first dune. Halfway up his legs were already tired. He knew it could be far worse, however. In fact, it was a nice day by local standards. Wind a steady fifteen miles an hour, with gusts up to thirty, temperature a cool hundred and five in the shade, if you could find any shade.
He felt the air conditioning in his sand suit shift up a notch as he struggled the last few steps to the crest of the dune. He paused there for a moment to catch his breath and wonder why he'd been stupid enough to come on foot. “Gotta stay in shape,” he'd told his wife. Screw that. Next time he'd ride. He turned, eyes automatically sweeping the horizon. Sand storms, the huge tuskers called Sandies, lots of things could catch the unwary on Freehold. At first he thought it might be a mirage, a common enough phenomenon on Freehold, but deep down he knew it wasn't. The smoke boiling up to be whipped away by the wind was all too real, and the characteristic shimmer of the settlement's force field had disappeared. Something was very wrong.
Bram began to run, leaping and jumping down the side of one dune and then struggling up the next. His feet sank into the soft sand, his breath came in short gasps, and cold lead filled his stomach. With heart pounding, he started up the final slope toward the distant point where sand met sky.
Like all the working settlements on Freehold, Sweet Hole occupied a large circular depression below the planet's average surface. About ten miles across, the depression—or “hole"—was almost split in two by a huge subterranean river that surfaced at the south end of the crater and disappeared underground again at the north end. Surrounding the depression on all sides was a steep embankment of wind-driven sand. Bram got down and crawled the last few feet of the embankment, careful not to break the skyline. Sergeant Sanderson, the regimental drill instructor back on his native New Britain, would have been proud of him. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear Sanderson screaming, “Keep it down, Bram, or somebody'll blow it off!”
He kept it down as he neared the edge of the embankment and the wind brought him the stench of burning plastic and rubber. Smoke rolled up to be caught by the wind and jerked away. The muffled sound of gunfire confirmed his worst fears. Wriggling closer to the edge of the crater, he unclipped the binocam from its place on his chest and pressed the viewfinder to his eyes. Careful to shield the powerful lenses from any possibility of reflection, he pressed the zoom control—and flinched as a terrible scene of death and carnage leaped up to meet him. While part of his mind screamed, another part, carefully trained many years before, remembered to flick on the binocam's memory. It would tape everything he saw.
Sweeping the binocam from right to left, he saw that the battle was almost over. The battered black shape of the pirate shuttle dominated the scene, crouched in the middle of the settlement's main plaza like some sort of evil god, dispatching armor-clad demons to do its bidding. A veil of vapor and smoke swirled around it. Pirates darted in and out of the smoke on nameless errands, while others carted loot into the shuttle, and a handful continued to fire at the few remaining defenders.
Bram's heart pounded in his chest as the binocam found and held a view of the last of his friends and neighbors. They were fighting from behind a hastily erected barricade. He gagged, and almost turned away, when he saw that the barricade was made of bodies—bodies who had once been friends. But he forced himself to look, to bear witness to the horror below, knowing the binocam would preserve what he saw, hoping that with this record others could avoid the same fate.
So he watched. He watched as seventy-two-year-old Slim Hana took two slugs in the chest, and still managed to bury his knife in a pirate throat, slipping the blade in just above the man's armor. He watched the ten-year-old Barry twins aim and fire a gun twice their size, before an energy beam cut them down. Tears ran down his cheeks as he watched the pirates jump the barricade and prepare to rape his wife and daughter.
The beep from the binocam signalled maximum storage. Quickly removing his emergency locator beacon from a pocket, he turned it on, shoved it and the binocam into a weatherproof bag, and pushed it deep into the sand. When they came, they'd find it. Then he stood, careless of the skyline, and shrugged off the tool pak. Assuming the stance of a trained marksman, he brought the auto rifle up to his shoulder, blinked his eyes clear of tears, and carefully sighted in. With infinite care, he shot his daughter and then his wife. Then, sweeping his weapon in a careful arc, he methodically picked off the half-naked pirates who'd surrounded them. Bram paused for a moment to make sure he'd killed them all, uttered a long primeval scream of rage, and ran down the embankment, his weapon chattering in his hands, waiting for the inevitable impact.
Stell stood by the window, hands clasped behind his back, a long, lean silhouette against the soft light of Arno's distant sun. His green eyes prowled restlessly over the makeshift drill ground below. It wasn't regulation by any means. In fact, until recently it had served as a parking lot for hover trucks. Of course, the troops marching back and forth across it couldn't care less. They hated marching no matter where they did it. The few veterans were bored and slightly insulted, and the raw recruits surrounding them were scared and all left feet. But they must learn to work together, to function as a team, to follow orders without question. Marching had been used to teach those things for thousands of years.
Stell ran a hand over his smooth scalp, still shaved clean in the manner of the elite Star Guard. As he watched the orderly ebb and flow of troops below, it occurred to him that the basics of war were eternal. The passage of time might change the tools of war, but not the principles by which it was fought, or the reasons behind it. Greed, hate, a lust for power; together, they had always guaranteed soldiers something to fight and die for.
“To serve with honor among the stars.” That was the motto of the Marine Corps, the reason he'd gone to the Academy, and his father before him. For years he'd believed it and lived it. Until the day they decided that “honor” had grown too expensive. Let the frontier defend itself. Let the Il Ronn and pirates keep each other in check. And let us have lower taxes. That's what those toward the center of the empire had decided. Stell's brigade was among those chosen for deactivation.
He and the two thousand other members of the brigade were offered a choice: Honorable discharge and free passage to their home planet, or continued service in an authorized mercenary army. “Authorized” meant agreement in advance to fight only those wars approved by the Imperial government. So if they agreed to become mercenaries, the Emperor would continue to benefit from, if not directly control, their activities. And all for free.
In any case, the brigade had put it to a vote. Almost everybody considered going home, but they'd been gone a long time, they didn't have civilian skills, and besides, for most of them the brigade
home. So most stayed, and Stell was no exception. Now they continued to fight and die, not for freedom or honor, but for money. And Stell didn't like it. Three months had passed since the final battle of New Covenant. It was a dirty little religious war between two rival factions of what had been a single church. The brigade was brought in by the weaker side. They managed to win the war, but at a terrible price. In the end, after the disastrous and unnecessary final battle caused by the incompetence of their clients, they'd used hand lasers to carve more than five hundred graves into the rocky ground, including one for Colonel “Bull” Strom, their commanding officer.
As a result, Mark Stell rose from Major to Colonel, from Executive Officer to Commanding Officer, and from enforcer of policy to architect of it. And the worst part was that he liked it. He liked the freedom, the responsibility, and the challenge of command. And yes, he liked the power, too. All of which made him feel guilty as hell sometimes. Bull Strom had been like his father, brother and best friend all rolled into one. But Bull had been wrong, damn it! Dead wrong. He couldn't see the future the way it must inevitably be. Couldn't understand things had changed. Couldn't see that over time his beloved brigade was dying what the ancient Chinese had called “The Death Of A Thousand Cuts.” As each body was lowered into blood-soaked soil, a part of the brigade died too. And when the dying was done, they'd be asked to move along, to do it all over again, until finally none of them survived. And as they were replaced, one person at a time, the brigade was gradually changing and would eventually become something Strom wouldn't have recognized, much less loved. As Stell watched the raw recruits wheel, turn, and crash into each other, he knew that time was growing closer with each passing day. It had to be stopped ... but how?
“It's time, sir.” The voice was a familiar basso, and Stell turned with a smile.
“Good to see you, Zack. What's the body armor for? We're going to dinner, not war.” Although, where clients are concerned, one often precedes the other, he thought to himself. Sergeant Major Zachariah Como made an impressive sight. Standing a full seven feet tall, his black skin was only a shade lighter than the dull matte finish on his body armor. Broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, he looked like a recruiting poster and he knew it. Although his brown eyes were filled with intelligence and humor, there was also a natural wariness there, a detachment, past which few were ever allowed. Stell was one of those few. The Sergeant Major wore two handguns at his waist and cradled a grenade launcher in his arms. Como replied with a familiarity reserved for times when they were alone. “You're a fine one to talk about appearances, Colonel; when's the last time you changed uniforms, anyway?” He indicated Stell's rumpled clothes with a grin.
Stell looked down at his uniform sheepishly. “You're right, Zack. It wouldn't do to let clients see what a slob I really am. But isn't body armor a bit much?” He began to strip off his dirty clothes.
Como snorted in reply. “Have you been outside since we landed? Hell, no. That might involve taking some time off—something you fear like death itself, probably because you don't know how to have a good time. But if you'd been out there you'd know why I'm wearing armor.”
Stell knew Como was right. He disliked free time because he didn't know what to do with it. “Trouble?” he asked, stepping into a pair of gray dress trousers.
“More like total insanity,” the other man replied, shaking his head in wonderment. “They call it the Free Zone. I call it a free-for-all. We've been in some pretty wild places over the years, but this takes the cake. I've got a full section waiting outside to escort us to dinner, and I'm not sure it's enough. But I'm afraid to weaken the perimeter by taking more, especially with so many greenies in the ranks. So take my advice and suit up. Otherwise some Zonie may have you for dinner!” With a grin and a wave he was gone, leaving Stell to finish dressing.
As he buttoned the last gold button on the bright red coat, Stell wondered about medals, and then decided against them. They belonged to the past. He shrugged on the harness and tucked the slug gun into the holster under his left arm. If Zack was worried, there was good reason. And although he hadn't been outside, he knew what the Sergeant Major was talking about. As usual, their last clients had been eager to get rid of them once victory was assured. No one wants a mercenary army sitting around while they go through the delicate process of forming a new government. After all, the power the brigade granted, it could also take away.