PRELUDEHawker knew war in all its perverse permutations. He knew the killing and the pain. He knew the endless waiting in darkness for the enemy attack to begin, that helpless frustration when his fate was in the hands of others. He knew the swift battles, with death and destruction flaring all around him. He knew the quiet and the noise, the calm and the panic. He knew the hatred for the enemy, the scorn for his own superiors, the mystical friendship for his comrades-in-arms. He’d faced the paradoxes of combat and hacked his way through the jungle of its eternal contradictions.
He had mastered the art of mass killing. His original training in slaughter had been on members of his own race, but he had long ago broadened his education, to the point where he could kill any creature his superiors told him was an enemy. Numbers were insignificant; he could kill thousands at the impersonal touch of a button or execute an opposing sentry with his bare hands. Just point him in the right direction and let him do his job.
If Hawker had any opinions of this, his superiors had long ago stopped asking him what they were. He was a creature living solely for war; he had no other purpose. No one knew this better than Hawker himself. There might be peace when he closed his eyes, but there would be fighting when he opened them again.
This occasion seemed little different from the countless others before it. There were bright lights and noises; Hawker could tell that even with his eyes closed. The ground shook with the force of explosions, but they were either mild or far away. There was no immediate threat, but the situation could not be good.
He prepared himself for the training probe, that sharp mental stab which, in a fraction of a second, could implant all the background material he’d need to comprehend the current situation. He knew from experience that the information would flash through his brain in an instant. He would be dizzy for a moment, and then anything he needed to know would be at his fingertips.
But the probe didn’t come. Hawker stood in place, muscles tensed, but nothing happened for almost a minute. Then there was a string of profanity uttered by someone in front of him. Most of it was in a language Hawker couldn’t understand, but he was fluent enough in the art of imprecation to recognize the pattern perfectly. Annoyed that they’d changed procedures on him again, Hawker opened his eyes to face reality once more.
He blinked at the brightness. All around him he could sense his fellow resurrectees reacting the same way. There were rumblings and muttered curses, the rustling sounds of small movements multiplied hundreds of times. There was an acrid smell in the air, a smell of something burning, perhaps something that had once been alive. Despite the burning, though, the room was cold and Hawker was naked. That was the part he disliked most. He’d long ago given up being self-conscious about his body—most of his comrades were from races that didn’t care how a naked human looked—but he hated the vulnerability that came with the lack of clothing. Anything covering his body—be it as simple as a toga or as complex as a personal force field—would make him feel safe, but nudity was uncomfortable.
As his eyes adjusted, he took in his surroundings with professional detachment. He was standing in a crowd of other resurrectees, perhaps as many as two hundred. A third of them were humans, male and female, the rest of various races. All were oxygen breathers, all were from planets with similar gravities and environments. Little details like these told Hawker more about the situation than his superiors would have guessed possible.
He knew, for example, that this world was basically Earthlike; he could breathe and move around without too many restrictions, which was at least a small blessing. The mixture of races made it seem more like a civil war than a war of expansion or conquest; in the latter, high command preferred to use homogeneous platoons because it was easier to instill in them a feeling of racial antagonism. In a mixed group like this it was counterproductive to stir up feelings of alien prejudice.
Since high command had gone to the trouble of selecting members of races that could survive in the same habitat, Hawker knew that this was likely a battle on a relatively small scale. For larger actions they would all be issued battle suits of one kind or another, suitable for creatures from any environment. There was also the implication that this side was losing the battle, or at least poorly equipped. High command seldom selected a ragtag bunch like this unless there was no other choice.
He reached these conclusions without conscious thought. He’d fought so many battles in so many wars that the conditions of fighting were second nature. It hardly mattered any more; nothing did. Winning and losing were merely opposite sides of the same coin, and he’d lived with pain and deprivation so long they were as much a part of him as his left arm. Even death itself was scant respite; he’d probably died hundreds of times by now, though fortunately the resurrection process spared him those memories.
The room they were in was large and drafty, brightly lit with a diffuse glow from walls and ceiling. There were many doors to both the left and right, while the entire front wall was a holographic field. The field was filled with symbols and lines, a surrealistic map of some place Hawker couldn’t even guess at. The symbols made no sense, but they rarely did, to him. Hawker was no strategist or tactician. He was a fighter.
A sergeant stood before the troops. It was an alien, tall and barrel-chested with arms looking powerful enough to tear a man in half. It wore an unfamiliar uniform, with insignia Hawker couldn’t identify, but there was no mistaking that it was a sergeant. Even though the title of sergeant had disappeared centuries ago, along with all the other rankings as Hawker had first known them, the role of a sergeant remained unchanged. Someone had to goad the fighters, instruct them, lead them into battle. Titles could change, beings could change, but sergeants went on forever.
Even as Hawker looked about himself, sizing up the situation, the sergeant barked an order in some language Hawker did not understand. There was no mistaking the command, though. The entire room snapped to attention.
The sergeant looked them over with the same air of disdain sergeants have always affected. Then, when he was satisfied that the troops were in hand, he lectured them in the same incomprehensible tongue he’d first spoken. Hawker stood, naked and cold and progressively more annoyed at the bureaucratic fuck-up that created this farcical situation. The troops weren’t even separated according to language, and no translator sets had been provided! Hawker had taken hypno implants of at least two dozen languages at various times, and this one still did not fall within any of them. The situation must be very bad indeed for high command to screw up this badly.
The sergeant spoke for twenty minutes, making frequent references to the holographic map behind him. Sometimes he spoke matter-of-factly, sometimes in a bellow of exhortation. Hawker stood in place like a good soldier, listening to every incomprehensible word and not even bothering to make sense out of it. He’d long ago given up on that. War never made sense; you just blundered through it any way you could.
During the sergeant’s speech, the ground continued to shake. The enemy bombardment, if that was what it was, grew closer. Neither the sergeant nor the troops took any notice of it, but there was plenty of commotion outside the doors on either side of the briefing room. Running footsteps, shouts, practically an odor of panic seeping in under the cracks. Things were not going well at all.
None of that was Hawker’s concern. His only job was to fight, and it didn’t matter whether his side won or lost. The fighting was all that counted, and it would continue to the end of time. The merry-go-round wouldn’t stop, and there was no way to get off.
His briefing finished, the sergeant dismissed the troops. Those who had understood him turned to the left and began filing out those doors. Those who hadn’t—and Hawker was far from the only one—followed the others’ example. No one spoke much until they were through the door, out of the sergeant’s immediate sight. Then a flood of babble broke loose.
“Anyone here speak English?” Hawker yelled into the general din. When there was no response he asked again, then worked his way down through the list of other languages he spoke with some degree of comprehension. Finally, when he’d worked his way down to Vandik, he got an answer. “Here.”
Hawker and his answerer kept shouting at each other in Vandik, closing the gap between them until they finally drew together. Hawker found himself confronting a female humanoid who came barely to his shoulders. She, too, was naked, but covered with a yellow-green downy fur. Hawker tried to remember the name of her race, but found he couldn’t. They had been enemies at one time in the distant past, but had long since become allies.
“Could you understand what he said?” Hawker asked in his imperfect Vandik.
The female answered in an accent so thick he could barely make out what she said. Her grammatical structure, too, seemed strangled—although his knowledge of Vandik was centuries old and God only knew what had happened to the language in the interim.
“Is civil war,” she said. “Is being this town fighting on all sides around. Bunker is this in which we are. Is will be fighting up top. Is must for us to hold off fighting for six hours. Is reinforcements will be coming at then. Is now for us to go get uniforms and weapons. This way.”
Hawker followed his tiny compatriot to the supply line, where uniforms were being doled out by laconic quartermasters. When his turn came, the being in charge gave him no more than a quick glance and reached behind him onto a shelf. He thrust the uniform and mess kit into Hawker’s face and brushed Hawker aside to deal with the next man in line.
The uniform was a chocolate brown, one-piece jumpsuit with a uniseal seam up the front and a red armband on the left sleeve. Hawker struggled into it, hopping first on one leg and then the other while being jostled by the other soldiers around him, all struggling to get into their own uniforms. The jumpsuit was at least a size and a half too large, and he almost found himself wishing this were a world with a hostile environment; at least then the army took slightly better care to see that battle armor fit the wearer.
The only place where the size of this uniform was crucial was in the gloves; he’d be handling weapons, and he didn’t want excess material getting in his way. He pulled the gloves down as tight as he could, making a slight tuck at the wrists to hold the fabric in place. The fingertips were still too long, but there was little he could do about that right now. Maybe if he was issued a knife he could cut the tips off altogether.
He fastened the mess kit to his waist and hurried after the woman he’d spoken to. He found himself standing in another line—this time for weapons disbursement. Two other soldiers had gotten into line between her and him, though, and he had no languages in common with either of them, so he could only stand impatiently and wait his turn.
When he finally reached the front, the clerk asked him a question. Hawker shook his head to indicate he couldn’t understand. Nodding, the clerk half turned and gestured at the rack of weaponry behind him. Obviously Hawker was being given a choice of what he wanted.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know the precise conditions under which he’d be working. He didn’t know how close he’d be to the enemy, nor what their arms or defenses would be like. He’d have to choose general-purpose weapons with the broadest possible application and hope to use them to his advantage. There wasn’t much selection. His side, the forces defending this town, were obviously pressed to the wall, and were trying to hang on with the scantiest of resources.