The transit stockade was a makeshift budding of plastic sheets bolted to bent aluminum frames and was in the center of a large quadrangle. MPs with bayoneted atomrifles marched around the perimeter of the six electrified barbed-wire fences. The multiple gates were opened by remote control, and Bill was dragged through them by the handcuff robot that had brought him here. This debased machine was a squat and heavy cube as high as his knee that ran on clanking treads and from the top of which projected a steel bar with heavy handcuffs fastened to the end. Bill was on the end of the handcuffs. Escape was impossible, because if any attempt was made to force the cuffs the robot sadistically exploded a peewee atom bomb it had in its guts and blew up itself and the escaping prisoner, as well as anyone else in the vicinity. Once inside the compound the robot stopped and did not protest when the guard sergeant unlocked the cuffs. As soon as its prisoner was freed the machine rolled into its kennel and vanished.
“All right, wise guy, you're in any charge now, and dat means trouble for you, “ the sergeant snapped at Bill. He had a shaven head, a wide and scar-covered jaw, small, closeset eyes in which there flickered the guttering candle of stupidity.
Bill narrowed his own eyes to slits and slowly raised his good left right arm, flexing the biceps. Tembo's muscle swelled and split the thin prison fatigue jacket with a harsh, ripping sound Then Bill pointed to the ribbon of the Purple Dart which he had pinned to his chest.
“Do you know how I got that?” he asked in a grim and toneless voice. “I got that by killing thirteen Chingers singlehanded in a pillbox I had been sent into. I got into this stockade here because after killing the Chingers I came back and killed the sergeant who sent me in there. Now-what did you say about trouble, Sergeant?” “You don't give me no trouble I don't give you no trouble,” the guard sergeant squeaked as he skittered away. “You're in cell 13, in there, right upstairs ..
. “ He stopped suddenly and began to chew all the fingernails on one hand at the same time, with a nibbling-crunching sound. Bill gave him a long glower for good measure, then turned and went slowly into the building.
The door to number 13 stood open, and Bill looked in at the narrow cell dimly lit by the light that filtered through the translucent plastic walls. The double-decker bunk took up almost all of the space, leaving only a narrow passage at one side. Two sagging shelves were bolted to the far wall and, along with the stenciled message BE CLEAN NOT OBSCENEDIRTY TALK HELPS THE ENEMY!, made up the complete furnishings. A small man with a pointed face and beady eyes lay on the bottom bunk looking intently at Bill. Bill looked right back and frowned.
“Come in, Sarge,” the little man said as he scuttled up the support into the upper bunk. “I been saving the lower for you, yes I have. The name is, Blackey, and I'm doing ten months for telling a second looey to blow it out…” He ended the sentence with a slight questioning note that Bill ignored. Bill's feet hurt. He kicked off the purple boots and stretched out on the sack.
Blackey's head popped over the edge of the upper bunk, not unlike a rodent peering out the landscape. “It's a long time to chow-how's about a Dobbinburger?” A hand appeared next to the head and slipped a shiny package down to Bill.
After looking it over suspiciously Bill pulled the sealing string on the end of the plastic bag. As soon as the air rushed in and hit the combustible lining the burger started to smoke and within three seconds was steaming hot. Lifting the bun Bill squirted ketchup in from the little sack at the other end of the bag, then took a suspicious bite. It was rich, juicy horse.
“This old gray mare sure tastes like it used to be,” Bill said, talking with his mouth full. “How did you ever smuggle this into the stockade?” Blackey grinned and produced a broad stage wink. “Contacts. They bring it in to me, all I gotta do is ask. I didn't catch the name…?” “Bill.” Food had soothed his ruffled temper. “A year and a day for sleeping on duty. I would have been shot for desertion, but I had a good lawyer. That was a good burger, too bad there's nothing to wash it down with.” Blackey produced a small bottle labeled COUGH SYRUP and passed it to Bill.
“Specially mixed for me by a friend in the medics. Half grain alcohol and half ether.” “Zoingg!” Bill said, dashing the tears from his eyes after draining half the bottle. He felt almost at peace with the world. You're a good buddy to have around, Blackey.” “You can say that again,” Blackey told him earnestly. “It never hurts to have a buddy, not in the troopers, the army, the navy, anywheres. Ask old Blackey, he knows. You got muscles, Bill?” Bill lazily flexed Tembo's muscles for him.
“That's what I like to see,” Blackey said in admiration. “With your muscles and my brain we can get along fine…” “I have a brain too!” “Relax it! Give it a break, while I do the thinking. I seen service in more armies than you got days in the troopers. I got my first Purple Heart serving with Hannibal, there's the scar right there.” He pointed to a white arc on the back of his hand. “But I picked him for a loser and switched to Romulus and Remus' boys while there was still time. I been learning ever since, and I always land on my feet. I saw which way the wind was blowing and ate some laundry soap and got the trots the morning of Waterloo, and I missed but nothing, I tell you.
I. saw the same kind of thing shaping up at the Somme-or was it Ypres?-I forget some of them old names now, and chewed a cigarette and put it into my armpit, you get a fever that way, and missed that show too. There's always an angle to figure I always say.” “I never heard of those battles. Fighting the Chingers?” “No, earlier than that, a lot earlier than that. Wars and wars ago.” “That makes you pretty old, Blackey. You don't look pretty old.” “I am pretty old, but I don't tell people usually because they give me the laugh. But I remember the pyramids being built, and I remember what lousy chow the Assyrian army had, and the time we took over Wug's mob when they tried to get into our cave, rolled rocks down on them.” “Sounds like a lot of bowb,” Bill said lazily, draining the bottle.
“Yeah, that's what everybody says, so I don't tell the old stories any more.
They don't even believe me when I show them my good luck piece.” He held out a little white triangle with a ragged edge. “Tooth from a pterodactyl. Knocked it down myself with a stone from a sling I had just invented…” “Looks like a hunk of plastic.” “See what I mean? So I don't tell the old stories any more. just keep reenlisting and drifting with the tide.. .” Bill sat up and gaped. “Re-enlist! Why, that's suicide…” “Safe as houses. Safest place during the war is in the army. The jerks in the front lines get their heads shot off, the civilians at home get their heads blown off. Guys in between safe as houses. It takes thirty, fifty, maybe seventy guys in the middle to supply every guy in the line. Once you learn to be a file clerk you're safe. Who ever heard of them shooting at a file clerk? I'm a great file clerk. But that's just in wartime. Peacetime, whenever they make a mistake and there is peace for awhile, it's better to be in the combat troops. Better food, longer leaves, nothing much to do. Travel a lot.” “So what happens when the war starts?” “I know 735 different ways to get into the hospitals.” “Will you teach me a couple?” “Anything for a buddy, Bill. I'll show you tonight, after they bring the chow around. And the guard what brings the chow is being difficult about a little favor I asked him. Boy, I wish he had a broken arm!” “Which arm?” Bill cracked his knuckles with a loud crunch.
“Dealer's choice.” The Plastichouse Stockade was a transient center where prisoners were kept on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. It was an easy, relaxed life enjoyed by both guards and inmates with nothing to disturb the even tenor of the days.
There had been one new guard, a real eager type fresh in from the National Territorial Guard, but he had had an accident while serving the meals and had broken his arm. Even the other guards were glad to see him go. About once a week Blackey would betaken away under armed guard to the Base Records Section where he was forging new records for a light colonel who was very active in the black market and wanted to make millionaire before he retired. While working on the records Mackey saw to it that the stockade guards received undeserved promotions, extra leave time, and cash bonuses for nonexistent medals. As a result Bill and Blackey ate and drank very well and grew fat. It was as peaceful as could possibly be until the morning after a session in the records section when Blackey returned and woke Bill up.
“Good news,” he said. “We're shipping out.” “What's good about that?” Bill asked, surly at being disturbed and still halfstoned from the previous evening's drinking bout. “I like it here.” “It's going to get too hot for us soon. The colonel is giving me the eye and a very funny look, and I think he is going to have us shipped to the other end of the galaxy, where there is heavy fighting. But he's not going to do anything until next week after I finish the books for him, so I had secret orders cut for us this week sending us to Tabes Dorsalis where the cement mines are.” “The Dust World!” Bill shouted hoarsely, and picked Blackey up by the throat and shook him. “A world-wide cement mine where men die of silicosis in hours.
Hellhole of the universe…” Blackey wriggled free and-scuttled to the other end of the cell.
“Hold it!” he gasped. “Don't go off half cocked. Close the cover on your priming pan and keep your powder dryl Do you think I would ship us to a place like that? That's just the way it is on the TV shows, but I got the inside dope.
If you work in the cement mines, roger, it ain't so good. But they got one tremendous base section there with a lot of clerical help, and they use trustees in the motor pool, since there aren't enough troops there. While I was working on the records I changed your MS from fuse tender, which is a suicide job, to driver, and here is your driver's license with qualifications on everything from monocycle to atomic 89-ton tank. So we get us some soft jobs, and besides the whole base is air-conditioned.” “It was kind of nice here,” Bill said, scowling at the plastic card that certified to his aptitude in chauffeuring a number -of strange vehicles, most of which he had never seen.
“They come, they go, they're all the same,” Blackey said, packing a small toilet kit.
They began to realize that something was wrong when the column of prisoners was shackled then chained together with neckcuffs and leg irons and prodded into the transport spacer by a platoon of combat MPs. “Move along!” they shouted.
“You'll have plenty of time to relax when we got to Tabes Dorsalgia.” “Where are we going?” Bill gasped.
“You heard me, snap it bowb.” “You told me Tabes Dorsalis,” Bill snarled at Blackey who was ahead of him in the chain. “Tabes Dorsalgia is the base on Veneria where all the fighting is going on-we're heading for combat!” “A little slip of the pen,” Blackey sighed. “You can't win them all.” He dodged the kick Bill swung at him, then waited patiently while the MPs beat Bill senseless with their clubs and dragged him aboard the ship.