The Warbirds, by E.C. Tubb (paperback)

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Misfits mostly. Men who sought in the rush and tide of battle, an outlet for violent emotion. Society condemned them, yet admired their necessity. Cultures shunned them - yet gladly used their services. Wars there were, and wars there would be, but technology had forced war to become a thing apart.

Nations, planets, dared not to fight. Gone were the days of indiscriminate killing. The dross from atomic piles was too plentiful, too deadly potent, for any state, no matter how powerful, to blast his neighbour. A single man, or woman, driven frantic with grief over the loss of a loved one, could load a ship with atomic dust, slip through the tightest cordon, and spread utter destruction.

Once spread, nothing could stop a world turning into an arid desert. Such planets were to be seen. Grown wealthy and arrogant, they had waged war, and died as a result.

And so the Warbirds. The Eagles. Mercenaries. Free Companions. Stateless men. Devoid of passion, hate and fear, they fought for money, and that alone. Men who could be trusted. Men who fought to a strict code. Battles were fought, and not a civilian died. Wars were lost, and not a city harmed. Losers paid, and paid dearly, but that was the total of their lives.

And Gregg Harmond was one of them. From farmer to mercenary to Commander, he rose quickly to power and created one of the mightiest war machines in the universe. But could he hold onto it?