Far into the future, the battlefield is in space. Robots, Catladies, Reptiloids, Stygians, and Lizards are as common as Humans. Most are friendly, but when there is trouble in space, mercenaries come to the rescue.
Major Fargon Conclusyon, a Star Warrior, is part of a space mercenary unit for hire and does what it takes to get the job done, even if it means taking a few lives.
When he is given an assignment to stop vicious space pirates from terrorizing the Federal Planet of Gautama, a place where religion forbids the taking of sentient lives for any reason, Fargon is put in a perilous situation and must decide how to keep his mercenaries safe without killing the pirates.
If he follows the strict policy of the Government of Gautama, can he find a way to bring the pirates in peacefully without losing any of his soldiers?
Donald Bruce Callander
March 23, 1930 -- July 25, 2008
Don Callander was the best-selling author of the 'Mancer series and the Dragon Companion series. Don originally worked as a travel writer/photographer and graphic designer before retiring to start his writing.
Don was born in Minneapolis, brought up in Duluth, Minnesota, and graduated from high school there before enlisting in the U. S. Navy in 1947. After serving four years on active duty (including the Korean War) he transferred to the Naval Reserve where he served as a 'weekend warrior' for twenty additional years.
He settled in Washington, D.C., where he married, raised four children, and worked on the Washington Post newspaper and in National Headquarters of the American Automobile Association (40,000,000 members!) until his retirement in 1991.
During his retirement, Don lived in Florida and at the age of 62, began writing his bestselling fantasy books until he passed away in 2008.
“Fargon Conclusyon,” thundered the P.A. “Conclusyon, Fargon, Master Sergeant Gunner, Multiple Proficiencies...”
From the rear of the crowded hall, a tall, lanky figure detached itself from a craps game and strode forward to the podium. He was a Terran human, mid-thirties, sandy-haired, brown-eyed, lean but well-muscled.
Sharp, sober, clean shaven, the Contracting Officer noted sub-vocally into his throat mike.
“Conclusyon?” he asked aloud.
“Yes, sir! Conclusyon, Fargon; Master Sergeant Gunner, Multiple...”
“Right, right,” muttered the C O. “Do you read?”
“Like a schoolboy, sir!” the soldier claimed brightly. “Like me to read something for you?”
The CO was not sure if this was intended to be insolence or a helpful comment. He let it pass. He handed the sergeant a plasticized card on which several paragraphs of Basic Earth, graded for increasing difficulty, were printed.
“Read the bottom paragraph,” he ordered, pointing with his stylus.
“‘The Poem of War is writ in smoke and blood, raging words dried in the holocaust of shattered lives,’” the Sergeant read quickly. “‘The Poet erases time-lines with terrible fusion and signs his name with a flourish of silence. When...’”
“Enough! Read the Standard Service Contract?”
“Can’t say’s I have, Contracting Officer Brillings, sir.”
The CO looked up at the young man for the first time, directly into his candid brown eyes. “Do you know me?”
“No, sir! I read your name on your tunic tag, sir!”
“Oh,” grunted the older man, glancing down to make sure he had a tunic tag on his left breast . Veteran NCOs could be disconcerting. “Do you wish to read the Contract?”
“Is it Standard?”
“Is it Standard, sir!”
“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir! Is it the Standard Service Contract for Voluntary Armed Forces Approved by the Mercenaries Control Commission , sir?”
“Yes, Sergeant, and offering up to five-point-four percent over standard rates for qualified personnel. That was yesterday. It may...”
“…have risen or fallen since then,” finished the soldier, calmly. “I don’t need to read Contract, sir. Just tell me what you can of the Situation Report, please, sir.”
The words, even more than his appearance, proved to the officer that this was an experienced warrior-for-hire. Rookies didn’t bother to ask details.
“Subject Action Field is G-2 planet, E-prime. Main action is dirtside, fourth planet out from a sun called Habruin Theta, but there has lately been some low-G warfare on one of its four satellites. Call’s for top-rated, experienced personnel. Extra Hazard Pay is authorized as detailed under subsection 34/C. Party of the First Part is Park’s People Company; Colonel Park Il Sung, Chief Executive Officer and Field Commander.”
Fargon waited until a fight that had broken out in the center of the hall had been quelled by MP androids flourishing stun-rods.
“Fair enough!” he said at last. “I’ll wait until I get there for the rest of the poop, sir. Where do I sign?”
“Here...and here,” said CO Brillings, making small “Xs” in the appropriate places with his stylus. “That’s fine!”
The CO countersigned the contract and pushed a stud set in his desktop. A sheaf of multiform snaked from a slot in the console. He pushed another button and almost at once a green bar flashed three times. Brillings tore off the six-part multiform, separated the bottom copy, and handed it to the waiting sergeant.
“Troop carrier leaves at 2000 hours, Sergeant Conclusyon of Park’s People. Dock Six-Alpha, Greenside. Be on it! Here’s your pass,” he added, tearing a half-sheet from a pad strapped to his left thigh, just below his service automatic.
“Report to Colonel Park in the entry bay. He’ll countersign your orders and your pay will commence at that moment.
“Drinking money, sir?” Conclusyon asked.
“Oh, yeah. Here…”
The CO dug a packet of credit chits from a locked drawer. “Fifty credit bonus, and a couple of discount coupons at the E-type bordello. Incidentally, Conclusyon, hyper-point is less than four hours off surface from here, so...”
“…go easy on booze and quiff,” Fargon finished for him again. “Actually, sir, I intend to eat the drinking money and make a spacephone call...if that’s permitted.”
“Hell, yes!” the CO said, smiling for the first time.
He liked professional soldiers, and he had just made a nice commission on the contract. “Good luck, Sergeant!”
Master Sergeant Fargon Conclusyon thanked the Contracting Officer, saluted neatly, and made his way to the rear doors of the vast hall, skirting half-a-dozen craps, cribbage, and folderol games, more than a dozen poker games, two arm-wrestling matches, and probably a hundred men in various mussed uniforms, sleeping on the soft-tile floor, their heads resting on dark blue duffel bags.
Before he reached the back of the room, the voice of the CO called the next hire. The noise and confusion was deafening and bewildering to anyone not used to it, but the closing of the auditorium doors behind Conclusyon cut it off like the chop of a heavy combat knife.
He walked down the brightly-lighted, curving corridor beyond. Space station passageways, like the lives of mercenary soldiers, seldom ran straight.
“Say, mate! Share the drinking money with an old vet down on his luck?”
“Okay, old fella,” responded Fargon, gruffly. “Here’s a couple of chits. Have a short on me.”
“Not for me, for a friend! He lost his eyes on Brivinah XI. Sarkworms! Contract failed before he could collect his...”
“Okay, panhandler, on your way!” interrupted a two-and-a-half meter MP android, rolling up to them. “Sorry, Master Sergeant! We try to keep ’em in line but technically they’ve a right to be here.”
“It’s perfectly fine, Rollercop,” Fargon said with a wide grin the ’bot could neither see nor understand. “I’m not disturbed.”
He dropped bills into the old soldier’s outstretched hand and went off to find Communications on the fourteenth in-level, just outboard the transparent skin, which opened to the emptiness within the great wheel of the space station. Emptiness filled with open crosswalks, pressurized air-tubes, bare steel girders, high-pressure water conduits, thick bundles of high-voltage wiring, complex antennae arrays, and the far-side curve of the ten-mile-wide hoop.
Beyond, below and above shone a trillion points of light against an inky background. Horsehead Nebula.
Spectacular, to say the least, thought the mercenary to himself. Space was his kind of place.
He bought an allotment of spacephone time and a plastic token that would beep him when his call had gone through. It was just after 1700 hours, Station Time. The call might go through in minutes...or it might never be placed before embarkation. Missing departure meant not only breach-of-contract mast but a stiff penalty of up to half his next commission at face value, less bonuses and awards.
He found a place to sit that looked like a web spun by an Earthly spider and watched the unwinking stars and the constant comings and goings of tiny shuttles and enormous troop carriers in the vacuum outside the transparent skin.
The planet that lay beneath...hung above?...had a name but he’d forgotten it. Just as he decided it was either Denebaria or Fyran, his chit buzzed. His call had been completed through to Francis of Assisi, his home.
“Fargon? Is that you?” asked Millie Young. “It’s so good to hear from you! It’s been almost two years! Where have you been?”
“Millie, I can’t afford more than about ninety seconds on this circuit. Just tell me if you are still waiting, or not?”
Fifteen seconds of transmission lag.
Millie replied, “I still be waiting, Fargon, me dear! You call me, I’ll come full-jets, as the song goes. My contract husband asked me to release myself but I said no. Think he’ll opt out at the end of his term. He wants a codicil for two kids but I don’t think that would be good for us...or for the kids. He’s trying for a contract with someone younger, I think, although why he can’t be content with the two kiddies he already has from before, I don’t understand. Love you, Fargon! Send me a new stereoptic as soon as you can, huh?”
The sergeant guffawed away from the phone but said into it, “I love you, too, Mil! Send you a holo from my next station. I’m doing just fine, baby. Greet your folks for me. Time’s about up. Oh, do me a favor...call my mother for me. I can’t afford two calls from this far away. Next duty’ll pay well, I hear. Maybe then I can swing a long furlough homeside. Bye Millie!”
Fifteen second delay.
“Bye, sweetheart! I’ll call Ladysmith for you. Write her and me too, will ya? Bye, honey!”
The red sweep-hand on the timer hit the stop just as Fargon slid the microphone back into its slot.
He stood, stretched mightily, smiled thoughtfully, and made his way through the far door into a Snack Bar advertised by a hot-pink, floating holograph in the shape of Mom, the Goddess of Home Cooking.
“What?” asked the bot waiter, tonelessly.
“Steakburger with Earth-style fries; medium rare,” Fargon ordered. “Extra mustard and hot pepper sauce. Brew on the side. Credit number...”
He consulted the new Service Contract for his new pay-list credit prefix. In a few hours he would have it memorized.
The robo-waiter hiccupped its acceptance of the code and slid away through the kitchen hatch.
Fargon sat back in the padded half-circle of the counter stool and glanced about. Some of the patrons of Mom’s would probably be mates on his new gig, but he didn’t see anyone he knew from previous tours. They were of all types and races, all colors, sizes, shapes, surface textures. With a few exceptions they were oxygen-breathers, more-or-less E-types, with wide variations of genetic re-design.
They were mostly veterans familiar with the drill at a Processing Station four radii up from a strange planetary surface. Experienced mercs, all.
He did recognize one face...the elderly boffer who’d bagged a part of his drinking money outside Shape-Up. Fargon waved him over to the empty stool beside him.
“Have a burger on me, old timer? I’ve got about two hours before I ship and I always like to jaw with an old hand.”
“Obliged, buddy-mine!” sniffed the drifter.
He offered his gnarled, scarred hand. “Hackett. Hack, for short. From Earth.”
“Fargon Conclusyon. Francis of Assisi.” They shook hands firmly.
“Assisi? Seems to me a number of Old Hands spoke of Assisi as a place to be from, if you know what I mean. Breeder of blasterfodder, they said.”
“Well, now, I don’t know,” said Fargon with a hearty chuckle. “Lots of good mercs come from there, if that’s what you mean.”
“Best soldiers are from Earth, the Mother Planet,” claimed the other adding, with a chuckle of his own, “Used to be able to start some ding-a-ling good fights saying that in the right places!”
They chatted while the autochef prepared Hack’s sandwich and the robo-waiter served them cold, frothy beers.
“Off at what time?” asked the veteran after his third gulp.
“That’ll be Colonel Park. I knew old Park when he was a busboy at the commissary on Flagoner. Smart kid, then! Damn good combat colonel, now, by all counts.”
“Do you know where his outfit’s going, then, Hack?”
“Naw. It’s been kept close since the order came up. Park’s careful about selecting his people. Compliment to you, I’d say.”
He didn’t really know much more about the gig than that. Fargon settled for some info about his new commander, instead.
“Park started, as I say, as a commissary mop-driver on, I think it was, Flagoner. It may have been some other damn down-dirt station. He worked like a shorted ’bot, ran a 24-hour craps game and had a crew of really nice gals who shined boots, did laundry, and provided PT on the side.
“I was a Corporal at the time. I always secretly admired Park. Not liked, so much, but admired. His kind are hard to get to know, you know what I mean? Inscrutable, they used to call them.”
Fargon finished his steak sandwich, which was pretty good considering it had never seen the underside of a cow’s hide, and nursed his second beer, which was excellent, as the other talked.
“Park saved his commissions; bought a low Lieutenancy in ol’ Dusty Miller’s outfit. Now there was a fighting bunch! Miller went into Vesuvianus after the Great Eruption. Remember? Enforcing martial law while the locals sorted themselves out. Wow! Enforce martial law on a planet where first-water diamonds lay around like pebbles on Brighton beach! Talk about ough-tay!”
“Vesuvianus? Heard of that do,” nodded Fargon.
“Helluva mess! I wasn’t there, but I knew some guys who were. Some of ’em as went down with ol’ Dusty came off-planet mega-millionaires. The rest were dead from sniper’s bullets or in the brig for stealing from the ones who had the diamonds. I heard lead for slugs was so short they used round-cut diamonds as bullets!”
“Unlikely, at best,” commented the Sergeant. “Still, that many diamonds...musta been a dime a dozen.”
“Only ’til you got back to some free-market system. You’re right, o’ course! Only a handful managed to hang onto them stones long enough to reach a civilized sector.”
He paused to gulp half his second beer.
“Anyway...ol’ Dusty got his share and retired to take up dugong ranching on Freestar Three. Company men who survived that gig held a Meeting. All of a sudden they found that, somehow, young Lieutenant Park owned something like forty-eight percent of the voting stock!
“The other stockholders couldn’t agree on a new Colonel, and Park was asked to serve until a new man could be found. Park smiled politely, took out his wallet and bought fifteen more shares for cash...from two night-ladies on the Board, they say.”
“Hey! Majority shareholder and new Colonel, all in one swoop!” chuckled Fargon.
Both soldiers threw back their heads and howled with laughter. Heads swiveled to look and turned away again. Loud shouts and boisterous laughter were common.
“I admire Park as a businessman already,” said Fargon, catching his breath at last. “But what about Park as a military man?”
“I hear he’s considerably better than your average grunt-pusher,” Hack allowed, ordering himself another beer and then looked sideways at his new friend to see if he minded.
Fargon signaled the ’bot waiter to accept the order.
“He’s good, they say. Tough. Insists on battle discipline even off the field. Hires only the best; takes only the most profitable gigs. Looks them over mighty careful before he signs on for a job. Some say...well, he has his enemies, I guess...they say he’ll bite off more than he can chew, one of these days. But so far he’s pulled off some tricky gigs.”
Fargon listened intently. “Return on investment?”
A mercenary soldier invested not money, usually, but time and testicles. In return he got excitement, exotic memories, violent action in spurts after long periods of organized boredom. The pay was good...if you lived to collect it.
“Park’s People make more than average because Park takes on the harder jobs. Sometimes a lotta his mercs die. Ten parts of every credit of duty pay goes into a fund for disability retirement or death-on-duty. Bonuses are very high...paid only on Park’s say-so, not some dumb staff sergeant. My apologies, Sarge!”
“I know what some sergeants are like. I was a private and a corporal a long time before I made Grade Three!”
“As I say, Park has a reputation for using up averages fast, but good soldiers tend to survive and get paid accordingly. Strictly honest, too. No Company store, even. That’s good!”
Fargon thought for a moment about the merc’s words, sipping his last brew. Somewhere a klaxon sounded and an electronic voice told them Station Time in five different languages. Several of Mom’s patrons stood to pay their chits and gather their belongings.
“Old man, I’ve gotta go. Here,” Fargon handed the vet his remaining drinking money, “for your blind buddy.”
“You know, about that,” said the old soldier with the grace to look embarrassed. “Tanker died four months back.”
“Throw a binge tonight to remember him by, then,” said Fargon, rising. He picked up his heavy field kit from the check room ’bot, slanted his kepi jauntily over his left eye and joined a thin stream of soldiers moving toward the exit.
Hack threw him a parting salute.
“Watch out for Park’s grunt captain, ol’ Bulldog Brownstone,” he called after Fargon. “He’s a jealous prick who can’t abide a non-com smarter than him.”
“I know the type,” said Fargon without turning.
He took a cross-tube to Debarkation Level, kit bag over his shoulder, feeling more than a bit low and a little beery. Duty and the old pay check called loudly and you went off down a chute that popped you out God-knew-where and old buddies were soon forgotten.
This particular chute popped him out onto a huge, green-floored staging area signed with an array of levitated fluorescent pink arrows and numerals. Sergeant Conclusyon marched without breaking step to Dock Six and down a slide ramp to Bay Alpha-Green.
The whole of the right side of the vast enclosure was filled by the mirror-smooth, curved, chrome side of a vast troopship, unbroken except for a single row of ports, four hatches, and a large cargo door. The ports were dead-eyes...showing no lights...but the personnel and cargo hatches were wide open. Robot supply sleds were streaming through.
Fargon fell in with a throng, mostly Men but with a sprinkling of XTs, off-worlders. These latter tended to clump together off to one side, although warrior clans of many XT races had long been accepted as battle-partners by Earth-descended soldiers.
These were predominantly Flannahs, Fishmen, Bladders, and Catladies. For the first time among them, Fargon recognized an old friend from a previous contract. As he approached, a two-meter, dark grey Catlady raised her powerful arms and howled a greeting.
“Arrrgh, Fargon! With us on this gig, are you?”
“Tarrah! Good to see you again!”
He stroked her neck ruff and behind her tufted, grey and pink ears, the traditional Catlady greeting. Tarrah flicked his hand with her dry, rough tongue in friendly reply.
“My mate, Thoma,” she introduced a chocolate-brown male standing with her. “Good scrapper but a better lover, you know? Permanent mate, he is,” she added, proudly.
Fargon held out his hand, palm upward, to her mate and the Catlady male lowered his head slowly to sniff Fargon’s fingers, delicately.
“I’ve heard of you, Fargon Conclusyon. You saved my kitty’s life. We both owe you!”
“I’ll collect one of these days. I’d like you both in my company. Made corporal yet, Tarrah?”
“No, this mate of mine got me with kittens a couple of years back and I missed my best chance. Under you, Fargon, I’d accept a promotion, if offered.”
“Not sure what my position will be with this Park,” said Fargon softly. “Probably a Gun Platoon, on my record. I’ll ask for you two when we start staffing. Should be no problem, even the corporalcy.”
“Colonel Park,” said a new voice, “likes to people his companies with look-alikes.”
The newcomer was a fairly young man with light-colonel’s clusters on his collar and the Earth-Oriental features of the ancient Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.
“Tung Lo Chang,” he introduced himself after exchanging salutes with the sergeant and the two felinoids. “Executive Officer. Second-in-Command.”
“Sir!” said the soldiers formally.
“You understand Colonel Park’s desire to keep all XTs together? Not racial, at all! Experience says they get along better and fight better beside their own kind.
“I will, of course, respect the honorable Colonel’s wishes in the matter,” said Fargon, rather sharply. “But I would suggest to the Colonel that for certain purposes a mixed squad is better. More effective.”
Chang nodded, “I’ll bring it to the Colonel’s attention. He knows your record and your abilities, Sergeant. He may very well make an exception in your case.”
“I shall make no further reference to the matter,” said Fargon, with a slight smile.
“Very wise, then, Master Sergeant! Leave it to me, please. I expect you’ll fight well and be rewarded generously in Park’s People. Good-bye for now, Soldiers! Sergeant, please go to the head of the line, get your contract validated and your mass tallied.”
The officer moved away to speak to another officer, a burly Earth-Caucasian who, Fargon suspected, must be the man Brownstone, Hack’d warned him about. Bulldog Brownstone...he remembered hearing about him elsewhere, too. The nickname described him well. He looked like a bulldog who’d smelled something suspicious...
“I don’t like him on sight,” muttered Tarrah in his ear. She’d followed his glance and, with the half-clairvoyance of her species, guessed his thoughts. “Looks like a goddamn dog.”
“Careful!” breathed Thoma. “He is our superior officer.”
Fargon left the Catladies and fell in line with a half-dozen other non-coms, chevroned sergeants of various specialties and grades. They greeted him with nods and handshakes, giving their names and ranks. He was evidently the ranking non-com. They smoothly moved him to the head of the line.