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Nieuw Friesland

The room housing the Officers Assignment Bureau was spacious enough to have three service cages and seats for twenty around the walls of colored marble. Nobody was waiting when Major Matthew Coke entered, though a single officer discussed alternative assignments with a specialist.

Coke stepped into an empty cage. A clerk rose from her desk in the administrative area across the divider and switched on the electronics.

"Yes sir?" the clerk said pleasantly. "Is there a problem with your assignment?"

The Frisian Defense Forces reassigned scores of officers every week. Normally the operation was impersonal, a data transfer to the officers present station directing him or her to report to a new posting, along with details of timing, transport, and interim leave.

This office handled problems. President Hammer, in common with other leaders whose elevation owed more to bullets than ballots, felt most comfortable with a large standing army under his direct control. Professional soldiers are expensive, and unless they are used, they either rust, or find ways to employ themselves—generally to the detriment of the established government.

Hammer's answer to the problem was to hire out elements of the Frisian Defense Forces as mercenaries. This provided training for the troops, as well as defraying the cost of their pay and equipment.

Sometimes the troops engaged were merely a few advisers or specialists. When somebody, a planetary government or the rebels opposed to it, hired a large force, however, the OAB would be standing room only.

Officers on Nieuw Friesland knew that the only sure route to promotion was through combat experience. The Frisian Defense Forces had sprung from Hammer's Slammers, a mercenary regiment with the reputation for doing whatever it took to win . . . and a reputation for winning.

So long as Alois Hammer was President and the commanders of the Frisian Defense Forces were the officers who'd bought him that position in decades of bloody war, bureaucratic 'warriors' weren't on the fast track to high rank. You paid for your rank sometimes in blood, and sometimes with your life; but all that was as nothing without demonstrated success at the sharp end, where they buried the guys in second place.

Not everybody was comfortable with terms of employment, but the Forces were volunteer only and the volunteers came from all across the human universe; just as they had to Hammer's Slammers before. A certain number of men, and a lower percentage of women, would rather fight than not. Alois Hammer's troops had always been the best there was at what they did: killing the other fellow, whoever he was.

A draft going out to a hot theater was a ticket to promotion. Officers would crowd the Assignment Bureau, begging and threatening, offering bribes and trying to pull rank to get a slot. Mostly it didn't work.

The Table of Organization for a combat deployment was developed by the central data base itself. Changes had to be approved by President Hammer, who was immune to any practical form of persuasion. The Assignments Bureaus were open because people prefer to argue with human beings instead of electronic displays, but that was normally a cosmetic rather than significant touch.

You could also appeal to Hammer personally. In that case, you were cashiered if you didn't convince him. Old-timers in the Assignment Bureau said that the success rate was slightly under three percent, but every month or so somebody else tried it.

There were no large-scale deployments under way at the moment, but there were always glitches, clerical or personal, which had to be ironed out. The clerk smiled at Coke, expecting to learn that he'd been assigned to a slot calling for a sergeant-major, or that he was wanted for murder on the planet to which he was being posted.

Coke's problem was rather different.

"I'm here to receive sealed orders," Coke said, offering the clerk his identification card with the embedded chip. He smiled wryly.

The clerk blinked in surprise. There were various reasons why an officer's orders would be sealed within the data base, requiring him or her to apply in person to the bureau to receive them. Coke didn't look like the sort to whom any of the special reasons would apply. He looked—normal.

Matthew Coke was 34 standard years old—29 dated on Ash, where he was born, 51 according to the shorter year of Nieuw Friesland. He had brown hair, eyes that were green, blue, or gray depending on how much sunlight had been bleaching them, and stood a meter seventy-eight in his stocking feet. He was thin but not frail, like a blade of good steel.

Coke was in dress khakis with rank tabs and the blue edging to the epaulets that indicated his specialty was infantry. He wore no medal or campaign ribbons whatever, but over his left breast pocket was a tiny lion rampant on a field of red enamel.

The lion marked the men who'd served with Hammer's Slammers before the regiment was subsumed into the Frisian Defense Forces. Its lonely splendor against the khaki meant that, like most of the other Slammers veterans, Coke figured that when you'd said you were in the Slammers, you'd said everything that mattered.

Considering that, the clerk realized that Major Coke might not be quite as normal as he looked.

"Face the lens, please, sir," the clerk said as she inserted the ID card into a slot on her side of the cage. Electronics chittered, validating the card and comparing Coke's retinal patterns with those contained in the embedded chip.

A soft chime indicated approval. Coke eased from the stiff posture with which he had faced the comparator lens. He continued to smile faintly, but the emotions the clerk read on his face were sadness and resignation.

"Just a moment," the clerk said. "The printer has to warm up, but—"

As she spoke, a sheet of hardcopy purred from the dispenser on Coke's side of the cage. Coke read the rigid film upside down as it appeared instead of waiting for the print cycle to finish so that he could clip the document.

His face blanked; then he began to laugh. The captain at the next cage glanced at him, then away. The clerk waited, hoping Coke would explain the situation but unwilling to press him.

Coke tapped the cutter, and then tossed the sheet across the counter to the clerk. "It says my new assignment is Category Ten Forty-seven," he said as the clerk scanned the document. "That's survey team, isn't it?"

The clerk nodded. "Yessir," she said. "You'll be assessing potential customers for field force deployments."

She didn't understand Major Coke's laughter. "Isn't this what you were expecting, sir?" she asked as she slid back the hardcopy.

"What I was expecting . . ." Coke explained, " . . . after the way I screwed up my last assignment on Auerstadt . . ."

He was smiling like a skull, as broadly and with as little humor.

" . . . was that they'd fire my ass. But I guess the Assessment Board decided I couldn't get into much trouble on a survey team."

He began to laugh again. Despite the obvious relief in Coke's voice, the sound of his laughter chilled the clerk.

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