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Chapter 4

Something slithered close by in the mud and Bill's trigger finger spontaneously contracted and he shot it. In the brief atomic flare he saw the smoking remains of a dead Venian, as well as an unusually large number of live Venians squelching to the attack. Bill dived aside instantly, so that their return fire missed him, and fled in the opposite direction. His only thought was to save his skin, and this he did by getting as far from the firing and the attacking enemy as he could. That this direction happened to be into the trackless swamp he did not consider at the time. Survive, his shivering little ego screamed, and he ran on.

Running became difficult when the ground turned to mud, and even more difficult when the mud gave way to open water. After paddling desperately for an interminable length of time Bill came to more mud. The first hysteria had now passed, the firing was only a dull rumble in the distance, and he was exhausted.

He dropped onto the mudbank and instantly sharp teeth sank deep into his buttocks. Screaming hoarsely, he ran on until he ran into a tree. He wasn't going fast enough to hurt himself, and the feel of rough bark under his fingers brought out all of his eoanthropic survival instincts: he climbed. High up there were two branches that forked out from the trunk, and be wedged himself into the crotch, back to the solid wood and gun pointed straight ahead and ready. Nothing bothered him now. The night sounds grew dim and distant, the' blackness was complete, and within a few minutes his head started to nod. He dragged it back up a few times, blinked about at nothing, then finally slept.

It was the first gray light of dawn, when he opened his gummy eyes and blinked around. There was a little lizard perched on a nearby branch watching him with jewellike eyes.

Gee-you were really sacked out, the Chinger said.

Bill's shot tore a smoking scar in the top of the branch, then the Chinger swung back up from underneath and meticulously wiped bits of ash from his paws.

Easy on the trigger, Bill, it said. Gee-I could have killed you anytime during the night if I had wanted to. I know you, Bill said hoarsely. You're Eager Beager, aren't you? Gee-this is just like old home week, isn't it? A centipede was scuttling by, and Eager Beager the Chinger grabbed it up with three of his arms and began pulling off legs with his fourth and eating them. I recognized you Bill, and wanted to talk to you. I have been feeling bad ever since I called you a stoolie, that wasn't right of me. You were only doing your duty when you turned me in. You wouldn't like to tell me how you recognized me, would you? he asked, and winked slyly.

Why don't you bowb off, Jack? Bill growled, and groped in his pocket for a bottle of cough syrup. Eager Chinger sighed.

Well, I suppose I can't expect you to betray anything of military importance, but I hope you will answer a few questions for me. He discarded the delimbed corpse and groped about in his marsupial pouch and produced a tablet and tiny writing instrument. You must realize that spying is not my chosen occupation, but rather I was dragooned into it through my speciality, which is exopologyperhaps you have heard of this discipline? We had an orientation lecture once, an exopologist, all he could talk about was alien creeps and things. Yes-well, that roughly sums it up. The science of the study -of alien life forms, and of course to us you homo sapiens are an alien form He scuttled halfway around the branch when Bill raised his gun.

Watch that kind of talk, bowb! Sorry, just my manner of speaking. To put it briefly, since I specialized in the study of your species I was sent out as a spy, reluctantly, but that is the sort of sacrifice one makes during wartime. However, seeing you here reminded me that there are a number of questions and problems still unanswered that I would appreciate your help on, purely in the matter of science of course. Like what? Bill asked suspiciously, draining the bottle and flinging it away into the jungle.

Well-gee-to begin simply, bow do you feel about us Chingers? Death to all Chingers! The little pen flew over the tablet.

But you have been taught to say that. How did you feel before you entered the service? Didn't give a damn about Chingers. Out of the corner of his eye Bill was watching a suspicious movement of the leaves in the tree above.

Fine! Then could you explain to me just who it is that hates us Chingers and wants to fight a war of extermination? Nobody really hates Chingers, I guess. It's just that there is no one else around to fight a war with, so we fight with you. The moving leaves had parted and a great, smooth head with slitted eyes peered down.

I knew it! And that brings me to my really important question. Why do you homo sapiens like to fight wars? Bill's hand tightened on his gun as the monstrous head dropped silently down from the leaves behind Eager Chinger Beager, it was attached to a foot thick and apparently endless serpent body.

Fight wars? I don't know, Bill said, distracted by the soundless approach of the giant snake. I guess because we like to, there doesn't seem to be any other reason. You like to! the Chinger squeaked, hopping up and down with excitement. No civilized race could like wars, death, killing, maiming, rape, torture, pain, to name just a few of the concomitant factors. Your race can't be civilized! The snake struck like lightning, and Eager Beager Chinger vanished down its spine-covered throat with only the slightest of muffled squeals.

Yeah I guess we're just not civilized, Bill said, gun ready, but the snake kept going on down. At least fifty yards of it slithered by before the tail flipped past and it was out of sight. Serves the damn spy right, Bill grunted happily, and pulled himself to his feet.

Once on the ground Bill began to realize just how bad a spot he was in. The damp swamp had swallowed up any marks of his passage from the night before and he hadn't the slightest idea in which direction the battle area lay. The sun was just a general illumination behind the layers of fog and cloud, and he felt a sudden chill as he realized how small were his chances of finding his way back.

The invasion area, just ten miles to a side, made a microscopic pinprick in the hide of this planet. Yet if he didn't find it he was as good as dead. And if he just stayed here he would die, so, picking what looked like the most likely direction, he started off.

I'm pooped, he said, and was. A few hours of dragging through the swamps had done nothing except weaken his muscles, fill his skin with insect bites, drain a quart or two of blood into the ubiquitous leeches, and deplete the charge in his gun as he killed a dozen or so of the local life forms that wanted him for breakfast. He was also hungry and thirsty. And still lost.

The rest of the day just recapitulated the morning, so that when the sky began to darken he was close to exhaustion, and his supply of cough medicine was gone.

He was very hungry when he climbed a tree to find a spot to rest for the night, and he plucked a luscious-looking red fruit.

Supposed to be poison. He looked at it suspiciously, then smelled it. It smelled fine. He threw it away.

In the morning he was much hungrier. Should I put the barrel of the gun in my mouth and blow my head off? he asked himself, weighing the atomic pistol in his hand. Plenty of time for that yet. Plenty of things can still happen. Yet he didn't really believe it when he heard voices coming through the jungle toward him, human voices. He settled behind the limb and aimed his gun in that direction.

The voices grew louder, then a clanking and rattling. An armed Venian scuttled under the tree, but Bill held his fire as other figures loomed out of the fog.

It was a long file of human prisoners wearing the neck irons used to bring Bill and the others to the labor camp, all joined together by a long chain that connected the neck irons. Each of the men was carrying a large box on his head.

Bill let them stumble by underneath and kept a careful count of the Venian guards. There were five in all with a sixth bringing up the rear, and when this one had passed underneath the tree Bill dropped straight down on him, braining him with his heavy boots. The Venian was armed with a Chinger-made copy of a standard atomic rifle, and Bill smiled wickedly as he hefted its familiar weight. After sticking the pistol into his waistband he crept after the column, rifle ready. He managed to kill the fifth guard by walking up behind him and catching him in the back of the neck with the rifle butt. The last two troopers in the file saw this but had enough brains to be quiet as he crept up on number four. Some stir among the prisoners or a chance sound warned this guard and he turned about, raising his rifle. There was no chance now to kill him silently, so Bill burned his head off and ran as fast as he could toward the head of the column. There was a shocked silence when the blast of the rifle echoed through the fog and Bill filled it with a shout.

Hit the dirt-FAST! The soldiers dived into the mud and Bill held his atomic rifle at his waist as he ran, fanning it back and forth before him like a water hose and holding down the trigger on full automatic. A continuous blast of fire poured out a yard above the ground and he squirted it in an arc before him. There were shouts and screams in the fog, and then the charge in the rifle was exhausted. Bill threw it from him and drew the pistol. Two of the remaining guards were down, and the last one was wounded and got off a single badly aimed shot before Bill burned him too.

Not bad, he said, stopping and panting. Six out of six. There were low moans coming from the line of prisoners, and Bill curled his lip in disgust at the three men who hadn't dropped at his shouted command.

What's the matter? he asked, stirring one with his foot, never been in combat before? But this one didn't answer because he was charred dead.

Never the next one answered, gasping in pain. Get the corpsman, I'm wounded, there's one ahead in the line. Oh, oh, why did I ever leave the Chris Keeler! Medic Bill frowned at the three gold balls of a fourth lieutenant on the man's collar, then bent and scraped some mud from his face. You! The laundry officer!

he shouted in outraged anger, raising his gun to finish the job.

Not I! the lieutenant moaned, recognizing Bill at last.

The laundry officer is gone, flushed down the drain! This is I, your friendly local pastor, bringing you the blessings of Ahura Mazdah, my son, and have you been reading the Avesta every day before going to sleep Bah! Bill snarled. He couldn't shoot him now, and he walked over to the third wounded man.

Hello Bill a weak voice said. I guess the old reflexes are slowing down I can't blame you for shooting me, I should have hit the dirt like the others You're damn right you should have, Bill said looking down at the familiar, loathed, tusked face. You're dying, Deathwish, you've bought it. I know, Deathwish said, and coughed. His eyes were closed.

Wrap this line in a circle, Bill shouted. I want the medic up here. The chain of prisoners curved around, and they watched as the medic examined the casualties.

A bandage on the looie's arm takes care of him, he said. Just superficial burns. But the big guy with the fangs has bought it. Can you keep him alive? Bill asked.

For awhile, no telling how long. Keep him alive. Bill looked around at the circle of prisoners. Any way to get those neck irons off? he asked.

Not without the keys, a burly infantry sergeant answered, and the lizards never brought them. We'll have to wear them until we get back. How come you risked your neck saving us? he asked suspiciously.

Who wanted to save you? Bill sneered. I was hungry and I figured that must be food you were carrying. Yeah, it is, the sergeant said, looking relieved. I can understand now why you took the chance. Bill broke open a can of rations and stuffed his face.

Chapter 3 | Bill, the Galactic Hero | Chapter 5