Ahead of them the front end of the cylindrical shuttleship was a single, gigantic viewport, a thick shield of armored glass now filled by the rushing coils of cloud that they were dropping down through. Bill leaned back comfortably in the deceleration chair, watching the scene with keen anticipation. There were seats for twenty in the stubby shuttleship, but only three of them, including Bill's, were now occupied. Sitting next to him, and he tried hard not to look too often, was a gunner first class who looked as though he had been blown out of one of his own guns. His face was mostly plastic and contained just a single, bloodshot eye. He was a mobile basket case, since his four missing limbs had been replaced by glistening gadgetry, all shining pistons, electronic controls, and coiling wires. His gunner's insignia was welded to the steel frame that took the place of his upper arm. The third man, a thickset brute of an infantry sergeant, had fallen asleep as soon as they boarded after transshipping from the stellar transport.
“Bowbidy-bowb! Look at that!” Bill felt elated as their ship broke through the clouds and there, spread before them, was the gleaming golden sphere of Helior, the Imperial Planet, the ruling world of 10,000 suns.
“What an albedo,” the gunner grunted from somewhere inside his plastic face.
“Hurts the eye.” “I should hope so! Solid gold—can you imagine-a planet plated with solid gold?!” “No, I can't imagine. And I don't believe it either. It would cost too much.
But I can imagine one covered with anodized aluminum. Like. that one.” Now that Bill looked closer he could see that it didn't really shine like gold, and he started to feel depressed again. No! He forced himself to perk up.
You could take away the gold but you couldn't take away the gloryl Helior was still the imperial world, the never sleeping, all-seeing eye in the heart of the galaxy. Everything that happened on every planet or on every ship in space was reported here, sorted, coded, filed, annotated, judged, lost, found, acted on. From Helior came the orders that ruled the worlds of man, that held back the night of alien domination. Helior, a man-changed world with its seas, mountains, and continents covered by a shielding of metal, miles thick, layer upon layer of levels with a global population dedicated to but one ideal. Rule.
The gleaming upper level was dotted with space ships of all sizes, while the dark sky twinkled with others arriving and departing. Closer and closer swam the scene, then there was a sudden burst of light and the window went dark.
“We crashed!” Bill gasped. “Good as dead… ' “Shut your wug. That was just the film what broke, Since there's no brass on this run they won't bother fixing it.” “Film?” “What else? Are you so ratty in the head you think they're going to build shuttleships with great big windows in the nose just where the maximum friction on re-entry will burn holes in them? A film. Back projection. For all we know it's nighttime here.” The pilot mashed them with 15G when they landed (he also knew he had no brass on this run), and while they were popping their dislocated vertebrae back into position and squeezing their eyeballs back into shape so that they could see, the hatch swung open. Not only was it night, but it was raining too. A Second-class Passenger Handler's Mate poked his head in and swept them with a professionally friendly grin.
“Welcome to Helior, Imperial Planet of a thousand delights-” his face fell into a habitual snarl. “Ain't there no officers with you bowbs? C'mon, shag outta there, get the uranium out, we gotta schedule to keep.” They ignored him as he brushed by and went to wake the infantry sergeant, still snoring like a broken impeller, untroubled in his sleep by a little thing like 15Gs. The snore changed to a throaty grunt that was cut into by the Passenger Handler's Mate's shrill scream as he was kneed in the groin. Still muttering, the sergeant joined them as they left the ship and he helped steady the gunner's clattering metal legs on the still wet surface of the landing ramp. They watched with stony resignation as their duffel bags were ejected from the luggage compartment into a deep pool of water. As a last feeble flick of petty revenge the Passenger Handler's Mate turned off the repeller field that had been keeping the rain off them, and they were soaking wet in an instant and chilled by the icy wind. They shouldered their bags-except for the gunner, who dragged his on little wheels-and started for the nearest lights, at least a mile away and barely visible through the lashing rain. Halfway there the gunner froze up as his relays shorted, so they put the wheels under his heels and loaded the bags onto his legs, and he made a damn fine handcar the rest of the way.
“I make a damn fine handcar,” the gunner growled.
“Don't bitch,” the sergeant told him. “At least you got a civilian occupation.” He kicked the door open and they walked and rolled into the welcome warmth of the operations office.
“You have a can of solvent?” Bill asked the man behind the counter.
“You have travel orders?” the man asked, ignoring his question.
“In my bag I got a can,” the gunner said, and Bill pulled it open and rummaged around.
They handed over their orders; the gunner's were buttoned into his breast pocket, and the clerk fed them into the slot of the giant machine behind him.
The machine hummed and flashed lights, and Bill dripped solvent onto all of the gunner's electrical connections until the water was washed away. A horn sounded, the orders were regurgitated, and a length of printed tape began clicking out of another orifice. The clerk snatched it up and read it rapidly.
“You're in trouble,” he said with sadistic relish. “All three of you are supposed to get the Purple Dart in a ceremony with the Emperor and they're filming in three hours. You'll never make it in time.” “None of your bowb,” the sergeant grated. “We just got off the ship. Where do we go?” “Area 1457-D, Level K9, Block 823–7, Corridor 492; Chambers FLM-34, Room 62, ask for Producer Ratt” “How do we get there?” Bill asked.
“Don't ask me, I just work here.” The clerk threw three thick volumes onto the counter, each one over a foot square and almost as thick, with a chain riveted to the spine. “Find your own way, here's your floor plan, but you have to sign for it. Losing it is a courts-martial offense punishable by…” The clerk suddenly realized that he was alone in the room with the three veterans, and as he blanched white he reached out for a red button. But before his finger could touch it the gunner's metal arm, spitting sparks and smoking, pinned it to the counter. The sergeant leaned over until his face was an inch from the clerk's then spoke in a low, chill voice that curdled the blood.
“We will not find our own way. You will find our way for us. You will provide us with a Guide.” “Guides are only for officers,” the clerk protested weakly, then gasped as a steel-bar finger ground him in the stomach.
“Treat us like officers,” the sergeant breathed. “We don't mind.” With chattering teeth the clerk ordered a guide, and a small metal door in the far wall crashed open. The Guide had a tubular metal body that ran on six rubber-tired wheels, a head fashioned to resemble a hound dog's, and a springy metal tail. “Here, boy,” the sergeant commanded, and the Guide rushed over to him, slipped out a red plastic tongue, and, with a slight grinding of gears, began to emit the sound of mechanical panting. The sergeant took the length of printed tape and quickly punched the code 1457-D K9 823–7 492 FLM 34 62 on the buttons that decorated the Guide's head. There were two sharp barks, the red tongue vanished, the tail vibrated, and the Guide rolled away down the corridor. The veterans followed.
It took them an hour, by slideway, escalator, elevator, pneumocar, shanks' mare, monorail, moving sidewalk, and greased pole to reach room 62. While they were seated on the slideway they secured the chains of their floor plans to their belts, since even Bill was beginning to realize the value of a guide to this world-sized city. At the door to room 62 the Guide barked three times, then rolled away before they could grab it.
“Should have been quicker,” the sergeant said. “Those things are worth their weight in diamonds.” He pushed the door open to reveal a fat man seated at a desk shouting into a visisphone.
“I don't give a flying bowb what your excuses are, excuses I can buy wholesale. All I know is I got a production schedule and the cameras are ready to roll and where are my principals? I ask you-and what do you tell me-” he looked up and began to scream, “Out! Out! Can't you see I'm busy!” The sergeant reached over and threw the visisphone onto the floor then stomped it to tiny smoking bits.
“You have a direct way of getting attention,” Bill said.
“Two years in combat make you very direct,” the sergeant said, and grated his teeth together in a loud and disturbing way. Then, “Here we are, Ratt, what do we do?” Producer Ratt kicked his way through the wreckage and threw open a door behind the desk. “Places! Lights!” he shrieked, and there was an immense scurrying and a sudden glare. The to-be-honored veterans followed him through the door into an immense sound stage humming with organized bustle. Cameras on motorized dollies rolled around the set where flats and props simulated the end of a regal throne room. The stained-glass windows glowed with imaginary sunlight, and a golden sunbeam from a spotlight illuminated the throne. Goaded on by the director's screamed instructions the crowd of nobility and high-ranking officers took positions before the throne.
“He called them bowbs!” Bill gasped. “He'll be shot!” “Are you ever stupid,” the gunner said, unreeling a length of flex from his right leg and plugging it into an outlet to recharge his batteries. “Those are all actors. You think they can get real nobility for a thing like this?” “We only got time to run through this once before the Emperor gets here, so no mistakes.” Director Ratt clambered up and settled himself on the throne.
“I'll stand in for the Emp. Now you principals, you got the easiest roles, and I don't want you to flub it. We got no time for retakes. You get into position there, that's the stuff, in a row, and when I say roll you snap to attention like you been taught or the taxpayers been wasting their money. You there, the guy on the left that's built into the bird cage, keep your damn motors turned off, you're lousing. up the soundtrack. Grind gears once more and I'll pull all your fuses. Affirm. You just stay at attention until your name is called, take one pace forward, and snap into a brace. The Emperor will pin a medal on you, salute, drop the salute, and take one pace back. You got that, or is it too complicated for your tiny, indoctrinated minds?” “Why don't you blow it out!” the sergeant snarled.
“Very witty. All right-let's run through it!” They rehearsed the ceremony twice before there was a tremendous braying of bugles, and six generals with deathray . pistols at the ready double-timed onto the set and halted with their backs to the throne. All of the extras, cameramen, and technicians-even Director Ratt-bowed low while the veterans snapped to attention. The Emperor shuffled in, climbed the dais, and dropped into the throne. “Continue… “ he said in a bored voice, and belched lightly behind his hand.
“Let's ROLL!” the director howled at the top of his lungs, and staggered out of camera range. Music rose up in a mighty wave, and the ceremony began. While the Awards and Protocol officer read off the nature of the heroic deeds the noble heroes had accomplished to win that noblest of all medals, the Purple Dart with Coalsack Nebula Cluster, the Emperor rose from his throne and strode majestically forward. The infantry sergeant was first, and Bill watched out of the corner of his eye while the Emperor took an ornate gold, silver, ruby, and platinum medal from the proferred case and pinned it to the man's chest. Then the sergeant stepped back into position, and it was Bill's turn. As from an immense distance he heard his name spoken in rolling tones of thunder, and he strode forward with every ounce of precision that he had been taught back at Camp Leon Trotsky. There, just before him, was the most beloved man in the galaxy! The long and swollen nose that graced a billion banknotes was pointed toward him. The overshot jaw and protruding teeth that filled a billion TV screens was speaking his name. One of the imperial strabismic eyes was pointing at him! Passion welled in Bill's bosom like great breakers thundering onto a shore. He snapped his snappiest salute.
In fact he snapped just about the snappiest salute possible, since there aren't very many people with two right arms. Both arms swung up in precise circles, both elbows quivered at right angles, both palms clicked neatly against both eyebrows. It was well done and took the Emperor by surprise, and for one vibrating instant he managed to get both eyeballs pointed at Bill at the same time before they wandered away at random again. The Emperor, still a little disturbed by the unusual salute, groped for the medal and plunged the pin through Bill's tunic squarely into his shivering flesh.
Bill felt no pain, but the sudden stab triggered the growing emotion that had been rushing through him. Dropping the salutes he fell to his knees in good old peasant-serf style, just like a historical TV, which in fact was just where his obsequious subconscious had dredged up the idea from, and seized the Emperor's knob-knuckled and liver-spotted hand. “Father to us all!” Bill exulted, and kissed the hand.
Grim-eyed, the bodyguard of generals leaped forward, and death beat sable wings over Bill, but the Emperor smiled as he pulled his hand gently away and wiped the saliva off on Bill's tunic. A casual flick of his finger restored the bodyguard to position, and he moved on to the gunner, pinned on the remaining medal, and stepped back.
“Cut!” Director Ratt shouted. “Print that, it's a natural with that dumb hick going through the slobbering act.” As Bill struggled back to his feet he saw that the Emperor had not returned to the throne but was instead standing in the midst of the milling crowd of actors. The bodyguard had vanished. Bill blinked, bewildered, as a man whipped the Emperor's crown from his head, popped it into a box, and hurried away with it.
“The brake is jammed,” the gunner said, still saluting with a vibrating arm.
“Pull the damn thing down for me. It never works right above shoulder level.” “But-the Emperor-” Bill said, tugging at the locked arm until the brakes squealed and released.
“An actor-what else? Do you think they have the real Emperor giving out medals to other-ranks? Field grade and higher, I bet. But they put on a bit of an act with him so some poor rube, like you, can get carried away. You were great.” “Here you are,” a man said, handing them both stamped metal copies of the medals they were wearing and whipping off the originals.
“Places!” the director's amplified voice boomed. “We got just ten minutes to run through the Empress and the baby kissing with the Aldebranian septuplets for the Fertility Hour. Get those plastic babies out here, and get those damn spectators off the set.” The heroes were pushed into the corridor and the door slammed and locked behind them.