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Chapter 3

At first Bill didn't appreciate the magnitude of his loss. He swam slowly up out of his sleep, thickheaded, with the feeling that something was wrong. Only after repeated tugging did he realize that the chain was stuck fast to the bench and that the book was gone. The chain could not be freed, and in the end he had to unfasten it from his belt and leave it dangling. Retracing his steps to the entrance, he knocked on the cashier's window.

No refunds, the robot said.

I want to report a crime. The police handle crime. You want to talk to the police. You talk to the police on a phone. Here is a phone. The number is 11111111. A small door slid open, and a phone popped out, catching Bill in the chest and knocking him back on his heels. He dialed the number.

Police, a voice said, and a bulldog-faced sergeant wearing a Prussian blue uniform and a scowl appeared on the screen.

I want to report a theft. Grand larceny or petty larceny? I don't know, it was my floor plan that was stolen. Petty larceny. Proceed to your nearest police station. This is an emergency circuit, and you are tying it up illegally. The penalty for illegally tying up an emergency circuit is Bill jammed hard on the button and the screen went blank. He turned back to the robot cashier.

No refunds, it said. Bill snarled impatiently.

Shut up. All I want to know is where the nearest police station is. I am a cashier robot, not an information robot. That information is not in my memory. I suggest you consult your floor plan. But it's my floor plan that has been stolen! I suggest you talk to the police. But Bill turned red and kicked the cashier's box angrily. No refunds, it said as he stalked away.

Drinky, drinky, make you stinky, a robot bar said, rolling up and whispering in his ear. It made the sound of ice cubes rattling in a frosty glass.

A damn good idea. Beer. A large one. He pushed coins into its money slot and clutched at the dispos-a-stein that rattled down the chute and almost bounced to the ground. It cooled and refreshed him and calmed his anger. He looked at the sign that said To THE JEWELED PALACE. I'll go to the palace, have a look-see, then find someone there who can direct me to the police station. Ouchl The robot bar had pulled the dispos-a-stein from his hand, almost taking his forefinger with it, and with unerring robotic aim hurled it thirty-two feet into the open mouth of a rubbish shaft that projected from a wall.

The Jeweled Palace appeared to be about as accessible as the Hanging Gardens, and he decided to report the theft before paying his way into the grilled enclosure that circled the palace at an awesome distance. There was a policeman hanging out his belly and idly spinning his club near the entrance who should know where the police station was.

Where's the police station? Bill asked.

I ain't no information booth-use your floor plan. lout-through teeth tightly clamped together-I cannot. My floor plan has been stolen and that is why I want to find Yipe! Bill said Yipe! because the policeman, with a practiced motion, had jammed the end of his club up into Bill's armpit and pushed him around the comer with it.

I used to be a trooper myself before I bought my way out, the officer said.

I would enjoy your reminiscences more if you took the club out of my armpit, Bill moaned, then sighed gratefully as the club vanished.

Since I used to be a trooper I don't want to see a buddy with the Purple Dart with Coalsack Nebula Cluster get into trouble. I am also an honest cop and don't take bribes, but if a buddy was to loan me twenty-five bucks until payday I would be much obliged. Bill had been born stupid, but he was learning. The money appeared and vanished swiftly, and the cop relaxed, clacking the end of his club against his yellow teeth.

Let me tell you something, pal, before you make any official statements to me in my official capacity, since up to now we have just been talking buddy-buddy. There are a lot of ways to get into trouble here on Helior, but the easiest is to lose your floor plan. It is a hanging offense on Helior. I know a guy what went into the station to report that someone got his plan and they slapped the cuffs on him inside ten seconds, maybe five. Now what was it you wanted to say to me? You got a match? I don't smoke. Good-by. Take it easy, pal. Bill scuttled around another corner and leaned against the wall breathing deeply. Now what? He could barely find his way around this place with the plan-how could he do it without one? There was a leaden weight pulling at his insides that he tried to ignore. He forced away the feeling of terror and tried to think. But thinking made him lightheaded. It seemed like years since he had had a good meal, and thinking of food he began to pump saliva at such a great rate that he almost drowned. Food, that's what he needed, food for thought; he had to relax over a nice, juicy steak, and when the inner man was satisfied he would be able to think clearly and find a way out of this mess.

There must be a way out. He had almost a full day left before he was due back from leave; there was plenty of time. Staggering around a sharp bend he came out into a high tunnel brilliant with lights, the most brilliant of which was a sign that said THE GOLD SPACE SUIT.

The Gold Space Suit, Bill said. That's more like it. Galaxy-famous on countless TV programs, what a restaurant, that's the way to build up the old morale. It'll be expensive, but what the hell Tightening his belt and straightening his collar, he strode up the wide gold steps and through the imitation spacelock. The headwaiter beckoned him and smiled, soft music wafted his way and the floor opened beneath his feet.

Scratching helplessly at the smooth walls, he shot down the golden tube which turned gradually until, when he emerged, he shot through the air and fell, sprawling, into a dusty metal alleyway. Ahead of him, painted on the wall with foot-high letters, was the imperious message, GET LOST BUM.

He stood and dusted himself, and a robot sidled over and crooned in his ear with the voice of a . young and lovely girl, I bet you're hungry, darling. Why not try Giuseppe Singh's neo-Indian curried pizza? You're just a few steps from Singh's, directions are on the back of the card. The robot took a card from a slot in its chest and put it carefully into Bill's mouth. It was a cheap and badly adjusted robot. Bill spluttered the soggy card out and wiped it on his handkerchief.

What happened? he asked.

I bet you're hungry, darling, grrrr-ark. The robot switched to another recorded message, cued by Bill's question. You have just been ejected from The Gold Space Suit, galaxy-famous on countless TV programs, because you are a cheap bum. When you entered this establishment you were X-rayed and the contents of your pockets automatically computed. Since the contents of your pockets obviously fell below the minimum with cover charge, one drink, and tax, you were ejected. But you are still hungry, aren't you darling? The robot leered, and the dulcet, sexy voice poured from between the broken gaps of its mouthptate. C'mon down to Singh's where food is good and cheap. Try Singh's yummy lasagna with dhal and lime sauce. Bill went, not because he wanted some loathsome Bombay-Italian concoction, but because of the map and instructions on the back of the card. There was a feeling of security in knowing he was going from somewhere to somewhere again, following the directions, clattering down this stair well, drop. ping in that gravchute, grabbing for a place in the right hookway. After one last turning his nose was assaulted` by a wave of stale fat, old garlic, and charred flesh, and he knew he was there.

The food was incredibly expensive and far worse than he had ever imagined it could be, but it stilled the painful rumbling in his stomach, by direct assault if not by pleasant satiation. With one fingernail he attempted to pry horrible pieces of gristle from between his teeth while he looked at the man across the table from him, who was moaning as he forced down spoonfuls of something nameless. His tablemate was dressed in colorful holiday clothes and looked a fat, ruddy, and cheerful type.

Hi! Bill said, smiling.

Go drop dead, the man snarled.

All I said was Hi. Petulantly.

That's enough. Everyone who has bothered to talk to me in the sixteen hours I been on this so-called pleasure planet has cheated or screwed me or stolen my money one way or another. I am next to broke and I still have six days left of my See Helior and Live tour. I only wanted to ask you if I could sort of look through your floor plan while you were eating. I told you, everyone is out to screw me out of something. Drop dead. Please. I'll do it-for twenty-five bucks, cash in advance, and only as long as I'm eating. Done! Bill slapped the money down, whipped under the table, and, sitting cross-legged, began to flip furiously through the volume, writing down travel instructions as fast as he could plot a course. Above him the fat man continued to eat and groan, and whenever he hit a particularly bad mouthful he would jerk the chain and make Bill lose his place. Bill had charted a route almost halfway to the haven of the Transit Ranker's Center before the man pulled the book away and stamped out.

When Odysseus returned from his terror-haunted voyage he spared Penelope's ears the incredible details of his journey. When Richard Lion-Heart, freed finally from his dungeon, came home from the danger-filled years of the Crusades, he did . not assault Queen Berengaria's sensibilities with horrorfull anecdotes; he simply greeted her and unlocked her chastity belt. Neither will I, gentle reader, profane your hearing with the dangers and despairs of Bill's journeyings, for they are beyond imagining. Suffice to say he did it. He reached the T. R. C.

Through red-rimmed eyes he blinked at the sign, TRANSIT RANKERS' CENTER it said, then had to lean against the wall as relief made his knees weak. He had done it! He had only overstayed his leave by eight days, and that couldn't matter too much. Soon now he would be back in the friendly arms of the troopers again, away from the endless miles of metal corridors, the constantly rushing crowds, the slipways, slideways, gravdrops, hellavators, suctionlifts, and all the rest. He would get stinking drunk with his buddies and let the alcohol dissolve the memories of his terrible travels, try to forget the endless horror of those days of wandering without food or water or sound of human voice, endlessly stumbling through the. Stygian stacks in the Carbon Paper Levels. It was all behind . him now. He dusted his scruffy uniform, shamefully aware of the rips, crumplings, and missing buttons that defaced it. If he could get into the barracks without being stopped he would change uniforms before reporting to the orderly room.

A few heads turned his way, but he made it all right through the day room and into the barracks. Only his mattress was rolled up, his blankets weregone and his locker empty. It was beginning to look as though he was in trouble, and trouble in the troopers is never a simple thing. Repressing a cold feeling of despair he washed up a bit in the latrine, took a stiffening drink from the cold tap, then dragged his feet to the orderly room. The first sergeant was at his desk, a giant, powerful, sadistic-looking man with dark skin the same color as that of his old buddy Tembo. He held a plastic doll dressed in a captain's uniform in one hand, and was pushing straightened-out paper clips into it with the other. Without turning his head he roiled his eyes toward Bill and scowled.

You're in bad trouble, trooper, coming into the orderly room out of uniform like that. I'm in worse trouble than you think, Sarge, Bill said leaning weakly on the desk. The sergeant stared at Bill's mismatched hands, his eyes flickering back and forth quickly from one to the other.

Where did you get that hand, trooper? Speak up! I know that hand. It belonged to a buddy of mine, and I have the arm that goes with it too. Anxious to get onto any subject other than his military crimes, Bill held the hand out for the sergeant to look at. But he was horrified when the fingers tensed into a rockhard fist, the muscles bunched on his arm and the fist flew forward to catch the first sergeant square on the jaw and knocked him backward off his chair ass over applecart. Sergeant! Bill screamed, and grabbed the rebellious hand with his other and forced it, not without a struggle, back to his side.

The sergeant rose slowly, and Bill backed away, shuddering. He could not believe it when the sergeant reseated himself and Bill saw that he saw smiling.

Thought I knew that hand, belongs to my old buddy Tembo. We always joked like that. You take good care of that arm, you hear? Is there any more of Tembo around? and when Bill said no, he knocked out a quick tom-tom beat on the edge of the desk. Well, he's gone to the Big Ju-ju Rite in the Sky. The smile vanished and the snarl reappeared. You're in bad trouble, trooper. Let's see your ID card. He whipped it from Bill's nerveless fingers and shoved it into a slot in the desk. Lights flickered, the mechanism hummed and vibrated and a screen lit up.

The first sergeant read the message there, and as he did the snarl faded from his face and was replaced by an expression of cold anger. When he turned back to Bill his eyes were narrowed slits that pinned him with a gaze that could curdle milk in an instant or destroy minor life forms like rodents or cockroaches. It chilled Bill's blood in his veins and sent a shiver through his body that made it sway like a tree in the wind.

Where did you steal this ID card? Who are you? On the third try Bill managed to force words between his paralyzed lips.

It's me that's my card I'm me, Fuse Tender First Class Bill You are a liar. A fingernail uniquely designed for ripping out jugular veins flicked at the card. This card must be stolen, because First Class Fuse Tender Bil shipped out of here eight days ago. That is what the record says, and records do not lie. You've had it, Bowb. He depressed a red button labeled MILITARY POLICE, and an alarm bell could be heard ringing angrily in the distance. Bill shuffled his feet, and his eyes rolled, searching for some way to escape. Hold him there, Tembo, the sergeant snapped, I want to get to the bottom of this. Bill's left-right arm grabbed the edge of the desk, and he couldn't pry it lose. He was still struggling with it when heavy boots thudded up behind him.

What's up? a familiar voice growled.

Impersonation of a non-commissioned officer plus lesser charges that don't matter because the first charge alone calls for electro-arc lobectomy and thirty lashes. Oh, sir, Bill laughed, spinning about and feasting his eyes on a long-loathed figure. Deathwish Drangi Tell them you know me. One of the two men was the usual red-hatted, clubbed, gunned, and polished brute in human form. But the other one could only be Deathwish.

Do you know the prisoner? the first sergeant asked.

Deathwish squinted, rolling his eyes the length of Bill's body. I knew a Sixth-class fuse-fingerer named Bill, but both his hands matched. Something very strange here. We'll rough him up a bit in the guardhouse and let you know what he confesses. Affirm. But watch out for that left hand. It belongs to a friend of mine. Won't lay a finger on it. But I am Billl Bill shouted. That's me, my card, I can prove it. An imposter, the sergeant said, and pointed to the controls on his desk.

The records say that First Class Fuse Tender Bil shipped out of here eight days ago. And records don't lie. ' Records can't lie, or there would be no order in the universe, Deathwish said, grinding his club deep into Bill's gut and shoving him toward the door.

Did those back-ordered thumbscrews come in yet? he asked the other MP.

It could only have been fatigue that caused Bill to do what he did then.

Fatigue, desperation, and fear combined and overpowered him, for at heart he was a good trooper and had learned to be Brave and Clean and Reverent arid Heterosexual and all the rest. But every man has his breaking point, and Bill had reached his. He had faith in the impartial working of justice-never having learned any better-but it was the thought of torture that bugged him. When his fear-crazed eyes saw the sign on the wall that read LAUNDRY, a synapse closed without conscious awareness on his part, and he leaped forward, his sudden desperate action breaking the grip on his arm. Escapel Behind that flap on the wall must lie a laundry chute with a pile of nice soft sheets and towels at the bottom that would ease his fall. He could get awayl Ignoring the harsh, beastlike cries of the MPs, he dived headfirst through the opening.

He fell about four feet, landed headfirst, and almost brained himself. There was not a chute here but a deep, strong metal laundry basket.

Behind him the MPs beat at the swinging flap, but they could not budge it, since Bill's legs had jammed up behind it and stopped it from swinging open.

It's locked! Deathwish cried. We've been hadl Where does this laundry chute go? Making the same mistaken assumption as Bill.

I don't know, I'm a new man here myself, the other man gasped.

You'll be new man in the electric chair if we don't find that bowb! The voices dimmed as the heavy boots thudded away, and Bill stirred. His neck was twisted at an odd angle and hurt, his knees crunched into his chest, and he was half suffocated by the cloth jammed into his face. He tried to straighten his legs and pushed against the metal wall; there was a click as something snapped, and he fell forward as the laundry basket dropped out into the serviceway on the other side of the wall.

There he is! a familiarly hateful voice shouted, and Bill staggered away.

The running boots were just behind him when he came to the gravchute and once more dived headfirst, with considerably greater success this time. As the apoplectic MPs sprang-in after him the automatic cycling circuit spaced them all out a good fifteen feet apart. It was a slow, drifting fall, and Bill's vision finally cleared and he looked up and shuddered at the sight of Deathwish's fang-filled physiognomy drifting down behind him.

Old buddy, Bill sobbed, clasping his hands prayerfully. Why are you chasing me? Don't buddy me, you Chinger spy. You're not even a good spy-your arms don't match. As he dropped Deathwish pulled his gun free of the holster and aimed it squarely between Bill's eyes. Shot while attempting to escape. Have mercy! Bill pleaded.

Death to all Chingers. He pulled the trigger.

Chapter 2 | Bill, the Galactic Hero | Chapter 4