A total of 89,672,899 recruits had already been shipped into space through Camp Leon Trotsky, so the process was an automatic and smoothly working one, even though this time it was processing itself, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Bill and his buddies were the last group of recruits through, and the snake began ingesting itself right behind them. No sooner had they been shorn of their sprouting fuzz and deloused in the ultrasonic delouser than the barbers rushed at each other and in a welter of under and over arms, gobbets of hair, shards of mustache, bits of flesh, drops of blood, they clipped and shaved each other, then pulled the operator after them into the ultrasonic chamber. Medical corpsmen gave themselves injections against rocket-fever and spacecafard; record clerks issued themselves pay books; and the loadmasters kicked each other up the ramps and into the waiting shuttleships. Rockets blasted, living columns of fire like scarlet tongues licking down at the blasting pads, burning up the ramps in a lovely pyrotechnic display, since the ramp operators were also aboard. The ships echoed and thundered up into the night sky leaving Camp Leon Trotsky a dark and silent ghost town where bits of daily orders and punishment rosters rustled and blew from the bulletin boards, dancing through the deserted streets to finally plaster themselves against the noisy, bright windows of the Officers' Club where a great drinking party was in progress, although there was much complaining because the officers had to serve themselves.
Up and up the shuttleships shot, toward the great fleet of deep-spacers that darkened the stars above, a new fleet, the most powerful the galaxy had ever seen, so new in fact that the ships were still under construction. Welding torches flared in brilliant points of light while hot rivets hurled their flat trajectories across the sky into the waiting buckets. The spots of light died away as one behemoth of the star lanes was completed and thin screams sounded in the space-suit radio circuit as the workers, instead of being returned to the yards, were pressed into service on the ship they had so recently built.
This was total war.
Bill staggered through the sagging plastic tube that connected the shuttleship to a dreadnaught of space and dropped his bags iii front of a petty chief officer who sat at a desk in the hangar-sized spacelock. Or rather he tried to drop it, but since there was no gravity the bags remained in mid-air, and when he pushed them down he rose (since a body when it is falling freely is said to be in free fall, and anything with weight has no weight, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction or something like that). The petty looked up and snarled and pulled Bill back down to the deck.
“None of your bowby spacelubber tricks, trooper. Name?” “Bill, spelled with two L's.” “Bil,” the petty mumbled, licking the end of his stylo, then inscribing it in the ship's roster with round, illiterate letters. “Two `L's' for officers only, bowb-learn your place. What's your classification?” “Recruit, unskilled, untrained, spacesick.” “Well don't puke in here, that's what you have your own quarters for. You are now a Fuse Tender Sixth Class, unskilled. Bunk down in compartment 34J-89T-ooi.
Move. And keep that woopsy-sack over your head.” No sooner had Bill found his quarters and thrown his bags into a bunk, where they floated five inches over the reclaimed rock-wool mattress, than Eager Beager came in, followed by Bowb Brown and a crowd of strangers, some of them carrying welding torches and angry expressions.
“Where's Ugly and the rest of the squad?” Bill asked.
Bowb shrugged and strapped himself into his bunk for a little shut-eye. Eager opened one of the six bags he always carried and removed some boots to polish.
“Are you saved?” A deep voice, vibrant with emotion, sounded from the other end of the compartment. Bill looked up, startled, and the big trooper standing there saw the motion and stabbed toward him with an immense finger. “You, brother, are you saved?” “That's a little hard to say,” Bill mumbled, bending over and rooting in his bag, hoping the man would go away. But he didn't; in fact, he came over and sat down on Bill's bunk. Bill tried to ignore him, but this was hard to do, because the trooper was over six feet high, heavily muscled, and ironjawed.
He had lovely, purplish-black skin that made Bill a little jealous, because his was only a sort of grayish pink. Since the trooper's shipboard uniform was almost the same shade of black, he looked all of a piece, very effective with his flashing smile and piercing gaze.
“Welcome aboard the Christine Keeler,” he said, and with a friendly shake splintered most of Bill's knucklebones. “The grand old lady of this fleet, commissioned almost a week ago. I'm the Reverend Fuse Tender Sixth Class Tembo, and I see by the stencil on your bag that your name is Bill, and since we're shipmates, Bill, please call me Tembo, and how is the condition of your soul?” “I haven't had much chance to think about it lately…” “I should think not, just coming from recruit training, since attendance of chapel during training is a court-martial offense. But that's all behind you now and you can be saved. Might I ask if you are of the faith…?” “My folks were Fundamentalist Zoroastrian, so I suppose… “ “Superstition, my boy, rank superstition. It was the hand of fate that brought us together in this ship, that your soul would have this one chance to be saved from the fiery pit. You've heard of Earth?” “I like plain food…” “It's a planet, my boy-the home of the human race. The home from whence we all sprang, see it, a green and lovely world, a jewel in space.” Tembo had slipped a tiny projector from his pocket while he spoke, and a colored image appeared on the bulkhead, a planet swimming artistically through the void, girdled by white clouds. Suddenly ruddy lightning shot through the clouds, and they twisted and boiled while great wounds appeared on the planet below.
From the pinhead speaker came the tiny sound of rolling thunder. “But wars sprang up among the sons of man and they smote each other with the atomic energies until the Earth itself groaned aloud and mighty was the holocaust.
And when the final lightnings stilled there was death in the North, death in the West, death in the East, death, death, death. Do you realize what that means?” Tembo's voice was eloquent with feeling, suspended for an instant in mid-flight, waiting for the answer to the catechistical question.
“I'm not quite sure,” Bill said, rooting aimlessly in his bag, “I come from Phigerinadon II, it's a quieter place…” “There was no death in the SOUTH! And why was the South spared, I ask you, and the answer is because it was the will of Samedi that all the false prophets and false religions and false gods be wiped from the face of the Earth so that the only true faith should remain. The First Reformed Voodoo Church…” General Quarters sounded, a hooting alarm keyed to the resonant frequency of the human skull so that the bone vibrated as though the head were inside a mighty bell, and the eyes blurred out of focus with each stroke. There was a scramble for the passageway, where the hideous sound . was not quite as loud and where non-corns were waiting to herd them to their stations. Bill followed Eager Beager up an oily ladder and out of the hatch in the floor of the fuse room. Great racks of fuses stretched away on all sides of them, while from the tops of the racks sprang arm-thick cables that looped upward and vanished through the ceiling. In front of the racks, evenly spaced, were round openings a foot in diameter.
“My opening remarks will be brief, any trouble from any of you and I will personally myself feed you head first down the nearest fuseway.” A greasy forefinger pointed at one of the holes in the deck, and they recognized the voice of their new master. He was shorter and wider and thicker in the gut than Deathwish, but there was a generic resemblance that was unmistakable. “I am Fuse Tender First Class Spleen. I will take you crumbly, ground-crawling bowbs and will turn you into highly skilled and efficient fuse tenders or else feed you down the nearest fuseway. This is a highly skilled and efficient technical speciality which usually takes a year to train a good man but this is war so you are going to learn to do it now or else. I will now demonstrate. Tembo front and center. Take board 19J-9, it's out of circuit now.” Tembo clashed his heels and stood at rigid attention in front of the board.
Stretching away on both sides of him were the fuses, white ceramic cylinders capped on both ends with metal, each one a foot in diameter, five feet high, and weighing ninety pounds. There was a red band around the midriff of each fuse. First Class Spleen tapped one of these bands.
“Every fuse has one of these red bands, which is called a fuseband and is of the color red. When the fuse burns out this band turns black. I don't expect you to remember all this now, but it's in your manual and you are going to be letter-perfect before I am done with you, or else. Now I will show you what will happen when a fuse burns out. Tembo-that is a burned-out fuse! Go!” “Unggh!” Tembo shouted, and leaped at the fuse and grasped it with both hands. “Unggh!” he said again, as he pulled it from the clips, and again “Unggh!” when he dropped it into the fuseway. Then, still Ungghing, be pulled a new fuse from the storage rack and clipped it into place and with a final Unggh! snapped back to attention.
“And that's the way it is done, by the count, by the numbers, the trooper way, and you are going to learn it or else.” A dull buzzing sounded, grumbling through the air like a stifled eructation. “There's the chow call, so I'll let you break now, and while you're eating, think about what you are going to have to learn. Fall out.” Other troopers were going by in the corridor, and they followed them into the bowels of the ship.
“Gee—do you think the food might be any better than it was back in camp?” Eager asked, smacking his lips excitedly.
“It is completely impossible that it could be any worse,” Bill said as they joined a line leading to a door labeled CONSOLIDATED MESS NUMBER Two. “Any change will have to make it better. After all-aren't we fighting troopers now?
We have to go into combat fit, the manual says.” The line moved forward with painful slowness, but within an hour they were at the door. Inside the room a tired looking KP in soap-stained, . greasy fatigues handed Bill a yellow plastic cup from a rack before him. Bill moved on, and when the trooper in front of him stepped away, he faced a blank wall from which there emerged a single, handleless spigot. A fat cook standing next to it, wearing a large white chef's hat and a soiled undershirt, waved him forward with the soup ladle in his hand.
“C'mon, c'mon, ain't you never et before? Cup under the spout, dog tag in the slot, snap it up!” Bill held the cup as he had been advised and noticed a narrow slit in the metal wall just at eye level. His dog tags were hanging around his neck, and he pushed one of them into the slot. Something went bzzzzz, and a thin stream of yellow fluid gushed out, filling the cup halfway.
“Next man!” the cook shouted, and pulled Bill away so that Eager could take his place. “What is this?” Bill asked, peering into the cup.
“What is this! What is this!” the cook raged, growing bright red. “This is your dinner, you stupid bowbl This is absolutely chemically pure water in which are dissolved eighteen amino acids, sixteen vitamins, eleven mineral salts, a fatty acid ester, and glucose. What else did you expect?” “Dinner…?” Bill said hopefully, then saw red as the soup ladle crashed down on his head. “Could I have it without the fatty acid ester?” he asked hopefully, but be was pushed out into the corridor where Eager joined him.
“Gee,” Eager said. “This has all the food elements necessary to sustain life indefinitely. Isn't that marvelous?” Bill sipped at his cup, then sighed tremulously.
“Look at that,” Tembo said, and when Bill turned, a projected image appeared on the corridor wall. It showed a misty firmament, in which tiny figures seemed to be riding on clouds. “Hell awaits you, my boy, unless you are saved.
Turn your back on your superstitious ways, for the First Reformed Voodoo Church welcomes you with open arms; come unto her bosom, and find your place in heaven at Samedi's right hand. Sit there with Mondonguc and Bakalou and Zandor, who will welcome you.” The projected scene changed; the clouds grew closer, while from the little speaker came the tiny sound of a heavenly choir with drum accompaniment. Now the figures could be seen clearly, all with very dark skins and white robes from the back of which protruded great black wings. They smiled and waved gracefully to each other as their clouds passed, while singing enthusiastically and beating on the little tomtoms that each one carried. It was a lovely scene, and Bill's eyes misted a bit.
“Attention!” The barking tones echoed from the walls and the troopers snapped their shoulders back, heels together, eyes ahead. The heavenly choir vanished as Tembo shoved the projector back into his pocket.
“As you was,” First Class Spleen ordered, and they turned to see him leading two MPs with drawn handguns who were acting as bodyguards for an officer. Bill knew it was an officer because they had had an officer-identification course, plus the fact that there was a KNOW YOUR OFFICERS chart on the latrine wall that he had had a great deal of opportunity to study during an anguilluliasis epidemic. His jaw gaped open as the officer went by, almost close enough to touch, and stopped in front of Tembo.
“Fuse Tender Sixth Class Tembo, I have good news for you. In two weeks your seven-year period of enlistment will be up, and because of your fine record Captain Zekial has authorized a doubling of the usual mustering-out pay, an honorable discharge with band music, as well as your free transport back to Earth.” Tembo, relaxed and firm, looked down at the runty lieutenant with the well-chewed blond mustache who stood before him. “That will be impossible, Sir.” “Impossible!” the lieutenant screeched, and rocked back and forth on his high heeled boots. “Who are you to tell me what is impossible… I” “Not I, Sir,” Tembo answered with utmost calm. “Regulation i3–9A, paragraph 45, page 8923, volume 43 of Rules, Regulations and Articles of War. 'No man nor officer shall or will receive a discharge other than dishonorable with death sentence from a vessel, post, base, camp, ship, outpost, or labor camp during time of emergency… ' “ “Are you a ship's lawyer, Tembo?” “No, Sir. I'm a loyal trooper, Sir. I just want to do my duty, Sir.” “There's something very funny about you, Tembo. I saw in your record that you enlisted voluntarily without drugs and or hypnotics being used. Now you refuse discharge. That'sbad, Tembo, very bad. Gives you a bad name. Makes you look suspicious. Makes you look like a spy or something.” “I'm a loyal trooper, of the Emperor, sir, not a spy.” “You're not a spy, Tembo, we have looked into that very carefully. But why are you in the service, Tembo?” “To be a loyal trooper of the Emperor, sir, and to do my best to spread the gospel. Have you been saved, sir?” “Watch your tongue, trooper or I'll have you up on charges! Yes, we know that story-Reverend-but we don't believe it. You're being too tricky, but we'll find out…” He stalked away, muttering to himself, and they all snapped to attention until he was gone. The other troopers looked at Tembo oddly and did not feel comfortable until he had gone. Bill and Eager walked slowly back to their quarters.
“Turned down a discharge…!” Bill mumbled in awe.
“Gee,” Eager said, “maybe he's. nuts. I can't think of any other reason.” “Nobody could be that crazy,” Bill said. “I wonder what's in there?” pointing to a door with a large sign that read ADMITTANCE TO AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Gee-I don't know-maybe food?” They slipped through instantly and closed the door behind them, but there was no food there. Instead they were in a long chamber with one curved wall, while attached to this wall were cumbersome devices each set with meters, dials, switches, controls, levers, a view screen, and a relief tube. Bill bent over and read the label on the nearest one.
“Mark IV Atomic Blaster-and look at the size of them! This must be the ship's main battery.” He turned around and saw that Eager was holding his arm up so that his wrist watch pointed at the guns and was pressing on the crown with the index finger of his other hand.
“What are you doing?” Bill asked.
“Gee-just seeing what time it was.” “How can you tell what time it is when you have the inside of your wrist toward your face and the watch is on the outside?” Footsteps echoed far down the long gun deck, and they remembered the sign on the outside of the door. In an instant they had slipped back through it, and Bill pressed it quietly shut. When he turned around Eager Beager had gone so that he had to make his way back to their quarters by himself. Eager had returned first and was busy shining boots for his buddies and didn't look up when Bill came in.
But what had he been doing with his watch?