Introduction: The Mercenaries
When the dominant species of a minor nine planet system revolving about a yellow sun known as "Sol" — situated close to the fringe of the Galaxy — gained knowledge of space flight and came out into our lanes of travel there arose a problem which Central Control had to solve, and speedily. These "men," as they called themselves, combined curiosity, daring, and technical skill with a basic will-to-compete against other races and species, an in-born thrust to conflict. Their answer to any problem was aggressive. Had this "will-to-battle" not been recognized at once for what it was and channeled into proper outlet, infinitesimal as their numbers were among us, we have been told that their influence might have torn asunder the peace of the stellar lanes and plunged whole sectors into war.
But the proper steps were taken at once and the Terrans were assigned a role which not only suited their nature but also provided a safety valve for all other belligerents among the systems which make up our great confederacy. Having been studied and carefully evaluated by Central Control psycho-techneers the Terrans were appointed to act as the mercenaries of the Galaxy — until such a time as these too independent and aggressive creatures would develop for themselves some less dangerous calling.
Thus there came into being the "Hordes" and "Legions" we find mentioned again and again in the various solar histories of the period. These organizations, manned by either "Archs" or "Mechs," carried on a formalized warfare for any planetary ruler who desired to enhance his prestige by employing them to fight his battles.
The Archs who comprised the Hordes were limited to service upon primitive worlds, being equipped with hand weapons and fighting in personal combat. The Mechs of the Legions followed technical warfare, indulging in it, however, more as a game in which it was necessary to make one's opponent concede victory, often without actual battle.
When still in the newly hatched stage "men" were selected to be either "Archs" or "Mechs" by rigid aptitude tests. After a period of intensive schooling in their trade they signed on for "enlistments" under field commanders. A portion of each payment made to the individual Horde or Legion commander by his employer was returned to their home world, Terra, as a tax. In other words, this system exported fighting men and the materials for war and became merchants of battle. Within a generation they accepted their role among us, apparently without question.
Three hundred years later (all students turn, please, to folio six, column two — the date of "3956 A.D." is a reckoning peculiar to Terra, we use it in your source material for this section because all reading will be based upon certain accounts written by the Terrans themselves) a minor Horde was employed by a rebellious native ruler on Fronn. While so engaged this organization uncovered a situation which changed history for their species, and perhaps for the Galaxy as well. Whether this change will operate for the general good for us all remains to be seen.
1. Swordsman, Third Class
Because he had never been in Prime before Kana Karr, Arch Swordsman, Third Class, would have liked nothing better than to brace his lanky length against the wall of the airport and stare up at those towers thrusting into the steely blue of the morning sky. But to do that was to betray himself as a greenie, so he had to be satisfied with glances skyward taking in as much of the awesome sight as he could without becoming conspicuous. More than ever he resented the fate which had delivered him at Combatant Headquarters a whole month later than his recruit class, so that he would probably be the only newcomer among those awaiting assignment in the Hiring Hall.
Actually to be at Prime itself was exciting. This was the goal toward which ten years of intensive training had pointed him. He put down his war bag and rubbed his damp hands surreptitiously against his tight breeches; though it was a crisp early spring day he was sweating. The stiff collar of his new green-gray tunic sawed at his throat and the cheek wings of his dress helmet chafed his jaws. All his accouterments weighed more than they ever had before.
He was acutely conscious of the bare state of the belts crossing his shoulders, of the fact that his helmet was still crestless. The men who had shared the shuttle with him, scintillated with the gemmed loot of scores of successful missions, veterans every one of them.
Well — to achieve that status was only a matter of time, he repeated silently once more. Every one of these emblazoned figures now passing had stood there once, just as bare of insignia, probably just as uncertain inside as he now was —
Kana's attention was caught by another color, blazingly alive among the familiar waves of green-gray and silver. As his lips made a narrow line, his blue eyes, so startlingly vivid in his dark face, chilled.
A surface mobile had drawn up before the entrance of the very building to which he had been directed. And climbing out of it was a squat man swathed in a brilliant scarlet cloak, behind him two others in black and white. As if their arrival had been signaled, the Terran Combatants on the steps melted to right and left, making a wide path to the door.
But that was not in honor, Kana Karr reminded himself fiercely. Terrans on their home planet paid no deference to Galactic Agents, except in a style so exaggerated as to underline their dislike. There would surely come a time when —
His fists balled as he watched the red cloak and his guardian Galactic Patrolmen vanish inside the Hiring Hall. Kana had never had direct contact with an Agent. The X-Tees, the non-human Extra-Terrestrials, who had been his instructors after he had proved capable of absorbing X-Tee and Alien Liaison training, were a different class altogether. Perhaps because they were non-human he had never really ranked them among those rulers of Central Control who had generations earlier so blithely termed the inhabitants of Sol's system "barbarians," not eligible for Galactic citizenship except within the narrow limits they defined.
He was conscious that not all his fellows were as resentful of that as he was. Most of his classmates, for example, had been content enough to accept the future so arbitrarily decided for them. Outright rebellion meant the labor camps and no chance to ever go into space. Only a Combatant on military duty had the privilege of visiting the stars. And when Kana had learned that early in his career, he had set himself to acquire the shell of a model Arch, discovering in X-Tee training enough solace to aid his control of the seething hatred for the fact that he was not allowed to range the stars as he willed.
The sharp note of a military whistle proclaiming the hour brought him back to earth and to the problem at hand. He shouldered his war bag and climbed the steps up which the Agent had gone a few moments before. He left his bag in the lockers by the door and took his place in the line of men winding into the inner hall.
The Mechs in their blue-gray coveralls and bubble helmets outnumbered the Archs in his particular section of that creeping line. And the few Archs near him were veterans. Consequently even when surrounded by his kind Kana felt as isolated here as he had in the street.
"They're trying to keep the lid on — but Falfa refused that assignment for his Legion." The Mech to his left, a man in his thirties with ten enlistment notches on his blade-of-honor, made no effort to keep his voice down.
"He'll face a board for refusing," returned his companion dubiously. "After all there's such a thing as a run of hard luck — "
"Hard luck? Two different Legions don't return from the same job and you talk about luck! I'd say that some investigating was called for. D'you know how many Legions have been written off the rolls in the past five years — twenty! Does that sound like bad luck?"
Kana almost echoed the other listener's gasp. Twenty Legions lost in battle over a period of five years — that
The man before him moved suddenly and Kana hurried to close the gap between them. They were at the enlistment barrier. Kana pulled at the lock on his armlet to have it ready to hand to the Swordtan on duty there. That strip of flexible metal, fed into the record block, would automatically flash on the assignment rolls all the necessary information concerning one Kana Karr, Australian-Malay-Hawaiian, age eighteen and four months, training: basic with X-Tee specialization, previous service: none. And once that went into Hiring there was no turning back. The Swordtan took the band, allowed it to rest on the block for an instant, and handed it back with the lackluster boredom of one condemned to a routine job.
Within there were plenty of empty seats — Mechs to the left, Archs to the r ...