By David Drake
Counting the Cost
They'd told Tyl Koopman that Bamberg City's starport was on an island across the channel from the city proper, so he hadn't expected much of a skyline when the freighter's hatches opened.
Neither had he expected a curtain of steam boiling up so furiously that the sun was only a bright patch in mid-sky.
Tyl stepped back with a yelp. The crewman at the controls of the giant cargo doors laughed and said, "Well, you were in such a hurry, soldier...."
The Slammers-issue pack Tyl carried was all the luggage he'd brought from six month's furlough on Miesel. Strapped to the bottom of the pack was a case of home-made jalapeno jelly that his aunt was sure—correctly—was better than any he could
get elsewhere in the galaxy.
But altogether, the weight of Tyl’s gear was
much less than he was used to carrying in weapons, rations, and armor when he led a company of Alois Hammer's infantry. He turned easily and looked at the crewman with mild sadness—the
visage of a dog that's been unexpectedly kicked . . . and maybe just enough else beneath the sad- ness to be disquieting.
The crewman looked down at his controls, then again to the mercenary waiting to disembark. The squealing stopped when the triple hatches locked open. "Ah," called the crewman, "it'll clear up in a minute er two. It's always like this on Bamberg the first couple ships down after a high tide. The port floods, y'see, and it always looks like half the bloody ocean's waiting in the hollows t' burn off."
The steam—the hot mist; it'd never been
dangerous, Tyl realized how—was thinning quickly.
From the hatchway he could see the concrete pad and, in the near distance, the bulk of the freighter that must have landed just before theirs. The flecks beyond the concrete were the inevitable froth speckling moving water, the channel or the ocean itself—and the water looked cursed close to
somebody who'd just spent six months on a place as dry as Miesel.
"Where do they put the warehouses?" Tyl asked. "Don't they flood?"
"Every three months or so they would," the crewman agreed. "That's why they're on the mainland, in Bamberg City, where there's ten meters of cliff and seawall t' keep 'em dry. But out here's flat, and I guess they figured they'd sooner the landing point be on the island in case somebody, you know, landed a mite hard."
The crewman grinned tightly. Tyl grinned back. They were both professionals in fields that in- volved risks. People who couldn't joke about the risks of the jobs they'd chosen tended to find other lines of work in a hurry.
The ones who survived.
"Well, I guess it's clear," Tyl said with enough question in his tone to expect a warning if he were wrong. "There'll be ground transport coming?"
"Yeah, hovercraft from Bamberg real soon," the crewman agreed. "But look, there's a shelter on the other side a' that bucket there. You might want to get over to it right quick. There's some others in orbit after us, and it can be pretty inter- esting t' be out on the field when it's this wet and there's more ships landing."
Tyl nodded to the man and strode down the ramp that had been the lower third of the hatch door. He was nervous, but it'd all be fine soon. He'd be back with his unit and not alone, the way he'd been on the ship—
And for the whole six months he'd spent with his family and a planet full of civilians who under- stood his words but not his language.
The mainland shore, a kilometer across Nevis Channel, was a comiche. The harsh cliffs were notched by the mouth of the wide river which was responsible for Bamberg City's location and the fact it was the only real city on the planet. Tyi hadn't gotten the normal briefing because the reg- iment shifted employers while he was on furlough, but the civilian sources available on Miesel when he got his movement orders were about all he needed anyway.
Captain Tyl Koopman wasn't coming to the planet Bamberia; he was returning to Hammer's Slam- mers. After five years in the regiment and six months back with his family, he had to agree with the veterans who'd warned him before he went on furlough that he wasn't going home.
He had left home, because the Slammers were the only home he'd got.
The shelter was a low archway, translucent green from the outside and so unobtrusive that Tyl might have overlooked it if there had been any other structure on the island. He circled to one end, apprehensive of the rumbling he heard in the sky—and more than a little nervous about the pair of star freighters already grounded in the port.
The ships were quiescent. They steamed and gave off pings of differential cooling, but for the next few days they weren't going to move any more than would buildings of the same size. Nev- ertheless, learned reflex told Tyl that big metal objects were tanks . . . and no infantryman lived very long around tanks without developing a healthy respect for them.
The door opened automatically as Tyl reached for it, wondering where the latch was. Dim shad- ows swirled inside the shelter, behind a second
panel that rotated aside only when the outside door had closed again.
There were a dozen figures spaced within a shelter that had room for hundreds. All those waiting were human; all were male; and all but one were in civilian garb.
Tyl walked toward the man in uniform—almost
toward him, while almost meeting the other man's eyes so that he could stop and find a clear spot at the long window if the fellow glared or turned his head as the Slammers officer approached.
No problem, though. The fellow's quirking grin suggested that he was as glad of the company as Tyl was.
It was real easy to embarrass yourself when you didn't know the rules—and when nobody wore
the rank tabs that helped you figure out what those rules might be.
From within the shelter, the windows had an extreme clarity that proved they were nothing as simple as glass or thermoplastic. The shelter was unfurnished, without even benches, but its con- struction proved that Bamberia was a wealthy, high technology world.
There was a chance for real profit on this one. Colonel Hammer must have been delighted.
"Hammer's Regiment?" the waiting soldier asked, spreading his grin into a look of welcome.
"Captain Tyl Koopman," Tyl agreed, shaking the other man's hand. "I'd just gotten E Company when I went on furlough. But I don't know what may've happened since, you know, since we've shifted contracts."
He'd just blurted the thing that'd been bother- ing him ever since Command Central had sent the new location for him to report off furlough. He'd sweated blood to get that company command—
sweated blood and spilled it ... and the revised transit orders made him fear that he'd have to earn it all over again because he'd been gone on furlough when the Colonel needed somebody in the slot.
Tyl hadn't bothered to discuss it with the folks who'd been his friends and relatives when he was a civilian; they already looked at him funny from the time one of them asked about the scrimshaw he'd given her and he was drunk enough to tell the real story of the house-to-house on Cachalot. But this guy would understand, even though Tyl didn't know him and didn't even recognize the uniform.
"Charles Desoix," the man said, "United De- fense Batteries." He flicked a collar tab with his finger. "Lieutenant and XO of Battery D, if you don't care what you say. It amounts to gopher, mainly. I just broke our Number Five gun out of Customs on Merrinet."
"Right, air defense," Tyl said with the enthusi- asm of being able to place the man in a structured universe. "Calliopes?"
"Yeah," agreed Desoix with another broad grin, "and the inspectors seemed to think somebody in the crew had stuffed all eight barrels with drugs they were going to sell at our transfer stop on Merrinet. Might just've been right, too—but we
needed the gun here more than they needed the evidence."
The ship that had been a rumble in the sky when Tyl ducked into the shelter was now within ten meters of the pad. The shelter's windows did an amazing job of damping vibration, but the con- crete itself resonated like a drum to the freighter's engine note. The two soldiers fell silent. Tyl shifted his pack and studied Desoix.
The UDB uniform was black with silver piping that muted to non-reflective gray in service condi- tions. It was a little fancier than the Slammers'
khaki—but Desoix's unit wasn't parade-ground pansies.
The Slammers provided their own defense against hostile artillery. Most outfits didn't have the lux- ury that Fire Central and the vehicle-mounted powerguns gave Hammer. Specialists like United Defense Batteries provided multi-barreled weapons —calliopes—to sweep the sky clear over defended positions and to accompany attacking columns which would otherwise be wrecked by shellfire.
It wasn't a job Tyl Koopman could imagine him- self being comfortable doing; but Via! he didn't see himself leading a tank company either. A one- man skimmer and a 2 cm powergun were about all the hardware Tyl wanted to handle. Anything big- ger cost him too much thought that would have been better spent on the human portion of his command.
"Your first time here?" Desoix asked diffidently. The third freighter was down. Though steam hissed away from the vessel with a high-pitched roar, it was possible to talk again.
Tyl nodded. Either the tide was falling rapidly or the first two ships had pretty well dried the pad for later comers. The billows of white mist were sparse enough that he could still see the city across the channel: or at any rate, he could see a twenty- story tower of metal highlights and transparent walls on one side of the river, and a domed struc- ture across from it that gleamed gold—except for
the ornate cross on the pinnacle whose core was living ruby.
"Not a bad place," Desoix said judiciously. He looked a few years older than the Slammers offi- cer, but perhaps it was just that, looks, dark hair and thin features contrasting with Tyl’s broad pale
face and hair so blond that you could hardly see it when it was cropped as short as it was now.
"The city, I mean," Desoix said, modifying his earlier comment. "The sticks over on Continent
Two where it looks like the fighting's going to be, well—they're the sticks."
He met Tyl’s eyes. "I won't apologize for get-
ting a quiet billet this time 'round."
"No need to," Tyl said . . . and they were both lying, because nobody who knows the difference brags to a combat soldier about a cushy assign- ment; and no combat soldier but wishes, some- where in his heart of hearts, that he'd gotten the absolutely necessary assignment of protecting the capital while somebody else led troops into sniper- filled woodlands and endured the fluorescent drum- beat of hostile artillery.
But Via! Somebody had to do the job.
Both of them.
"Hey, maybe the next time," Tyl said with a false smile and a playful tap on the shoulder of the man who wasn't a stranger any more.
Several boats—hovercraft too small to haul more
than a dozen men and their luggage—were put-
ting out from Bamberg City, spraying their way toward the island with an enthusiasm that sug- gested they were racing.
Tyl's view of them was unexpectedly cut off when a huge surface-effect freighter slid in front of the shelter and settled. The freighter looked like a normal sub-sonic aircraft, but its airfoils were canted to double their lift by skimming over water or smooth ground. The bird couldn't really fly, but it could carry a thousand tonnes of cargo at 200 kph—a useful trade-off between true ships and true aircraft.
"Traders from Two," Desoix explained as men began scuttling from the freighter before its hy- draulic outriggers had time to lock it firmly onto the pad. "They circle at a safe distance from the island while the starships are landing. Then, if they're lucky, they beat the Bamberg factors to
the pad with the first shot at a deal."
He shrugged. "And if their luck's really out, there's another starship on its way in about the time they tie up. Doesn't take much of a shock wave to make things real interesting aboard one of those."
Tyl squinted at the men scuttling from the surface-effect vehicle. Several of those waiting in the shelter were joining them, babbling and wav- ing documents. "Say, those guys 're—"
"Yeah, rag-heads," Desoix agreed. "I mean, I'm sure they're in church every day, kissing crosses and all the proper things, but . . . yeah, they're looking at some problems if President Delcorio gets his crusade going."
"Well, that's what we're here for," Tyl said, looking around horizons that were hemmed by starships to the back and side and the surface- effect vehicle before him.
"Now," he added, controlling his grimace, "how do we get to the mainland if we're not cargo?"
"Ah, but we are," Desoix noted as he raised the briefcase that seemed to be all the luggage he carried. "Just not very valuable cargo, my friend. But I think it's about time to—"
As he started toward the door, one of the hovercars they'd watched put out from the city drove through the mingled cluster of men from the starships and the surface freighter. Water from the channel surrounded the car in a fine mist that cleared its path better than the threat of its rubber skirts. While the driver in his open cab exchanged curses with men from the surface freighter, the rear of his vehicle opened to disgorge half a dozen civilians in bright garments.
"Our transportation," Desoix said, nodding to the hovercar as he headed out of the shelter. "Now that it's dropped off the Bamberg factors to
fight for their piece of the market. Everybody's got tobacco, and everybody wants a share of what may be the last cargoes onto the planet for a while."
"Before the shooting starts," Tyl amplified as he strode along with the UDB officer. They hadn't sent a briefing cube to Miesel for him . .'. but it didn't take that or genius to figure out what was going to happen shortly after a world started hir- ing mercenary regiments.
"That's the betting," Desoix agreed. He opened the back of the car with his universal credit key, a computer chip encased in noble metal and banded to his wrist.
"Oh," said Tyi, staring at the keyed door.
"Yeah, everything's up to date here in Bamberg," said the other officer, stepping out of the doorway and waving Tyl through. "Hey!" he called to the driver. "My friend here's on me!"
"I can—" Tyl said.
"—delay us another ten minutes," Desoix broke in, "trying to charge this one to the Hammer account or pass the driver scrip from Lord knows where."
He keyed the door a second time and swung into the car, both men moving with the trained grace of soldiers who knew how to get on and off air cushion vehicles smoothly—because getting
hung up was a good way to catch a round.
"Goes to the UDB account anyway," Desoix added. "Via, maybe we'll need a favor from you one of these days."
"I'm just not set up for this place, coming off furlough," Tyl explained. "It's not like, you know, Colonel Hammer isn't on top of things."
The driver fluffed his fans and the car began to cruise in cautious arcs around the starships,
looking for other passengers.
were busy with merehar
themselves, preparing th<
would load the vacuum-s<
Bamberg tobacco when thi
No one looked at the <
interest. The driver spun
channel with a lurch and
"One thing," Desoix said, looking out the win- dow even though the initial spray cloaked the view. "Money's no problem here. Any banking booth can access Hammer's account and probably your account back home if it's got a respondent on one of the big worlds. Perfectly up to date. But, ah, don't talk to anybody here about religion, all right?"
He met Tyl’s calm eyes. "No matter how well
you know them, you don't know them that well. Here. And don't go out except wearing your uni- form. They don't bother soldiers, especially meres; but somebody might make a mistake if you were in civilian clothes."
Their vehicle was headed for the notch in the sea cliffs. It was a river mouth as Tyl had assumed from the spaceport, but human engineering had overwhelmed everything natural about the site.
The river was covered and framed into a triangu- lar plaza by concrete seawalls as high as those reinforcing the corniche.
Salt water from the tide-choked sea even now gleamed on the plaza, just as it was streaming from the spaceport. Figures—women as well as
men, Tyl thought, though it was hard to be sure between the spray and the loose costumes they wore here—were pouring into the plaza as fast as the water had left it.