The Tank Lords by David Drake

The Tank Lords by David Drake

The Tank Lords by David Drake

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.


Under the Hammer

“Think you’re going to like killing, boy?” asked the old man on double crutches.

Rob Jenne turned from the streams of moving cargo to his unnoticed companion in the shade of the starship’s hull. His own eyes were pale gray, suited like his dead-white skin to Burlage, whose ruddy sun could raise a blush but not a tan. When they adjusted, they took in the clerical collar which completed the other’s costume. The smooth, black synthetic contrasted oddly with the coveralls and shirt of local weave. At that, the Curwinite’s outfit was a cut above Rob’s own, the same worksuit of Burlage sisal that he had worn as a quarryhand at home. Uniform issue would come soon.

At least, he hoped and prayed it would.

When the youth looked away after an embarrassed grin, the priest chuckled. “Another damned old fool, hey, boy? There were a few in your family, weren’t there . . . the ones who’d quote the Book of the Way saying not to kill—and here you go off for a hired murderer. Right?” He laughed again, seeing he had the younger man’s attention. “But that by itself wouldn’t be so hard to take—you were leaving your family anyway, weren’t you, nobody really believes they’ll keep close to their people after five years, ten years of star hopping. But your mates, though, the team you worked with . . . how did you explain to them why you were leaving a good job to go on contract? ‘Via!’ ” the priest mimicked, his tones so close to those of Barney Larsen, the gang boss, that Rob started in surprise, “you get your coppy ass shot off, lad, and it’ll serve you right for being a fool!”

“How do you know I signed for a mercenary?” Jenne asked, clenching his great, calloused hands on the handle of his carry-all. It was everything he owned in the universe in which he no longer had a home. “And how’d you know about my Aunt Gudrun?”

“Haven’t I seen a thousand of you?” the priest blazed back, his eyes like sparks glinting from the drill shaft as the sledge drove it deeper into the rock. “You’re young and strong and bright enough to pass Alois Hammer’s tests—you be proud of that, boy, few enough are fit for Hammer’s Slammers. There you were, a man grown who’d read all the cop about mercenaries, believed most of it . . . more’n ever you did the Book of the Way, anyhow. Sure, I know. So you got some off-planet factor to send your papers in for you, for the sake of the bounty he’ll get from the colonel if you make the grade—”

The priest caught Rob’s blink of surprise. He chuckled again, a cruel, unpriestly sound, and said, “He told you it was for friendship? One a these days you’ll learn what friendship counts, when you get an order that means the death of a friend—and you carry it out.”

Rob stared at the priest in repulsion, the grizzled chin resting on interlaced fingers and the crutches under either armpit supporting most of his weight. “It’s my life,” the recruit said with sulky defiance. “Soon as they pick me up here, you can go back to living your own. ‘Less you’d be willing to do that right now?”

“They’ll come soon enough, boy,” the older man said in a milder voice. “Sure, you’ve been ridden by everybody you know . . . now that you’re alone, here’s a stranger riding you too. I don’t mean it like I sound . . . wasn’t born to the work, I guess. There’s priests—and maybe the better ones—who’d say that signing on with mercenaries means so long a spiral down that maybe your soul won’t come out of it in another life or another hundred. But I don’t see it like that.

“Life’s a forge, boy, and the purest metal comes from the hottest fire. When you’ve been under the hammer a few times, you’ll find you’ve been beaten down to the real, no lies, no excuses. There’ll be a time, then, when you got to look over the product . . . and if you don’t like what you see, well, maybe there’s time for change, too.”

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Categories: David Drake