David Drake - Hammer's Slammers 03 - At Any Price

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David Drake - Hammer's Slammers 03 - At Any Price

Hammer’s Slammers, Volume Three

David Drake


Editorial Reviews


    Col. Alois Hammer's indomitable Slammers are called in to support human colonists against a native uprising in this novel-length adventure. But even though the natives' off-world weapons are no match for the Slammers, their ability to teleport gives them a frightening advantage! Reissue.






    FERAD'S BODY SCALES were the greenish black of extreme old age, but his brow horns - the right one twisted into a corkscrew from birth - were still a rich gray like the iridium barrel of the powergun he held. The fingertips of his left hand touched the metal, contact that would have been distracting to most of his fellows during the preliminaries to teleportation. Molt warriors had no universal technique, however, and Ferad had grown used to keeping physical contact with the metallic or crystalline portion of whatever it was which he intended to carry with him. He was far too old to change a successful method now, especially as he prepared for what might be the most difficult teleportation ever in the history of his species - the intelligent autochthones of the planet named Oltenia by its human settlers three centuries before. The antechamber of the main nursery cave had a high ceiling and a circular floor eighteen meters in diameter. A dozen tunnel archways led from it. Many young Molt warriors were shimmering out of empty air, using the antechamber as a bolthole from the fighting forty kilometers away. The familiar surroundings and the mass of living rock from which the chamber was carved made it an easy resort for relative youths, when hostile fire ripped toward them in the press of battle.

    The vaulted chamber was alive with warriors' cries, fear or triumph or simply relief, as they returned to catch their breath and load their weapons before popping back to attack from a new position. One adolescent cackled in splendid glee though his left arm was in tatters from a close-range gunshot: in his right hand the youth carried both an Oltenian shotgun and the moustached head of the human who had owned it before him. The ripe sweat of the warriors mingled with propellant residues from projectile weapons and the dry, arch-of-the-mouth taste of iridium from powerguns which still glowed with the heat of rapid fire.

    Sopasian, Ferad's junior by a day and his rival for a long lifetime, sat eighteen meters away, across the width of the chamber. Each of the two theme elders planned in his way to change the face of the three-year war with the humans. Sopasian's face was as taut with strain as that of any post-adolescent preparing for the solo hunt which would make him a warrior.

    Sopasian always tried too hard, thought Ferad as he eyed the other theme elder; but that was what worked, had always worked, for Sopasian. In his right hand was not a gun bought from a human trader or looted from an adversary but rather a traditional weapon: a hand-forged dagger, hafted with bone in the days when Molt warriors fought one another and their planet was their own. While Ferad stroked his gunbarrel to permit him to slide it more easily through the interstices of intervening matter, Sopasian's left hand fiercely gripped a disk of synthetic sapphire.

    The two elders had discussed their plans with the cautious precision of mutually-acknowledged experts who disliked one another. Aloud, Ferad had questioned the premise of Sopasian's plan. Consciously but unsaid, he doubted his rival or anyone could execute a plan calling for so perfect a leap to a tiny object in motion.

    Still deeper in his heart, Ferad knew that he was rotten with envy at the very possibility that the other theme elder would succeed in a teleportation that difficult. Well, to be old and wise was not to be a saint; and a success by Sopasian would certainly make it easier for Ferad to gain his ends with the humans.

    The humans, unfortunately, were only half the problem - and the result Sopasian contemplated would make his fellow Molts even more intransigent. Concern for the repercussions of his plan and the shouts of young warriors like those who had made the war inevitable merged with the background as Ferad's mind tried to grip the electrical ambience of his world. The antechamber itself was a hollow of energy - the crystalline structure of the surrounding rocks, constantly deforming as part of the dynamic stasis in which every planetary crust was held, generated an aura of piezoelectrical energy of high amplitude. Ferad used the shell of living rock as an anchor as his consciousness slipped out in an expanding circle, searching to a distance his fellows - even Sopasian - found inconceivable. For the younger warriors, such a solid base was almost a necessity unless their goal was very well-known to them and equally rich in energy flux. As they aged, male Molts not only gained conscious experience in teleportation but became better attuned to their planet on a biological level, permitting jumps of increasing distance and delicacy.

    In circumstances such as these, the result was that Molts became increasingly effective warriors in direct proportion to their growing distaste for the glory which had animated them in their hot-blooded youth. By the time they had reached Ferad's age....

    The last object of which Ferad was aware within the antechamber was an internally-scored five-centimeter disk, the condensing unit for a sophisticated instrument display. The disk came from a disabled combat car, one of those used by the mercenaries whom the human colonists had hired to support them in their war with the Molts.

    Sopasian held the crystal in his left hand as his mind searched for a particular duplicate of it: the location-plotter in the vehicle used by Colonel Alois Hammer himself.

    "Largo, vector three-thirty!" called Lieutenant Enzo Hawker as Profile Bourne, his sergeant-driver, disrupted the air-condensed hologram display momentarily by firing his powergun through the middle of it.

    A bush with leaves like clawing fingers sprawled over a slab of rock a few meters from the Slammers' jeep. Stems which bolts from the submachine gun touched popped loudly, and the Molt warrior just condensing into local existence gave a strangled cry as he collapsed over his own human-manufactured powergun.

    "Via!" the little sergeant shouted as he backed the air-cushion jeep left-handed. "Somebody get this rock over here. Blood and martyrs, that's right on top of us!"

    An infantryman still aboard his grounded skimmer caught the shimmer of a Molt teleporting in along the vector for which Hawker had warned. He fired, a trifle too early to hit the attacker whose imminent appearance had ionized a pocket of air which the detection apparatus on the jeep had located. The cyan bolt blew a basin the size of a dinnerplate into the rock face on which the Molt was homing. Then the ten-kilo shaped charge which Oltenian engineers had previously placed shattered the rock and the autochthone warrior himself into a sphere of flying gravel and less recognizable constituents.

    Ducking against the shower of light stones, a pair of Oltenians gripping another shaped charge and the bracket that would hold it two meters off the ground scuttled toward the slab on which Bourne's victim quivered in death. A trooper on the right flank of the company, controlled by the other detection jeep, missed something wildly and sent a bolt overhead with a hiss-thump! which made even veteran Slammers cringe. The two locals flattened themselves, but they got to their feet again and continued even though one of the pair was visibly weeping. They had balls, not like most of the poofs.

    Not like the battalion supposedly advancing to support this thrust by a company of Hammer's infantry reinforced by a platoon of Oltenian combat engineers.

    "Spike to Red One," said Hawker's commo helmet - and Bourne's, because the tall, heavy-set lieutenant had deliberately split the feed to his driver through the intercom circuits. Profile was the team's legs; and here on Oltenia especially, Hawker did not want to have to repeat an order to bug out. "Fox Victor - " the Oltenian battalion "- is hung up. Artillery broke up an outcrop, but seems like the Molts are homing on the boulders even. There's some heavy help coming, but it'll be a while. Think you might be able to do some good?"

    "Bloody buggerin' poofs," Sergeant Bourne muttered as he bent in anticipation of the charge blasting the nearby slab, while the pipper on the map display glowed on a broad gully a kilometer away as "Spike" - the company commander, Henderson - pinpointed the problem. The pair of detection jeeps were attached to the infantry for this operation, but Hawker's chain of command was directly to Central - Hammer's headquarters - and the idea wasn't one that Henderson was likely to phrase as an order even to someone unquestionably under his control. The Slammers had been on Oltenia for only a few days before the practice of trusting their safety to local support had proven to be the next thing to suicide.

    But the present fact was that the company was safe enough only for the moment, with the larger crystalline rocks within their perimeter broken up. The autochthones could - given time to approach the position instead of teleporting directly from some distant location - home on very small crystals indeed. Unless somebody shook lose Fox Victor, the troopers in this lead element were well and truly screwed.

    Hawker rubbed his face with his big left hand, squeezing away the prickling caused by Bourne's nearby shots and the nervous quiver inevitable because of what he knew he had to say. "All right," he muttered, "all right, we'll be the fire brigade on this one too.

    A hillock six hundred meters distant shattered into shellbursts turbid with dirt and bits of tree. Waves quivered across the ground beneath the jeep for a moment before the blast reached the crew through the air. Bourne cursed again though the artillery was friendly, the guns trying to forestall Molt snipers by pulverizing a site to which they could easily teleport. The attempt was a reminder that no amount of shelling could interdict all outcrops within the line-of-sight range of a powergun.

    "Want an escort, Red One?" asked the company commander, flattened somewhere beside his own jeep while his driver's gun wavered across each nearby spray of vegetation, waiting for the warning that it was about to hold a Molt warrior.

    "Profile?" asked Lieutenant Hawker, shouting over the fan whine rather than using the intercom.

    "What a bloody copping mess," grunted the sergeant as his left hand spun the tiller and the fans spun the jeep beneath them. "Hang on," he added, late but needlessly: Hawker knew to brace himself before he said anything that was going to spark his driver into action. "No, we don't want to bloody babysit pongos!" and the jeep swung from its axial turn into acceleration as smooth as the brightness curve of rheostat-governed lights.

    "Cover your own ass, Spike," Hawker reported as the jeep sailed past a trio of grounded infantrymen facing out from a common center like the spokes of a wheel. "We'll do better alone." The trouble with being a good all-rounder was that you were used when people with narrower capacities got to hunker down and pray. The other detection team, Red Two, consisted of a driver possibly as good as Bourne and a warrant officer who could handle the detection gear at

    least as well as Hawker. But while no one in the Slammers was an innocent about guns, neither of the Red Two team was the man you really wanted at your side in a firefight. They would do fine, handling detection chores for the entire company during this lull while the autochthones regrouped and licked their wounds.

    Red One, on the other hand, was headed for the stalled support force, unaccompanied by skimmer-mounted infantry who would complicate the mad dash Profile intended to make. Shells passed so high overhead that they left vapor trails and their attenuated howl was lost in the sizzle of brush slapping the jeep's plenum chamber.

    "Gimme the push for Fox Victor," Hawker demanded of Central, as his right hand gripped his submachine gun and his eyes scanned the route by which Bourne took them to where the supports were bottle-necked.

    The Slammers lieutenant was watching for Molts who, already in position, would not give warning through the display of his detection gear. But if one of those bright-uniformed, totally-incompetent Oltenian general officers suddenly appeared in his gun-sights. ... Enzo Hawker might just decide a burst wouldn't be wasted.

    The gorgeous clothing of the officers attending the Widows of the War Ball in the Tribunal Palace differed in cut from the gowns of the ladies, but not in quality or brilliance. General Alexander Radescu, whose sardonic whim had caused him to limit his outfit to that prescribed for dress uniforms in the Handbook for Officers in the Service of the Oltenian State, knew that he looked ascetic in comparison to almost anyone else in the Grand Ballroom - his aide, Major Nikki Tzigara, included.

    "Well, the lily has a certain dignity that a bed of tulips can't equal, don't you think?" murmured the thirty-two-year-old general as his oval fingernails traced a pattern of lines down the pearly fabric of his opposite sleeve.

    Nikki, who had added yellow cuffs and collar to emphasize the scarlet bodice of his uniform jacket, grinned at the reference which he alone was meant to hear in the bustle of the gala. From beyond Tzigara, however, where he lounged against one of the pair of huge urns polished from blue John - columnar fluorspar - by Molt craftsmen in the dim past, Major Joachim Steuben asked, "And what does that leave me, General? The dirt in the bottom of the pot?" Colonel Hammer's chief of base operations in the Oltenian capital flicked a hand as delicately manicured as Radescu's own across his own khaki uniform. Though all the materials were of the highest quality, Steuben's ensemble had a restrained elegance - save for the gaudily-floral inlays of the pistol which was apparently as much part of the Slammers dress uniform as the gold-brimmed cap was for an Oltenian general officer. In fact, Major Steuben looked very good indeed in his tailored khaki, rather like a leaf-bladed dagger in an intarsia sheath. Though flawlessly personable, Steuben had an aura which Radescu himself found at best disconcerting: Radescu's mind kept focusing on the fact that there was a skull beneath that tanned, smiling face. But Joachim Steuben got along well in dealing with his Oltenian counterparts here in Belvedere. The first officer whom Hammer had given the task of liaison and organizing his line of supply from the starport had loudly referred to the local forces as poofs. That was understandable, Radescu knew; but very impolitic.

    Nikki, who either did not see or was not put off by the core of Joachim which Radescu glimpsed, was saying, "Oh, Major Steuben, you dirt?" when the string orchestra swung into a gavotte and covered the remainder of the pair's Smalltalk.

    Every man Radescu could see in the room was wearing a uniform of some kind. The regulars, like Nikki Tzigara, modified the stock design for greater color; but the real palm went to the

    "generals" and "marshals" of militia units which mustered only on paper. These were the aristocratic owners of mines, factories, and the great ranches which were the third leg of human success on Oltenia. They wore not only the finest imported natural and synthetic fabrics, but furs, plumes, and - in one case of strikingly poor taste, Radescu thought - a shoulder cape flayed from the scaly hide of an adolescent Molt. Officers of all sorts spun and postured with their jeweled ladies, the whole seeming to the young general the workings of an ill-made machine rather than a fundraiser for the shockingly large number of relicts created in three years of war. Radescu lifted his cap and combed his fingers through the pale, blond hair which was plastered now to his scalp by perspiration. The second blue john vase felt cool to his back, but the memories it aroused increased his depression. The only large-scale celebrations of which the autochthones, the Molts, had not been a part were those during the present war. While not everyone - yet - shared the general's opinion that the war was an unmitigated disaster, the failure of this gathering to include representatives of the fourteen Molt themes made it less colorful in a way that no amount of feathers and cloth-of-gold could repair.

    A gust of air, cool at any time and now balm in the steaming swamps, played across the back of Radescu's neck and the exposed skin of his wrists. He turned to see a scarlet Honor Guard disappearing from view as he closed a door into the interior of the Tribunal Palace. The man who had just entered the ballroom was the Chief Tribune and effective ruler of Oltenia, Grigor Antonescu.

    "Well met, my boy," said the Chief Tribune as he saw General Radescu almost in front of him. There was nothing in the tone to suggest that Antonescu felt well about anything, nor was that simply a result of his traditional reserve. Radescu knew the Chief Tribune well enough to realize that something was very badly wrong, and that beneath the wall of stony facial control there was a mind roiling with anger.

    "Good evening, Uncle Grigor," Radescu said, bowing with more formality than he would normally have shown his mother's brother, deferring to the older man's concealed agitation. "I don't get as much chance to see you as I'd like, with your present duties."

    There were factory owners on the dance floor who could have bought Alexander Radescu's considerable holdings twice over; but there was no one with a closer path to real power if he chose to travel it.

    "You have good sense, Alexi," Antonescu said with an undertone of bitterness that only an ear as experienced as Radescu's own would have heard.

    The Chief Tribune wore his formal robes of office, spotlessly white and of a severity unequalled by even the functional uniform of Joachim Steuben ... who seemed to have disappeared. Another man in Grigor Antonescu's position might have designed new regalia more in line with present tastes or at least relieved the white vestments' severity with jewels and metals and brightly-patterned fabrics rather the way Nikki had with his uniform (and where was Nikki?). Chief Tribune Antonescu knew, however, that through the starkness of a pure neutral color he would draw eyes like an axe blade in a field of poppies.

    "It's time," Antonescu continued, with a glance toward the door and away again, "that I talk to someone who has good sense."

    On the dance floor, couples were parading through the steps of a sprightly contre-danse - country dance - to the bowing of the string orchestra. The figures moving in attempted synchrony reminded Alexander Radescu now of a breeze through an arboretum rather than of a machine. "Shall we ... ?" the general suggested mildly with a short, full-hand gesture toward the door through which his uncle had so recently appeared.

    The man-high urns formed an effective alcove around the door, while the music and the bustle of dancing provided a sponge of sound to absorb conversations at any distance from the speakers. Chief Tribune Antonescu gave another quick look around him and said, gesturing his nephew closer, "No, I suppose I need to show myself at these events to avoid being called an unapproachable dictator." He gave Radescu a smile as crisp as the glitter of shears cutting sheet metal: both men knew that the adjective and the noun alike were more true than not. "Besides," Antonescu added with a rare grimace, "if we go back inside we're likely to meet my esteemed colleagues -" Tribunes Wraslov and Deliu "- and having just spent an hour with their inanity, I don't care to repeat the dose for some while."

    "There's trouble, then?" the young general asked, too softly in all likelihood to be heard even though he was stepping shoulder to shoulder as the older man had directed.

    There was really no need for the question anyway, since Antonescu was already explaining, "The great offensive that Marshal Erzul promised has stalled. Again, of course." A resplendent colonel walked past, a young aide on his arm. They both noticed the Chief Tribune and his nephew and looked away at once with the terrified intensity of men who feared they would be called to book. Radescu waited until the pair had drifted on, then said, "It was only to get under way this morning. Initial problems don't necessarily mean -" "Stalled. Failed. Collapsed totally," Antonescu said in his smooth, cool voice, smiling at his nephew as though they were discussing the gay rout on the dance floor. "According to Erzul, the only units which haven't fallen back to their starting line decimated are those with which he's lost contact entirely."

    "Via, he can't lose contact!" Radescu snapped as his mind retrieved the Operation Order he had committed to memory. His post, Military Advisor to the Tribunes, was meant to be a sinecure. That General Radescu had used his access to really study the way the Oltenian State fought the autochthones was a measure of the man, rather than of his duties. "Every man in the forward elements has a personal radio to prevent just that!"

    "Every man alive, yes," his uncle said. "That was the conclusion I drew, too." "And - " Radescu began, then paused as he stepped out from the alcove to make sure that he did not mistake the absence of Major Steuben before he completed his sentence with, "and Hammer's Slammers, were they unable to make headway also? Because if they were ..." He did not go on by saying, "... then the war is patently unwinnable, no matter what level of effort we're willing to invest." Uncle Grigor did not need a relative half his age to state the obvious to him. Antonescu gave a minute nod of approval for the way his nephew had this time checked their surroundings before speaking. "Yes, that's the question that seems most frustrating," he replied as the contre-danse spun to a halt and the complex patterns dissolved. "Erzul - he was on the screen in person - says the mercenaries failed to advance, but he says it in a fashion that convinces me he's lying. I presume that there has been another failure to follow up thrusts by Hammer's units." The Chief Tribune barked out a laugh as humorless as the stuttering of an automatic weapon. "If Erzul were a better commander, he wouldn't need to be a good liar," he said. The younger man looked at the pair of urns. At night functions they were sometimes illuminated by spotlights beamed down on their interiors, so that the violet tinge came through the huge, indigo grains and the white calcite matrix glowed with power enchained. Tonight the stone was unlighted, and only reflections from the smooth surfaces belied its appearance of opacity.

    "The trouble is," Radescu said, letting his thoughts blend into the words his lips were speaking, "that Erzul and the rest keep thinking of the Molts as humans who can teleport and

    therefore can never be caught. That means every battle is on the Molts' terms. But they don't think the way we do, the way humans do, as a society. They're too individual." The blue john urns were slightly asymmetric, proving that they had been polished into shape purely by hand instead of being lathe-turned as any human craftsman would have done. That in itself was an amazing comment on workmanship, given that the material had such pronounced lines of cleavage and was so prone to splinter under stress. Even the resin with which the urns were impregnated was an addition by the settlers to whom the gift was made, preserving for generations the micron-smooth polish which a Molt had achieved with no tool but the palms of his hands over a decade.

    But there was more. Though the urns were asymmetric, they were precise mirror images of one another.

    "If we don't understand the way the Molts relate to each other and to the structure of their planet," said Alexander Radescu with a gesture that followed the curve of the right-hand urn without quite touching the delicate surface, "then we don't get anywhere with the war. "And until then, there's no chance to convince the Molts to make peace."

    The ambience over which Ferad's mind coursed was as real and as mercurial as the wave-strewn surface of a sea. He knew that at any given time there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his fellows hurling themselves from point to point in transfers which seemed instantaneous only from the outside. There was no sign of others in this universe of stresses and energy, a universe which was that of the Molts uniquely.

    That was the key to the character of male Molts, Ferad had realized over the more than a century that he observed his race and the human settlers. Molt females cooperated among themselves in nurturing the young and in agriculture - they had even expanded that cooperation to include animal husbandry, since the human settlement. The prepubescent males cooperated also, playing together even when the games involve a teleportation for the kilometer or so of which they and the females were capable.

    But with the hormonal changes of puberty, a male's world became a boundless, vacant expanse that was probably a psychological construct rather than a 'real' place - but which was no less real for all that.

    In order to transport himself to a point in the material landscape, a Molt had to identify his destination in the dreamworld of energy patterns and crystal junctions that depended both on the size of the object being used as a beacon and on its distance from the point of departure. Most of all, however, finding a location depended on the experience of the Molt who picked his way across the interface of mind and piezoelectrical flux.

    That focus on self deeply affected the ability of males to consider anything but individual performance. Hunters, especially the young who were at pains to prove their prowess, would raid the herds of human ranchers without consideration of the effect that had on settler-autochthone relations. And, even to the voice of Ferad's dispassionate experience, it was clear that there would be human herds and human cities covering the planet like studded leather upholstery if matters continued as they began three centuries before.

    But while the war might be a necessary catalyst for change, no society built on continued warfare would be beneficial to Man or Molt.

    The greater questions of civilization which had been filling Ferad's time in the material world were secondary now in this fluid moment. Crystals which he knew - which he had seen or walked across or handled - were solid foci within the drift. They shrank as the theme elder's

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