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       George Chetwynd Griffith / Science Fiction
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Mercenary
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MERCENARY

Every status-quo-caste society in history has left open two roads to rise above your caste: The Priest and The Warrior. But in a society of TV and tranquilizers--the Warrior acquires a strange new meaning....

BY MACK REYNOLDS

ILLUSTRATED BY BIRMINGHAM

Joseph Mauser spotted the recruiting line-up from two or three blocksdown the street, shortly after driving into Kingston. The local officesof Vacuum Tube Transport, undoubtedly. Baron Haer would be doing hisrecruiting for the fracas with Continental Hovercraft there if for noother reason than to save on rents. The Baron was watching pennies onthis one and that was bad.

In fact, it was so bad that even as Joe Mauser let his sports hovercarsink to a parking level and vaulted over its side he was stillquestioning his decision to sign up with the Vacuum Tube outfit ratherthan with their opponents. Joe was an old pro and old pros do not get tobe old pros in the Category Military without developing an instinct tostay away from losing sides.

Fine enough for Low-Lowers and Mid-Lowers to sign up with this outfit,as opposed to that, motivated by no other reasoning than the snappinessof the uniform and the stock shares offered, but an old pro consideredcarefully such matters as budget. Baron Haer was watching every expense,was, it was rumored, figuring on commanding himself and calling uponrelatives and friends for his staff. Continental Hovercraft, on theother hand, was heavy with variable capital and was in a position tohire Stonewall Cogswell himself for their tactician.

However, the die was cast. You didn't run up a caste level, not to speakof two at once, by playing it careful. Joe had planned this out; foronce, old pro or not, he was taking risks.

Recruiting line-ups were not for such as he. Not for many a year, many afracas. He strode rapidly along this one, heading for the offices ahead,noting only in passing the quality of the men who were taking servicewith Vacuum Tube Transport. These were the soldiers he'd be commandingin the immediate future and the prospects looked grim. There were fewveterans among them. Their stance, their demeanor, their ... well, youcould tell a veteran even though he be Rank Private. You could tell aveteran of even one fracas. It showed.

He knew the situation. The word had gone out. Baron Malcolm Haer was duefor a defeat. You weren't going to pick up any lush bonuses signing upwith him, and you definitely weren't going to jump a caste. In short, nomatter what Haer's past record, choose what was going to be the winningside--Continental Hovercraft. Continental Hovercraft and old StonewallCogswell who had lost so few fracases that many a Telly buff couldn'tremember a single one.

Individuals among these men showed promise, Joe Mauser estimated even ashe walked, but promise means little if you don't live long enough tocash in on it.

Take that small man up ahead. He'd obviously got himself into a hasslemaintaining his place in line against two or three heftier would-besoldiers. The little fellow wasn't backing down a step in spite of theattempts of the other Lowers to usurp his place. Joe Mauser liked to seesuch spirit. You could use it when you were in the dill.

As he drew abreast of the altercation, he snapped from the side of hismouth, ”Easy, lads. You'll get all the scrapping you want withHovercraft. Wait until then.”

He'd expected his tone of authority to be enough, even though he was inmufti. He wasn't particularly interested in the situation, beyond givingthe little man a hand. A veteran would have recognized him as anold-timer and probable officer, and heeded, automatically.

These evidently weren't veterans.

”Says who?” one of the Lowers growled back at him. ”You one of BaronHaer's kids, or something?”

Joe Mauser came to a halt and faced the other. He was irritated, largelywith himself. He didn't want to be bothered. Nevertheless, there was noalternative now.

The line of men, all Lowers so far as Joe could see, had fallen silentin an expectant hush. They were bored with their long wait. Nowsomething would break the monotony.

By tomorrow, Joe Mauser would be in command of some of these men. In aslittle as a week he would go into a full-fledged fracas with them. Hecouldn't afford to lose face. Not even at this point when all, includinghimself, were still civilian garbed. When matters pickled, in a fracas,you wanted men with complete confidence in you.

* * * * *

The man who had grumbled the surly response was a near physical twin ofJoe Mauser which put him in his early thirties, gave him five footeleven of altitude and about one hundred and eighty pounds. His clothescasted him Low-Lower--nothing to lose. As with many who have nothing tolose, he was willing to risk all for principle. His face now registeredthat ideal. Joe Mauser had no authority over him, nor his friends.

Joe's eyes flicked to the other two who had been pestering the littlefellow. They weren't quite so aggressive and as yet had come to noconclusion about their stand. Probably the three had been unacquaintedbefore their bullying alliance to deprive the smaller man of his place.However, a moment of hesitation and Joe would have a trio on his hands.

He went through no further verbal preliminaries. Joe Mauser steppedcloser. His right hand lanced forward, not doubled in a fist but fingersclose together and pointed, spear-like. He sank it into the other'sabdomen, immediately below the rib cage--the solar plexus.

He had misestimated the other two. Even as his opponent crumpled, theywere upon him, coming in from each side. And at least one of them, hecould see now, had been in hand-to-hand combat before. In short, anotherpro, like Joe himself.

He took one blow, rolling with it, and his feet automatically went intothe shuffle of the trained fighter. He retreated slightly to erectdefenses, plan attack. They pressed him strongly, sensing victory in hisretreat.

The one mattered little to him. Joe Mauser could have polished off theoaf in a matter of seconds, had he been allotted seconds to devote. Butthe second, the experienced one, was the problem. He and Joe were wellmatched and with the oaf as an ally really he had all the best of it.

Support came from a forgotten source, the little chap who had been thereason for the whole hassle. He waded in now as big as the next man sofar as spirit was concerned, but a sorry fate gave him to attack thewrong man, the veteran rather than the tyro. He took a crashing blow tothe side of his head which sent him sailing back into the recruitingline, now composed of excited, shouting verbal participants of the fray.

However, the extinction of Joe Mauser's small ally had taken a moment ortwo and time was what Joe needed most. For a double second he had theoaf alone on his hands and that was sufficient. He caught a flailingarm, turned his back and automatically went into the movements whichresult in that spectacular hold of the wrestler, the Flying Mare. Justin time he recalled that his opponent was a future comrade-in-arms andtwisted the arm so that it bent at the elbow, rather than breaking. Hehurled the other over his shoulder and as far as possible, to take thescrap out of him, and twirled quickly to meet the further attack of hissole remaining foe.

That phase of the combat failed to materialize.

A voice of command bit out, ”Hold it, you lads!”

The original situation which had precipitated the fight was beingduplicated. But while the three Lowers had failed to respond to JoeMauser's tone of authority, there was no similar failure now.

The owner of the voice, beautifully done up in the uniform of VacuumTube Transport, complete to kilts and the swagger stick of the officerof Rank Colonel or above, stood glaring at them. Age, Joe estimated,even as he came to attention, somewhere in the late twenties--an Upperin caste. Born to command. His face holding that arrogant, contemptuousexpression once common to the patricians of Rome, the Prussian Junkers,the British ruling class of the Nineteenth Century. Joe knew theexpression well. How well he knew it. On more than one occasion, he haddreamt of it.

Joe said, ”Yes, sir.”

”What in Zen goes on here? Are you lads overtranked?”

”No, sir,” Joe's veteran opponent grumbled, his eyes on the ground, aschoolboy before the principal.

Joe said, evenly, ”A private disagreement, sir.”

”Disagreement!” the Upper snorted. His eyes went to the three fallencombatants, who were in various stages of reviving. ”I'd hate to see youlads in a real scrap.”

That brought a response from the non-combatants in the recruiting line.The _bon mot_ wasn't that good but caste has its privileges and thelaughter was just short of uproarious.

Which seemed to placate the kilted officer. He tapped his swagger stickagainst the side of his leg while he ran his eyes up and down Joe Mauserand the others, as though memorizing them for future reference.

”All right,” he said. ”Get back into the line, and you trouble makersquiet down. We're processing as quickly as we can.” And at that point headded insult to injury with an almost word for word repetition of whatJoe had said a few moments earlier. ”You'll get all the fighting youwant from Hovercraft, if you can wait until then.”

The four original participants of the rumpus resumed their places invarious stages of sheepishness. The little fellow, nursing an obviouslyaching jaw, made a point of taking up his original position even whiledarting a look of thanks to Joe Mauser who still stood where he had whenthe fight was interrupted.

The Upper looked at Joe. ”Well, lad, are you interested in signing upwith Vacuum Tube Transport or not?”

”Yes, sir,” Joe said evenly. Then, ”Joseph Mauser, sir. CategoryMilitary, Rank Captain.”

”Indeed.” The officer looked him up and down all over again, hisnostrils high. ”A Middle, I assume. And brawling with recruits.” He helda long silence. ”Very well, come with me.” He turned and marched off.

Joe inwardly shrugged. This was a fine start for his pitch--a finestart. He had half a mind to give it all up, here and now, and head onup to Catskill to enlist with Continental Hovercraft. His big schemewould wait for another day. Nevertheless, he fell in behind thearistocrat and followed him to the offices which had been his originaldestination.

* * * * *

Two Rank Privates with 45-70 Springfields and wearing the Haer kilts insuch wise as to indicate permanent status in Vacuum Tube Transport cameto the salute as they approached. The Upper preceding Joe Mauser flickedhis swagger stick in an easy nonchalance. Joe felt envious amusement.How long did it take to learn how to answer a salute with that degree ofarrogant ease?

There were desks in here, and typers humming, as Vacuum Tube Transportoffice workers, mobilized for this special service, processed volunteersfor the company forces. Harried noncoms and junior-grade officers buzzedeverywhere, failing miserably to bring order to the chaos. To the rightwas a door with a medical cross newly painted on it. When itoccasionally popped open to admit or emit a recruit, white-robeddoctors, male nurses and half nude men could be glimpsed beyond.

Joe followed the other through the press and to an inner office at whichdoor he didn't bother to knock. He pushed his way through, waved ingreeting with his swagger stick to the single occupant who looked upfrom the paper- and tape-strewn desk at which he sat.

Joe Mauser had seen the face before on Telly though never so tired asthis and never with the element of defeat to be read in the expression.Bullet-headed, barrel-figured Baron Malcolm Haer of Vacuum TubeTransport. Category Transportation, Mid-Upper, and strong candidate forUpper-Upper upon retirement. However, there would be few who expectedretirement in the immediate future. Hardly. Malcolm Haer found tooobvious a lusty enjoyment in the competition between Vacuum TubeTransport and its stronger rivals.

* * *

Joe came to attention, bore the sharp scrutiny of his chosencommander-to-be. The older man's eyes went to the kilted Upper officerwho had brought Joe along. ”What is it, Balt?”

The other gestured with his stick at Joe. ”Claims to be Rank Captain.Looking for a commission with us, Dad. I wouldn't know why.” The lastsentence was added lazily.

The older Haer shot an irritated glance at his son. ”Possibly for thesame reason mercenaries usually enlist for a fracas, Balt.” His eyescame back to Joe.

Joe Mauser, still at attention even though in mufti, opened his mouth togive his name, category and rank, but the older man waved a handnegatively. ”Captain Mauser, isn't it? I caught the fracas betweenCarbonaceous Fuel and United Miners, down on the Panhandle Reservation.Seems to me I've spotted you once or twice before, too.”

”Yes, sir,” Joe said. This was some improvement in the way things weregoing.

The older Haer was scowling at him. ”Confound it, what are you doingwith no more rank than captain? On the face of it, you're an old hand, ahighly experienced veteran.”

_An old pro, we call ourselves_, Joe said to himself. _Old pros, we callourselves, among ourselves._

Aloud, he said, ”I was born a Mid-Lower, sir.”

There was understanding in the old man's face, but Balt Haer saidloftily, ”What's that got to do with it? Promotion is quick and based onmerit in Category Military.”

At a certain point, if you are good combat officer material, you speakyour mind no matter the rank of the man you are addressing. On thisoccasion, Joe Mauser needed few words. He let his eyes go up and downBalt Haer's immaculate uniform, taking in the swagger stick of the RankColonel or above. Joe said evenly, ”Yes, sir.”

Balt Haer flushed quick temper. ”What do you mean by--”

But his father was chuckling. ”You have spirit, captain. I need spiritnow. You are quite correct. My son, though a capable officer, I assureyou, has probably not participated in a fraction of the fracases youhave to your credit. However, there is something to be said for thetraining available to we Uppers in the academies. For instance, captain,have you ever commanded a body of lads larger than, well, a _company_?”

Joe said flatly, ”In the Douglas-Boeing versus Lockheed-Cessna fracas wetook a high loss of officers when the Douglas-Boeing outfit rang in somefast-firing French _mitrailleuse_ we didn't know they had. As mysuperiors took casualties I was field promoted to acting battalioncommander, to acting regimental commander, to acting brigadier. Forthree days I held the rank of acting commander of brigade. We won.”

Balt Haer snapped his fingers. ”I remember that. Read quite a paper onit.” He eyed Joe Mauser, almost respectfully. ”Stonewall Cogswell gotthe credit for the victory and received his marshal's baton as aresult.”

”He was one of the few other officers that survived,” Joe said dryly.

”But, Zen! You mean you got no promotion at all?”

Joe said, ”I was upped to Low-Middle from High-Lower, sir. At my age, atthe time, quite a promotion.”

* * * * *

Baron Haer was remembering, too. ”That was the fracas that brought onthe howl from the Sovs. They claimed those _mitrailleuse_ were post-1900and violated the Universal Disarmament Pact. Yes, I recall that.Douglas-Boeing was able to prove that the weapon was used by the Frenchas far back as the Franco-Prussian War.” He eyed Joe with new interestnow. ”Sit down, captain. You too, Balt. Do you realize that CaptainMauser is the only recruit of officer rank we've had today?”

”Yes,” the younger Haer said dryly. ”However, it's too late to call thefracas off now. Hovercraft wouldn't stand for it, and the CategoryMilitary Department would back them. Our only alternative isunconditional surrender, and you know what that means.”

”It means our family would probably be forced from control of the firm,”the older man growled. ”But nobody has suggested surrender on any terms.Nobody, thus far.” He glared at his officer son who took it with an easyshrug and swung a leg over the edge of his father's desk in the way of aseat.

Joe Mauser found a chair and lowered himself into it. Evidently, thefoppish Balt Haer had no illusions about the spot his father had got thefamily corporation into. And the younger man was right, of course.

But the Baron wasn't blind to reality any more than he was a coward. Hedismissed Balt Haer's defeatism from his mind and came back to JoeMauser. ”As I say, you're the only officer recruit today. Why?”

Joe said evenly, ”I wouldn't know, sir. Perhaps freelance CategoryMilitary men are occupied elsewhere. There's always a shortage oftrained officers.”

Baron Haer was waggling a finger negatively. ”That's not what I mean,captain. You are an old hand. This is your category and you must know itwell. Then why are _you_ signing up with Vacuum Tube Transport ratherthan Hovercraft?”

Joe Mauser looked at him for a moment without speaking.

”Come, come, captain. I am an old hand too, in my category, and not afool. I realize there is scarcely a soul in the West-world that expectsanything but disaster for my colors. Pay rates have been widely posted.I can offer only five common shares of Vacuum Tube for a Rank Captain,win or lose. Hovercraft is doubling that, and can pick and choose amongthe best officers in the hemisphere.”

Joe said softly, ”I have all the shares I need.”

Balt Haer had been looking back and forth between his father and thenewcomer and becoming obviously more puzzled. He put in, ”Well, what inZen motivates you if it isn't the stock we offer?”

Joe glanced at the younger Haer to acknowledge the question but he spoketo the Baron. ”Sir, like you said, you're no fool. However, you've beensucked in, this time. When you took on Hovercraft, you were thinking interms of a regional dispute. You wanted to run one of your vacuum tubedeals up to Fairbanks from Edmonton. You were expecting a minor fracas,involving possibly five thousand men. You never expected Hovercraft toparlay it up, through their connections in the Category MilitaryDepartment, to a divisional magnitude fracas which you simply aren'tlarge enough to afford. But Hovercraft was getting sick of yourcorporation. You've been nicking away at them too long. So they decidedto do you in. They've hired Marshal Cogswell and the best combatofficers in North America, and they're hiring the most competentveterans they can find. Every fracas buff who watches Telly, figuresyou've had it. They've been watching you come up the aggressive way, thehard way, for a long time, but now they're all going to be sitting onthe edges of their sofas waiting for you to get it.”

Baron Haer's heavy face had hardened as Joe Mauser went on relentlessly.He growled, ”Is this what everyone thinks?”

”Yes. Everyone intelligent enough to have an opinion.” Joe made a motionof his head to the outer offices where the recruiting was proceeding.”Those men out there are rejects from Catskill, where old BaronZwerdling is recruiting. Either that or they're inexperiencedLow-Lowers, too stupid to realize they're sticking their necks out. Notone man in ten is a veteran. And when things begin to pickle, you wantveterans.”

Baron Malcolm Haer sat back in his chair and stared coldly at CaptainJoe Mauser. He said, ”At first I was moderately surprised that an oldtime mercenary like yourself should choose my uniform, rather thanZwerdling's. Now I am increasingly mystified about motivation. So allover again I ask you, captain: Why are you requesting a commission in myforces which you seem convinced will meet disaster?”

Joe wet his lips carefully. ”I think I know a way you can win.”


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