It was indeed a fabulous sight. Leading the parade was a one-robot band, twelve feet high and splendid in its great black busby that concealed the hi-fi speakers. The golden pillars of its legs stamped forward as its thirty articulated arms sawed, plucked and fingered at a dazzling variety of instruments. Martial music poured out in wave after inspiring wave and even Bill's thick peasant feet stirred in their clodhoppers as the shining boots of the squad of soldiers crashed along the road in perfect unison. Medals jingled on the manly swell of their scarlet-clad chests and there could certainly be no nobler sight in all the world. To their rear marched the sergeant, gorgeous in his braid and brass, thickly clustered medals and ribbons, sword and gun, girdled gut and steely eye which sought out Bill where he stood gawking over the fence. The grizzled head nodded in his direction. the steel-trap mouth bent into a friendly smile and there was a conspiratorial wink. Then the little legion was past, and hurrying behind in their wake came a huddle of dust-covered ancillary robots, hopping and crawling or rippling along on treads. As soon as these had gone by Bill climbed clumsily over the split-rail fence and ran after them. There were no more than two interesting events every four years here, and he was not going to miss what promised to be a third.
A crowd had already gathered in the market square when Bill hurried up, and they were listening to an enthusiastic band concert. The robot hurled itself into the glorious measures of Star Troopers to the Skies Avaunt, and thrashed its way through Rockets Rumble and almost demolished itself in the tumultuous rhythm of Sappers at the Pithead Digging. It pursued this last tune so strenuously that one of its legs flew off, rising high into the air, but was caught dextrously before it could hit the ground and the music ended with the robot balancing on its remaining leg beating time with the detached limb. It also, after an ear-fracturing peal on the brasses, used the leg to point across the square to where a tri-di screen and refreshment booth had been set up. The troopers had vanished into the tavern and the recruiting sergeant stood alone among his robots, beaming a welcoming smile.
"Now hear this! Free drinks for all, courtesy of the Emperor, and some lively scenes of jolly adventure in distant climes to amuse you while you sip," he called in an immense and leathery voice.
Most of the people drifted over, Bill in their midst, though a few embittered and elderly draft-dodgers slunk away between the houses. Cooling drinks were shared out by a robot with a spigot for a navel and an inexhaustible supply of plastic glasses in one hip. Bill sipped his happily while he followed the enthralling adventures of the space troopers in full colour with sound effects and stimulating subsonics. There was battle and death and glory though it was only the Chingers who died: troopers only suffered neat little wounds in their extremities that could be covered easily by small bandages. And while Bill was enjoying this, Recruiting Sergeant Grue was enjoying him, his little piggy eyes ruddy with greed as they fastened on to the back of Bill's neck.
This is the one! he chortled to himself while, unknowingly, his yellowed tongue licked at his lips. He could already feel the weight of the bonus money in his pocket. The rest of the audience were the usual mixed bag of overage men, fat women, beardless youths and other unenlistables. All except this broad-shouldered, square-chinned, curly-haired chunk of electronic cannon-fodder. With a precise hand on the controls the sergeant lowered the background subsonics and aimed a tight-beam stimulator at the back of his victim's head. Bill writhed in his seat, almost taking part in the glorious battle unfolding before him.
As the last chord died and the screen went blank the refreshment robot pounded hollowly on its metallic chest and bellowed DRINK! DRINK! DRINK! The sheeplike audience swept that way, all except Bill who was plucked from their midst by a powerful arm.
"Here, I saved some for you," the sergeant said, passing over a prepared cup so loaded with dissolved ego-reducing drugs that they were crystalising out at the bottom. "You're a fine figure of a lad and to my eye seem a cut above the yokels here. Did you ever think of making your career in the forces?"
"I'm not the military type, shargeant..." Bill chomped his jaws and spat to remove the impediment to his speech, and puzzled at the sudden fogginess in his thoughts. Though it was a tribute to his physique that he was even conscious after the volume of drugs and sonics that he had been plied with. "Not the military type. My fondest ambition is to be of help in the best way I can, in my chosen career as a Technical Fertiliser Operator and I'm almost finished with my correspondence course..."
"That's a crappy job for a bright lad like you," the sergeant said while clapping him on the arm to get a good feel of his biceps. Rock. He resisted the impulse to pull Bill's lip down and take a quick peek at the condition of his back teeth. Later. "Leave that kind of job to those that like it. No chance of promotion. While a career in the troopers has no top. Why Grand-Admiral Pflunger came up through the rocket tubes, as they say, from Recruit Trooper to Grand-Admiral. How does that sound?"
"It sounds very nice for Mr Pflunger but I think fertiliser operating is more fun. Gee - I'm feeling sleepy. I think I'll go lie down."
"Not before you've seen this, just as a favour to me of course," the sergeant said, cutting in front of him and pointing to a large book hold open by a tiny robot. "Clothes make the man and most men would be ashamed to be seen in a crummy looking smock like that thing draped around you or wearing those broken canalboats on their feet. Why look like that when you can look like this?"
Bill's eyes followed the thick finger to the colour plate in the book where a miracle of misapplied engineering caused his own face to appear on the illustrated figure dressed in trooper-red. The sergeant flipped the pages and on each plate the uniform was a little more gaudy, the rank higher. The last one was that of a Grand-Admiral and Bill blinked at his own face under the plumed helmet, now with a touch of crowfeet about the eyes and sporting a handsome and grey-shot moustache, but still undeniably his own.
"That's the way you will look," the sergeant murmured into his ear, "once you have climbed the ladder of success. Would you like to try a uniform on. Tailor!"
When Bill opened his mouth to protest the sergeant put a large cigar into it, and before he could get it out the robot tailor had rolled up, swept a curtain bearing arm about him and stripped him naked. "Hey! Hey... !" he said.
"It won't hurt," the sergeant said, poking his great head through the curtain and beaming at Bill's muscled form. He poked a finger into a pectoral (rock) then withdrew.
"Ouch!" Bill said as the tailor extruded a cold pointer and jabbed him with it, measuring his size. Something went chunk deep inside its tubular torso and a brilliant red jacket began to emerge from a slot in the front. In an instant this was slipped on to Bill and the shining gold buttons buttoned. Luxurious grey moleskin trousers were pulled on next, then gleaming black knee-length boots. Bill staggered a bit as the curtain was whipped away and a powered full-length mirror rolled up.
"Oh how the girls love a uniform," the sergeant said, "and I can't blame them."
A memory of the vision of Inga-Maria Calyphigia's matched white moons obscured Bill's sight for a moment, and when it had cleared he found he was grasping a stylo and was about to sign the form that the recruiting sergeant held before him.
"No," Bill said, a little amazed at his own firmness of mind. "I don't really want to. Technical Fertilizer Operator..."
"And not only will you receive this lovely uniform, an enlistment bonus and a free medical examination, but you will he awarded these handsome medals." The sergeant took a flat box, offered to him on cue by a robot, and opened it to display a glittering array of ribbons and bangles. "This is the Honourable Enlistment Award," he intoned gravely, pinning a jewel-encrusted nebula, pendant on chartreuse, to Bill's wide chest. "And the Emperor's Congratulatory Gilded Horn, the Forward to Victory Starburst, the Praise Be Given Salutation of the Mothers of the Victorious Fallen and the Everflowing Cornucopia which does not mean anything but it looks nice and can be used to carry contraceptives." He stepped back and admired Bill's chest which was now adangle with ribbons, shining metal and gleaning paste gems.
"I just couldn't," Bill said. "Thank you anyway for the offer, but..."
The sergeant smiled, prepared even for this eleventh hour resistance, and pressed the button on his belt that actuated the programmed hypno-coil in the heel of Bill's new boot. The powerful neural current surged through the contacts and Bill's hand twitched and jumped, and when the momentary fog had lifted from his eyes he saw that he had signed his name.
"Welcome to the Space Troopers," the sergeant boomed, smacking him on the back (trapezium like rock) and relieving him of the stylo. "FALL IN!" in a larger voice, and the recruits stumbled from the tavern.
"What have they done to my son!" Bill's mother screeched, coming into the market square, clutching at her bosom with one hand and towing his baby brother Charlie with the other. Charlie began to cry and wet his pants.
"Your son is now a trooper for the greater glory of the Emperor," the sergeant said, pushing his slack-jawed and round-shouldered recruit squad into line.
"No! it can't be..." Bill's mother sobbed, tearing at her greying hair. "I'm a poor widow, he's my sole support... you cannot...!"
"Mother..." Bill said, but the sergeant shoved him back into the ranks.
"Be brave, madam," he said. "There can be no greater glory for a mother." He dropped a large and newly minted coin into her hand. "Here is the enlistment bonus, the Emperor's shilling, I know he wants you to have it. ATTENTION!"
With a clash of heels the graceless recruits braced their shoulders and lifted their chins. Much to his surprise, so did Bill.
In a single, graceful motion they turned as the command robot replayed the order to the hypno-coil in every boot. FORWARD MARCH! And they did in perfect rhythm, so well under control that, try as hard as he could, Bill could neither turn his head nor wave a last goodbye to his mother. She vanished behind him and one last anguished wail cut through the thud of marching feet.
"Step up the count to 130," the sergeant ordered, glancing at the watch set under the nail of his little finger. "Just ten miles to the station and we'll be in camp tonight, my lads."
The command robot moved its metronome up one notch and the tramping boots conformed to the smarter pace and the men began to sweat. By the time they had reached the copter station it was nearly dark, their red paper uniforms hung in shreds, the gilt had been rubbed from their pot metal buttons and the surface charge that repelled the dust from their thin plastic boots had leaked away. They looked as ragged, weary, dusty and miserable as they felt.
It wasn't the recorded bugle playing reveille that woke Bill, but the supersonics that streamed through the metal frame of his bunk that shook him until the fillings vibrated from his teeth. He sprang to his feet and stood there shivering in the grey of dawn. Because it was summer the floor was refrigerated: no mollycoddling of the men in Camp Leon Trotsky. The pallid, chilled figures of the other recruits loomed up on every side, and when the soul-shaking vibrations had died away they dragged their thick sackcloth and sandpaper fatigue uniforms from their bunks, pulled them hastily on, jammed their feet into the great purple recruit boots and staggered out into the dawn.
"I am here to break your spirit," a voice, rich with menace, told them, and they looked up and shivered even more as they faced the chief demon in this particular hell.
Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang was a specialist from the tips of the angry spikes of his hair to the corrugated stamping-soles of his mirror-like boots. He was wide shouldered and lean hipped, while his long arms hung curved like some horrible anthropoid, the knuckles of his immense fists scarred from the breaking of thousands of teeth. It was impossible to look at this detestable form and imagine that it issued from the tender womb of a woman. He could never have been born; he must have been built to order by the government. Most terrible of all was the head. The face! The hairline was scarcely a finger's-width above the black tangle of the brows that were set like a rank growth of foliage at the rim of the black pits that concealed the eyes - visible only as baleful red gleams in the stygian darkness. A nose broken and crushed, squatted above the mouth that was like a knife slash in the taut belly of a corpse, while from between the lips issued the great, white fangs of the canine teeth, at least two inches long, that rested in grooves on the lower lip.
"I am Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang and you will call me 'Sir' or 'M'lord'." He began to pace grimly before the row of terrified recruits. "I am your father and your mother and your whole universe and your dedicated enemy, and very soon I will have you regretting the day you were born. I will crush your will. When I say frog you will jump. My job is to turn you into troopers, and troopers have discipline. Discipline means simply unthinking subservience, loss of free will, absolute obedience. That is all I ask..."
He stopped before Bill. who was not shaking quite as much as the others, and scowled.
"I don't like your face. One month of Sunday KP."
"And a second month for talking back."
He waited, but Bill was silent. He had already learned his first lesson on how to he a good trooper. Keep your mouth shut. Deathwish paced on.
"Right now you are nothing but horrible, sordid, flabby pieces of debased civilian flesh. I shall turn that flesh into muscle, your wills to jelly, your minds to machines. You will become good troopers or I will kill you. Very soon you will be hearing stories about me, vicious stories about how I killed and ate a recruit who disobeyed me."
He halted and stared at them, and slowly the coffin-lid lips parted in an evil travesty of a grin, while a drop of saliva formed at the tip of each whitened tusk.
"That story is true."
A moan broke from the row of recruits and they shook as though a chill wind had passed over them. The smile vanished.
"We will run to breakfast now as soon as I have some volunteers for an easy assignment. Can any of you drive a helicar?"
Two recruits hopefully raised their hands and he beckoned them forward. "All right, both of you, mops and buckets behind that door. Clean out the latrine while the rest are eating. You'll have a better appetite for lunch."
That was Bill's second lesson on how to be a good trooper: never volunteer.
The days of recruit training passed with a horribly lethargic speed. With each day conditions became worse and Bill's exhaustion greater. This seemed impossible, but it was nevertheless true. A large number of gifted and sadistic minds had designed it to be that way. The recruits' heads were shaved for uniformity and their genitalia painted with orange antiseptic to control the endemic crotch crickets. The food was theoretically nourishing but incredibly vile and when, by mistake, one batch of meat was served in an edible state it was caught at the last moment and thrown out and the cook reduced two grades. Their sleep was broken by mock gas attacks and their free time filled with caring for their equipment. The seventh day was designated as a day of rest but they all had received punishments, like Bill's KP, and it was as any other day. On this, the third Sunday of their imprisonment, they were stumbling through the last hour of the day before the lights were extinguished and they were finally permitted to crawl into their I casehardened bunks. Bill pushed against the weak force field that blocked the door, cunningly designed to allow the desert flies to enter but not leave the barracks, and dragged himself in. After fourteen hours of KP his legs vibrated with exhaustion and his arms were wrinkled and pallid as a corpse's from the soapy water. He dropped his jacket to the floor, where it stood stiffly supported by its burden of sweat, grease and dust, and dragged his shaver from his footlocker. In the latrine he bobbed his head around trying to find a clear space in one of the mirrors. All of them had been heavily stencilled in large letters with such inspiring messages as KEEP YOUR WUG SHUT - THE CHINGERS ARE LISTENING and IF YOU TALK, THIS MAN MAY DIE. He finally plugged the shaver in next to WOULD YOU WANT YOUR SISTER TO MARRY ONE? and centred his face in the O in ONE. Black-rimmed and bloodshot eyes stared back at him as he ran the buzzing machine over the underweight planes of his jaw. It took more than a minute for the meaning of the question to penetrate his fatigue-drugged brain.,
"I haven't got a sister," he grumbled peevishly. "And if I did why should she want to marry a lizard anyway?" It was a rhetorical question but it brought an answer from the far end of the room, from the last shot tower in the second row.
"It doesn't mean exactly what it says - it's just there to make us hate the dirty enemy more."
Bill jumped, he had thought he was alone in the latrine, and the razor buzzed spitefully and gouged a bit of flesh from his lip.
"Who's there? Why are you hiding?" he snarled, then recognized the huddled dark figure and the many pairs of boots. "Oh, it's only you Eager." His anger drained away and he turned back to the mirror.
Eager Beager was so much a part of the latrine that you forgot he was there. A moon-faced, eternally smiling youth whose apple red cheeks never lost their glow, and whose smile looked so much out of place here in Camp Leon Trotsky that everyone wanted to kill him until they remembered that he was mad. He had to be mad because he was always eager to help his buddies and had volunteered as permanent latrine orderly. Not only that, but he liked to polish boots and had offered to do those of one after another of his buddies until now he did the boots for every man in the squad every night. Whenever they were in the barracks Eager Beager could be found crouched at the end of the thrones that were his personal domain, surrounded by the heaps of shoes and polishing industriously, his face wreathed in smiles. He would still be there after lights out, working by the light of a burning wick stuck in a can of polish, and was usually up before the others in the morning, finishing his voluntary job and still smiling. Sometimes, when the boots were very dirty, he worked right through the night. The kid was obviously insane but no one turned him in because he did such a good job on the boots and they all prayed that he wouldn't die of exhaustion until recruit training was finished.
"Well if that's what they want to say, why don't they just say Hate the dirty enemy more?" Bill complained. He jerked his thumb at the far wall where there was a poster labelled KNOW THE ENEMY. It featured a life-size illustration of a Chinger, a seven foot high saurian that looked very much like a scale-covered, four-armed, green kangaroo with an alligator's head. "Whose sister would want to marry a thing like that anyway? And what would a thing like that want to do with a sister, except maybe eat her?"
Eager put a last buff on a purple toe and picked up another boot. He frowned for a brief instant to show what a serious thought this was. "Well you see, gee - it doesn't mean a - sister. It's just part of psychological warfare. We have to win the war. To win the war we have to fight hard. In order to fight hard we have to have good soldiers. Good soldiers have to hate the enemy. That's the way it goes. The Chingers are the only non-human race that has been discovered in the galaxy that has gone beyond the aboriginal level, so naturally we have to wipe them out."
"What the hell do you mean naturally? I don't want to wipe anyone out. I just want to go home and be a Technical Fertilizer Operator."
"Well I don't mean you personally, of course - gee!" Eager opened a fresh can of polish with purple-stained hands and dug his fingers into it. "I mean the human race, that's just the way we do things. If we don't wipe them out they'll wipe us out. Of course they say that war is against their religion and they will only fight in defence, and they have never made any attacks yet. But we can't believe them even though it is true. They might change their religion or their minds some day and then where would we be? The best answer is to wipe them out now."
Bill unplugged his razor and washed his face in the tepid, rusty water. "It still doesn't seem to make sense. All right, so the sister I don't have doesn't marry one of them. But how about that - " he pointed to the stencilling on the duck-boards, KEEP THIS SHOWER CLEAR - THE ENEMY CAN HEAR. "Or that - " The sign above the urinal that read BUTTON FLIES - BEWARE SPIES. "Forgetting for the moment we don't have any secrets here worth travelling a mile to hear, much less twenty-five light years - how could a Chinger possibly be a spy? What kind of make-up would disguise a seven foot lizard as a recruit? You couldn't even disguise one to look like Deathwish Drang, though you could get pretty close -"
The lights went out and, as though using his name had summoned him like a devil from the pit, the voice of Deathwish blasted through the barracks.
"Into your sacks! Into your sacks! Don't you lousy bowbs know there's a war on!"
Bill stumbled away through the darkness of the barracks where the only illumination was the red glow from Deathwish's eyes. He fell asleep the instant his head touched his carborundum pillow and it seemed that only a moment had elapsed before reveille sent him hurtling from his bunk. At breakfast, while he was painfully cutting his coffee-substitute into chunks small enough to swallow, the telenews reported heavy fighting in the Beta Lyra sector with mounting losses. A groan rippled through the mess hall when this was announced, not because of any excess of patriotism, but because any bad news would only make things worse for them. They did not know how this would be arranged, but they were positive it would be. They were right. Since the morning was a bit cooler than usual the Monday parade was postponed until noon when the ferroconcrete drill ground would have warmed up nicely and there would be the maximum number of heat prostration cases. But this was just the beginning. From where Bill stood at attention near the rear he could see that the air-conditioning canopy was up on the reviewing stand. That meant brass. The trigger guard of his atomic rifle dug a hole into his shoulder and a drop of sweat collected then dripped from the tip of his nose. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the steady ripple of motion as men collapsed here and there, among the massed ranks of thousands, and were dragged to the waiting ambulances by alert corpsmen. Here they were laid in the shade of the vehicles until they revived and could be urged back to their positions in the formation.
Then the band burst into SPACEMEN HO AND CHINGERS VANQUISHED! and the broadcast signal to each boot heel snapped the ranks to attention at the same instant and the thousands of rifles flashed in the sun. The commanding general's staff car - this was obvious from the two stars painted on it - pulled up beside the reviewing stand and a tiny, round figure moved quickly through the furnacelike air to the comfort of the enclosure. Bill had never seen him any closer than this, at least from the front, though once while he was returning from late KP he had spotted the general getting into his car near the camp theatre. At least Bill thought it was he, but all he had seen was a brief rear view. Therefore, if he had a mental picture of the general, it was of a large backside superimposed on a teeny antlike figure. He thought of most officers in these general terms, since the men of course had nothing to do with officers during their recruit training. Bill had had a good glimpse of a 2nd lieutenant once, near the orderly room, and he knew he had a face. And there had been a medical officer who hadn't been more than thirty yards away, who had lectured them on venereal disease, but Bill had been lucky enough to sit behind a post and had promptly fallen asleep.
After the band shut up, the anti-G loudspeakers floated out over the troops and the general addressed them. He had nothing to say that anyone cared to listen to and he closed with the announcement that because of losses in the field their training programme would be accelerated, which was just what they had expected. Then the band played some more and they marched back to the barracks, changed into their haircloth fatigues and marched - double time now - to the range where they fired their atomic rifles at plastic replicas of Chingers that popped up out of holes in the ground. Their aim was very bad until Deathwish Drang popped out of a hole and every trooper switched to full automatic and hit with every charge fired from every gun, which is a very hard thing to do. Then the smoke cleared and they stopped cheering and started sobbing when they saw that it was only a plastic replica of Deathwish now torn to tiny pieces, and the original appeared behind them and gnashed its tusks and gave them all a full month's KP.
"The human body is a wonderful thing," Bowb Brown said a month later when they were sitting around a table in the Lowest Ranks Klub eating plastic-skinned sausages stuffed with road sweepings and drinking watery warm beer. Bowb Brown was a thoat herder from the plains, which is why they called him Bowb since everyone knows just what thoat-herders do with their thoats. He was tall, thin and bowlegged, his skin burnt to the colour of ancient leather. He rarely talked, being more used to the eternal silence of the plains broken only by the eerie cry of the restless thoat, but he was a great thinker since the one thing he had plenty of was time to think in. He could worry a thought for days, even weeks, before he mentioned it aloud, and while he was thinking about it nothing could disturb him. He even let them I call him Bowb without protesting: call any other trooper Bowb and he would hit you in the face. Bill and Eager and the other troopers from X squad sitting around the table all clapped and cheered, as they always did when Bowb said something.
"Tell us more, Bowb!"
"It can still talk - I thought it was dead!"
"Go on - why is the body a wonderful thing?"
They waited in expectant silence while Bowb managed to tear a bite from his sausage and, after ineffectual chewing, swallowed it with an effort that brought tears to his eyes. He eased the pain with a mouthful of beer and spoke.
"The human body is a wonderful thing because if it doesn't die it lives."
They waited for more until they realized that he was finished, then they sneered.
"Boy, are you full of bowb!"
"Sign up for OCS!"
"Yeah - but what does it mean?"
Bill knew what it meant, but didn't tell them. There were only half as many men in the squad as there had been the first day. One man had been transferred, but all the others were in the hospital, or in the mental hospital, or discharged for the convenience of the government as being too crippled for active service. Or dead. The survivors, after losing every ounce of weight not made up of bone or essential connective tissue, had put back the lost weight in the form of muscle and were now completely adapted to the rigours of Camp Leon Trotsky, though they still loathed it. Bill marvelled at the efficiency of the system. Civilians had to fool around with examinations, grades, retirement benefits, seniority and a thousand other factors that limited the efficiency of the workers. But how easily the troopers did it! They simply killed off the weaker ones and used the survivors. He respected the system. Though he still loathed it.
"You know what I need, I need a woman," Ugly Ugglesway said.
"Don't talk dirty," Bill told him promptly, since he had been correctly brought up.
"I'm not talking dirty!" Ugly whined. "It's not like I said I wanted to re-enlist or that I thought Deathwish was human or anything like that. I just said I need a woman. Don't we all ?"
"I need a drink," Bowb Brown said as he took a long swig from his glass of dehydrated reconstituted beer, shuddered, then squirted it out through his teeth in a long stream on to the concrete, where it instantly evaporated.
"Affirm, affirm," Ugly agreed, bobbing his mat-haired warty head up and down. "I need a woman and a drink." His whine became almost plaintive. "After all, what else is there to want in the troopers outside of out?"
They thought about that a long time, but could think of nothing else that anyone really wanted. Eager Beager looked out from under the table where he was surreptitiously polishing a boot and said that he wanted more polish, but they ignored him. Even Bill, now that he put his mind to it, could think of nothing he really wanted other than this inextricably linked pair. He tried hard to think of something else, since he had vague memories of wanting other things when he had been a civilian, but nothing else came to mind.
"Gee, it's only seven weeks more until we get our first pass," Eager said from under the table, then screamed a little as everyone kicked him at once.
But slow as subjective time crawled by, the objective clocks were still operating and the seven weeks did pass by and eliminate themselves one by one. Busy weeks filled with all the essential recruit training courses: bayonet drill, small-arms training, short-arm inspection, greypfing, orientation lectures, drill, communal singing and the Articles of War. These last were read with dreadful regularity twice a week and were absolute torture because of the intense somnolence they brought on. At the first rustle of the scratchy, monotonous voice from the tape player heads would begin to nod. But every seat in the auditorium was wired with an EEG that monitored the brain waves of the captive troopers. As soon as the shape of the Alpha wave indicated transition from consciousness to slumber a powerful jolt of current would be shot into the dozing buttocks, jabbing the owner painfully awake. The musty auditorium was a dimly lit torture chamber, filled with the droning dull voice punctuated by the sharp screams of the electrified, the sea of nod ding heads abob here and there with painfully leaping figures.
No one ever listened to the terrible executions and sentences announced in the Articles for the most innocent of crimes. Everyone knew that they had signed away all human rights when they enlisted, and the itemising of what they had lost interested them not in the slightest. What they really were interested in was counting the hours until they would receive their first pass. The ritual by which this reward was begrudgingly given was unusually humiliating, but they expected this and merely lowered their eyes and shuffled forward in the line, ready to sacrifice any remaining shards of their self-respect in exchange for the crimpled scrap of plastic. This rite finished, there was a scramble for the monorail train whose track ran on electrically charged pillars, soaring over the thirty-foot-high barbed wire, crossing the quicksand beds, then dropping into the little farming town of Leyville.
At least it had been an agricultural town before Camp Leon Trotsky had been built and sporadically, in the hours when the troopers weren't on leave, it followed its original agrarian bent. The rest of the time the grain and feed stores shut down and the drink and knocking shops opened. Many times the same premises were used for both functions. A lever would be pulled when the first of the leave party thundered out of the station and the grain bins became beds, sales clerks pimps, cashiers retained their same function - though the prices went up - while the counters would be racked with glasses to serve as bars. It was to one of these establishments, a mortuary-cum-saloon, that Bill and his friends went.
"What'll it be, boys?" the ever-smiling owner of the Final Resting Bar and Grill asked.
"Double shot of Embalming Fluid." Bowb Brown told him.
"No jokes," the landlord said, the smile vanishing for a second as he took down a bottle on which the garish label REAL WHISKY had been pasted over the etched-in EMBALMING FLUID. "Any trouble I call the MPs." The smile returned as money struck the counter. "Name your poison, gents."
They sat around a long, narrow table as thick as it was wide with brass handles on both sides, and let the blessed relief of ethyl alcohol trickle a path down their dust-lined throats.
"I never drank before I came into the service," Bill said, draining four fingers neat of Old Kidney Killer, and held his glass out for more.
"You never had to," Ugly said, pouring.
"That's for sure," Bowb Brown said, smacking his lips with relish and raising a bottle to his lips again.
"Gee," Eager Beager said, sipping hesitantly at the edge of his glass. "It tastes like a tincture of sugar, wood chips, various esters and a number of higher alcohols."
"Drink up," Bowb said incoherently around the neck of the bottle. "All them things is good for you."
"Now I want a woman," Ugly said and there was a rush as they all jammed in the door trying to get out at the same time, until someone shouted Look! and they turned to see Eager still sitting at the table.
"Woman!" Ugly said enthusiastically, in the tone of voice you say Dinner! when you are calling a dog. The knot of men stirred in the doorway and stamped their feet. Eager didn't move.
"Gee - I think I'll stay right here," he said, his smile simpler than ever. "But you guys run along."
"Don't you feel well, Eager?"
"Ain't you reached puberty?"
"What you gonna do here?"
Eager reached under the table and dragged out a canvas grip. He opened it to show them that it was packed with great, purple boots. "I thought I'd catch up on my polishing."
They walked slowly down the wooden sidewalk, silent for the moment. "I wonder if there is something wrong with Eager?" Bill asked, but no one answered him. They were looking down the rutted street, at a brilliantly illuminated sign that cast a tempting ruddy glow.
SPACEMEN'S REST it said. CONTINUOUS STRIP SHOW and BEST DRINKS and better PRIVATE ROOMS FOR GUESTS AND THEIR FRIENDS. They walked faster. The front wall of the Spacemen's Rest was covered with shatter-proof glass cases filled with tri-di pix of the fully dressed (bangle and double stars) entertainers, and farther in with pix of them nude (debangled with fallen stars). Bill stayed the quick sound of panting by pointing to a small sign almost lost among the tumescent wealth of mammaries.
OFFICERS ONLY it read.
"Move along," an MP grated and poked at them with his electronic nightstick. They shuffled on.
The next establishment admitted men of all classes, but the cover charge was 77 credits, more than they all had between them. After that the OFFICERS ONLY began again until the pavement ended and all the lights were behind them.
"What's that?" Ugly asked at the sound of murmured voices from a nearby darkened street, and peering closely they saw a line of troopers that stretched out of sight around a distant corner.
"What's this?" he asked the last man in the line.
"Lower ranks cathouse. And don't try to buck the line, bowb. On the back, on the back."
They joined up instantly and Bill ended up last, but not for long. They shuffled forward slowly and other troopers appeared and queued up behind him. The night was cool and he took many life-preserving slugs from his bottle. There was little conversation and what there was died as the red-lit portal loomed ever closer. It opened and closed at regular intervals and one by one Bill's buddies slipped in. Then it was his turn and the door started to open and he started to step forward and the sirens started to scream and a large MP with a great fat belly jumped between Bill and the door.
"Emergency recall. Back to the base you men!" it barked. Bill howled a strangled groan of frustration and leaped forward, but a light tap with the electronic nightstick sent him reeling back with the others. He was carried along, half stunned, with the shuffling wave of bodies while the sirens moaned and the artificial northern lights in the sky spelled out TO ARMS!!!! in letters of flame each a hundred miles long. Someone put his hand out, holding Bill up as he started to slide under the trampling purple boots. It was his old buddy, Ugly, carrying a satiated smirk and he hated him and tried to hit him. But before he could raise his fist they were swept into a monorail car, hurled through the night and disgorged back in Camp Leon Trotsky. He forgot his anger when the gnarled claws of Deathwish Drang dragged him from the crowd.
"Pack your bags," he rasped, "you're shipping out."
"They can't do that to us - we haven't finished our training."
"They can do whatever they want, and they usually do. A glorious space battle has just been fought to its victorious conclusion and there are over four million casualties, give or take a hundred thousand. Replacements are needed, which is you. Prepare to board the transports immediately if not sooner."
"We can't - we have no space gear! The supply room..."
"All of the supply personnel have already been shipped out."
"The cooks and KP pushers are already spacebound. This is an emergency. All unessential personnel are being sent out. Probably to die." He twanged a tusk coyly and washed them with his loathsome grin. "While I remain here in peaceful security to train your replacements." The delivery tube plunked at his elbow and as he opened the message capsule and read its contents his smile slowly fell to pieces. "They're shipping me out too," he said hollowly.
© Harry Harrison 1965