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Because he had never been in Prime before Kana Karr,Arch Swordsman, Third Class, would have liked nothingbetter than to brace his lanky length against the wall ofthe airport and stare up at those towers thrusting intothe steely blue of the morning sky. But to do that wasto betray himself as a greenie, so he had to be satisfiedwith glances skyward taking in as much of theawesome sight as he could without becoming conspicuous.More than ever he resented the fate which haddelivered him at Combatant Headquarters a whole monthlater than his recruit class, so that he would probablybe the only newcomer among those awaiting assignmentin the Hiring Hall.
Actually to be at Prime itself was exciting. This wasthe goal toward which ten years of intensive training hadpointed him. He put down his war bag and rubbed hisdamp hands surreptitiously against his tight breeches;though it was a crisp early spring day he was sweating.The stiff collar of his new green-gray tunic sawed at histhroat and the cheek wings of his dress helmet chafedhis jaws. All his accouterments weighed more than theyever had before.
He was acutely conscious of the bare state of the beltscrossing his shoulders, of the fact that his helmet wasstill crestless. The men who had shared the shuttle withhim, scintillated with the gemmed loot of scores ofsuccessful missions, veterans every one of them.
Wellto achieve that status was only a matter of time,he repeated silently once more. Every oneof theseemblazoned figures now passing had stood there once,just as bare of insignia, probably just as uncertain insideas he now was
Kana's attention was caught by another color, blazinglyalive among the familiar waves of green-gray and silver.As his lips made a narrow line, his blue eyes, so startlinglyvivid in his dark face, chilled.
A surface mobile had drawn up before the entrance ofthe very building to which he had been directed. Andclimbing out of it was a squat man swathed in a brilliantscarlet cloak, behind him two others in black andwhite. As if their arrival had been signaled, the TerranCombatants on the steps melted to right and left, makinga wide path to the door.
But that was not in honor, Kana Karr reminded himselffiercely. Terrans on their home planet paid no deferenceto Galactic Agents, except in a style so exaggeratedas to underline their dislike. There would surely comea time when
His fists balled as he watched the red cloak and hisguardian Galactic Patrolmen vanish inside the Hiring Hall.Kana had never had direct contact with an Agent. TheX-Tees, the non-human Extra-Terrestrials, who had beenhis instructors after he had proved capable of absorbingX-Tee and Alien Liaison training, were a different classaltogether. Perhaps because they were non-human he hadnever really ranked them among those rulers of CentralControl who had generations earlier so blithely termedthe inhabitants of Sol's system "barbarians," not eligiblefor Galactic citizenship except within the narrow limitsthey defined.
He was conscious that not all his fellows were asresentful of that as he was. Most of his classmates, forexample, had been content enough to accept the futureso arbitrarily decided for them. Outright rebellion meantthe labor camps and no chance to ever go into space.Only a Combatant on military duty had the privilege ofvisiting the stars. And when Kana had learned that earlyin his career, he had set himself to acquire the shell ofa model Arch, discovering in X-Tee training enough solaceto aid his control of the seething hatred for the fact thathe was not allowed to range the stars as he willed.
The sharp note of a military whistle proclaiming thehour brought him back to earth and to the problem athand. He shouldered his war bag and climbed the stepsup which the Agent had gone a few moments before. Heleft his bag in the lockers by the door and took his placein the line of men winding into the inner hall.
The Mechs in their blue-gray coveralls and bubblehelmets outnumbered the Archs in his particular sectionof that creeping line. And the few Archs near him wereveterans. Consequently even when surrounded by his kindKana felt as isolated here as he had in the street.
"They're trying to keep the lid onbut Falfa refusedthat assignment for his Legion." The Mech to his left,a man in his thirties with ten enlistment notches on hisblade-of-honor, made no effort to keep his voice down.
"He'll face a board for refusing," returned his companiondubiously. "After all there's such a thing as a run of hardluck"
"Hard luck? Two different Legions don't return from thesame job and you talk about luck! I'd say that someinvestigating was called for. D'you know how manyLegions have been written off the rolls in the past fiveyearstwenty! Does that sound like bad luck?"
Kana almost echoed the other listener's gasp. TwentyLegions lost in battle over a period of five yearsthatwas pushing the luck theory too far. If the modern,expertly armed Legions which operated only on civilizedplanets had been so decimated, what of the Hordes thatserved on barbarian worlds? Had their "luck" been equallybad? No wonder there had been a lot of undercover talklately, comment that the price Central Control set onspacethe price that Terra had paid for almost threehundred yearswas too high.
The man before him moved suddenly and Kana hurriedto close the gap between them. They were at theenlistment barrier. Kana pulled at the lock on his armletto have it ready to hand to the Swordtan on dutythere. That strip of flexible metal, fed into the recordblock, would automatically flash on the assignment rollsall the necessary information concerning one Kana Karr,Australian-Malay-Hawaiian, age eighteen and four months,training: basic with X-Tee specialization, previous service:none. And once that went into Hiring there was no turningback. The Swordtan took the band, allowed it to rest onthe block for an instant, and handed it back with thelackluster boredom of one condemned to a routine job.
Within there were plenty of empty seatsMechs to theleft, Archs to the right. Kana slipped into the nearest seatand dared to stare about him. Facing the tiers of seatswas the assignment board, already blinking orange signalsand, although he knew his number could not possiblycome up yet, he felt he must watch that steadystream of calls. Most seemed to be for the Mechssometimesfour and five arose together and went throughthe door at the far end.
The ArchsKana leaned forward in his seat to countthe men on his side. At least twenty Swordsmen FirstClass, with even two Swordtans among them, were there.And fifty or more Second Class rankers. Buthis eyessought for other crestless helmetshe was the only ThirdClass man present. The recruits who had preceded himout of Training must have been hired before he came.Waitred light
Two S-2 men got up, settled their tunics with a twitchand adjusted their belts. But before they moved into theaisle there was an interruption. The board flashed whiteand then off entirely as a small party of men trampeddown to ascend two steps to the announcement platform.
A Combatant, lacking the crossed shoulder belts of afield man, but with four stars shining on the breast ofhis tunic, stepped out to face the murmuring Swordsmenand Mechneers. He was flanked by the red-cloaked GalacticAgent and the latter's Patrolmen. Kana identified the threeswiftlyhumanoid. The Agent was a Sarmak native, thePatrolmen from Nyoraithe length of their slender legsunmistakable.
"Combatants!" the Terran officer's parade ground trainedvoice snapped out, to be followed by instant silence."Certain recent events have made it necessary to makethis announcement. We have made a full investigationwiththe able assistance of Central Control facilitiesintothe trouble on Nevers. It is now certified that our defeatthere was the result of local circumstances. The rumorsconcerning this episode are not to be repeated by anyof the Corpsunder the rule of loyaltygeneral code."
What in Terra! Kana's amazement might not be openlyregistered on the masklike face presented him by the bloodof his Malay grandfather, but his mind raced. To makesuch a statement as that was simply asking for troubledidn'tthe officer realize that? The Galactic Agent's frownproved that he wasn't pleased. Trouble on Neversthiswas the first he'd heard of it. But he'd wager half hisfirst enlistment pay that within ten minutes every manin this hall would be trying to find out what were therumors being so vigorously denied. It would spread likeoil slick on a river.
The Agent stepped out, he appeared to be arguing withthe officer. But here he could only advisehe could notgive direct orders. And it was too late to stop the damagenow anyway. If he had made this move to allay fear,the Combatant officer had only given it fresh life.
With a decided shake of his head the officer startedback down the aisle, the three others having, perforce,to follow him. Once more the lights flickered on the board.But the hum of talk rose to a gale of sound as soonas the door closed behind the quartet.
Kana's attention went back to the board just in time.Three more veterans had arisen on his own side of thehall, and, trailing their numbers, came the familiar combinationhe had answered to for the past ten years, almostmore his name than the one his mixed island ancestryhad given him.
Once through the other door he slackened pace, keepingmodestly behind the rankers who had answered the samecall. Third Class was Third Class and ranked nobody ornothingexcept a cadet still in training. He was the lowestof the low and dared not presume to tread upon the heelsof the man who had just stepped onto that lift.
The other was an Afro-Arab by his featureswith maybea dash of European blood bequeathed by one of thehandful of refugees fleeing south during the nuclear wars.He was very tall, and the beardless, dark skin of his facewas seamed with an old scar. But the loot of manycampaigns blazed from his helmet and belts andKanasquinted against the light to be surethere were at leasthalf a dozen major notches on his rank sword, althoughhe could not be very far into his thirties.
They lined up in an upper hallway, the Archs who hadresponded to that last call. And the veterans presenteda brilliant array. Both Arch and Mech who served in thefield off Terra were accustomed to carry their personalsavings on their bodies. A successful mission meantanother jewel added to the belt, or inset in the helmet.A lean season and that could be sold for credits to tideits owner over. It was a simple form of security whichserved on any planet in the Galaxy.
It was two minutes after twelve before Kana came insidethe assignment officer's cubby. He was a badge Swordtan,with a plasta-flesh hand which explained his presentinactive status. Kana snapped to attention.
"Kana Karr, Swordsman, Third Class, first enlistment,sir," he identified himself.
"No experience"the plasta-flesh fingers beat an impatienttattoo on the desk top"but you have X-Tee training.How far did you go?"
"Fourth level, Alien contact, sir." Kana was a fractionproud of that. He had been the only one in his traininggroup to reach that level.
"Fourth level," the Swordtan repeated. From the tonehe was not impressed at all. "Well, that's something. We'rehiring for Yorke Horde. Police action on the planet Fronn.Usual rates. You embark for Secundus Base tonight, transshipfrom there to Fronn. Voyage about a month. Termof enlistmentduration of action. You may refusethisis a first choice." He repeated the last official formulawith the weary voice of one who has said it many timesbefore.
He was allowed two refusals, Kana knew, but to exercisethat privilege without good reason gave one a black mark.And police actionwhile it covered a multitude of differentforms of servicewas usually an excellent way toget experience.
"I accept assignment, sir!" He pulled off his armlet forthe second time and watched the Swordtan insert it inthe block before him, pressing the keys which would enteron that band the terms of his first tour of duty. Whenhe checked out at the end of the enlistment, a star wouldsignify satisfactory service.
"Ship raises from Dock Five at seventeen hours. Dismissed!"
Kana saluted and left. He was hungry. The transients'mess was open and being a combatant in service hewas entitled to order more than just basic rations. Buta dislike of spending pay he had not yet earned kepthim to the plain fare he was allowed as long as hewore the Arch tunic. He lingered over the food, listeningto the scraps of shop talk and rumor flying back andforth across the tables. As he had suspected theannouncement made in the hiring hall had given birthto some pretty wild stories.
"Lost fifty legions in five years" proclaimed oneMechtan. "They don't tell us the truth any more. I'veheard that Longmead and Groth refused assignments"
"The High Brass is getting rattled," commented aSwordtan. "Did you see old Poalkan giving us the fishyeye? He'd like to bring the Patrol in and mop up. Tellyou what we ought to doplanet for some quiet in-fightingat a place I could name. That might help"
There was a moment of silence. The speaker did notneed to name his goal. All mankind's festering resentmentagainst Central Control lay behind that outburst.
Kana could stall no longer. He left the hum of the messhall. Yorke Horde was a small outfit. Fitch Yorke, itsBlademaster, was young. He'd only had a command forabout four years. But sometimes under young commandersyou had better advancement. Fronnthat was a worldunknown to Kana. But the answer to his ignorance waseasy to find. He made his way through the corridors toa quiet room with a row of booths lining one wall. Atthe back of the chamber was a control board with banksof buttons. He pressed the proper combination of thoseand waited for the record-pak.
The roll of wire was a very thin one. Not much knownof Fronn. He ducked into the nearest booth, inserted thewire in the machine there, and put aside his helmet toadjust the impression band on his temples. A second laterhe drifted off to sleep, the information in the pak beingfed to his memory cells.
It was a quarter of an hour later when he roused. Sothat was Fronnnot a particularly inviting world. And thepak had only sketched in meager details. But he nowpossessed all the knowledge the archives listed.
Kana sighed ruefullythat climate meant a tour in thepressure chamber during the voyage. The assignment officerhad not mentioned that. Pressure chamber and wateracclimation both. Serve him right for not asking morequestions before he signed. He only hoped that he wasn'tgoing to be sick for the whole trip.
When he went up to return the pak he met a Mechneerstanding by the selectoran impatient Mech whistlingtunelessly between his teeth, playing with the buckle ofhis blaster belt. He was only slightly older than Kana buthe carried himself with the arrogant assurance of a manwho had made at least two missions, an arrogance fewreal veterans displayed.
Kana glanced back at the booths. He had been the onlyoccupant, so what was the Mech waiting there for? Hedropped the pak on the return belt, but, as he reachedthe door, its polished surface reflected a strange sight.The Mech had scooped up the pak on Fronn before itvanished into the bin.
Fronn was a primitive world, a class five planet. AnyCombatant force employed there must be, by CentralControl regulations, an Arch Horde, trained and conditionedfor so-called hand-to-hand fighting, their most modernweapon a stat-rifle. No mechanized unit would be sentto Fronn where their blasters, crawlers, spouters wouldbe outlawed. So why should a Mech be interested inlearning about that world?
Idle curiosity about planets on which one could notserve was not indulged among Combatants. It was aboutall one could do to absorb the information one couldactually use.
Now Kana wished that he had had a closer look atthe thin face which had been so shadowed by the bubblehelmet. Puzzled and somewhat disturbed he went on tothe commissary to lay in the personal supplies his newknowledge of Fronn suggested it wise to buy.
Wistfully he regarded and then refused a sleeping bagof Uzakian spider silk lined with worstle temperature moss.And the gauntlets of karab skin which the supply corpsmantried to sell him were as quickly pushed aside. Suchluxuries were for the veteran with enough treasure ridinghis belt to afford a buying spree. Kana must thriftily settlefor a second-hand Cambra baga short jacket of sastihide, fur-lined and with a parka hood and gloves attached,and some odd medicament and toilet articles, in all avery modest outfit which could easily be added to thecontents of his war bag. And when he settled the billhe still had left four credits of his muster allowance.
The corpsman deftly rolled his purchases into a bundle."Looks like you're heading to some cold place, fella," hecommented.
The man grinned. "Never heard of the place. Back ofnowheresounds like to me. Look out they don't sticka spear in you from behind some bush. Those nowhereguys play rough. But then you guys do too, don't you?"He stared knowingly at Kana's Arch uniform. "Yessir, kindarough, slugging it out the way you do. Me, I'd ratherhave me a blaster and be a Mech"
"Then you'd face another fighter with a blaster of hisown," Kana pointed out as he reached for the bundle.
"Have it your own way, fella." The corpsman lostinterest as a be-jeweled veteran approached.
Kana recognized in the newcomer the man who hadpreceded him to the assignment officer's cubby. Was he,too, bound for Yorke Horde and Fronn? When the spidersilk sleeping bag was slapped down on the counterfor his inspection, and other supplies similar to Kana'smodest selection piled on it, he was reasonably sure thatguess was correct.
At sixteen and a half hours the recruit stood besidehis bag in the waiting section of Dock Five. So far hewas alone save for the corpsmen who had business thereand two spacer crewmen lounging at the far end. To havearrived so early was the badge of a greenie, but he wastoo excited under his impassive exterior to sit and waitelsewhere. It was twenty to seventeen before his futureteammates began to straggle in. And ten minutes laterthey were swung up on the carry platform to the hatchof the troopship. Checking his armlet against the musterroll, the ship's officer waved Kana on. Within fiveminutes he entered a cabin for two, wondering which ofthe bunks was his to strap down on.
"Well"a voice behind him exploded in a boom"eitherget in or get out! This is no time to sleep on watch,recruit! Haven't you ever spaced before?"
Kana crowded back against the wall, snatching his bagaway from the boots of the newcomer.
"Up there!" With an impatient snort his cabin matepitched the younger man's bag up on the top bunk.
Kana swung up and investigated. Sure enough, a smallknob twisted, and a section of the wall opened to displaya recess which would accommodate his belongings.The rich note of a gong interrupted his exploration. Atthat signal the veteran loosened his belts and his helmet,putting them aside. And Kana hurriedly followed suit.One bongfirst warning
He stretched out on the bunk and fumbled for thestraps which must be buckled. Under the weight of hisbody the foam pad spread a little. He knew that he couldtake accelerationthat was one of the first tests givena recruit in training. And he had been on field maneuverson Mars and the Moonbut this was his first ventureinto deep space. Kana smoothed his tunic across hismiddle and waited for the third warning to announce theactual blastoff.
It had been a long time since Terrans had first reachedtoward other worlds. Three hundred years since the firstrecorded pioneer flight into the Galaxy. And even beforethat there were legends of other ships fleeing the nuclearwars and the ages of political and social confusion whichfollowed. They must have been either very desperate orvery brave, those first explorerssending their ships outinto the unknown while they were wrapped in cold sleepwith one chance in perhaps a thousand of waking as theircraft approached another planet. With the use of Galacticoverdrive such drastic chances were no longer necessary.But had his kind paid too high a price for theirswifter passage from star to star?
Though a Combatant did not openly question the dictatesof authority or the status quo, Kana knew that hewas by no means alone in his discontent with Terra's role.What would have happened to his species if, when theyhad made that first historic flight, they had not met withthe established, superior force of Central Control? Accordingto their Galactic masters the potentials of the Terran mind,body and temperament fitted them for only one role inthe careful pattern of space. Born with an innate will tostruggle, they were ordered to supply mercenaries for theother planets. Because the C.C. psycho-techneers believedthat they were best suited to combat, their planet andsystem had been arbitrarily geared to war. And Terransaccepted the situation because of a promise C.C. hadmadea promise the fulfillment of which seemed fartherin the future every yearthat when they were ready fora more equal citizenship it would be granted them.
But what if Central Control had not existed? Would theAgents' repeated argument have proved true? Would theTerrans, unchecked, have pulled planet after planet intoa ruthless struggle for power? Kana was sure that wasa lie. But now if a Terran wanted the stars, if the desirefor new and strange knowledge burned in himhe couldbuy it only by putting on the Combatant's sword.
A giant hand squeezed Kana's rib case against laboringlungs. He forgot everything in a fight for breath. Theyhad blasted off.
Excerpted from STAR SOLDIERS by ANDRE NORTON. Copyright © 2001 by Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.