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Chapter 5

Now that Eager Beager had turned out to be a Chinger spy, Bill felt very much alone. Bowb Brown, who never talked anyway, now talked even less, which meant never, so there was no one that Bill could bitch to. Bowb was the only other fuseman in the compartment who had been in Bill's squad at Camp Leon Trotsky, and all of the new men were very clannish and given to sitting close together and mumbling and throwing suspicious looks over their shoulders if he should come too close. Their only recreation was welding and every off watch they would break out the welders and weld things to the floor and the next watch cut them loose again, which is about as dim a way of wasting time as there is; but they seemed to enjoy it. So Bill was very much out of things and tried bitching to Eager Beager.

Look at the trouble you got me into! he whined.

Beager just smiled back, unmoved by the complaint.

At least close your head when I'm talking to you, Bill snarled, and reached over to slam the top of Eager's head shut. But it didn't do any good. Eager couldn't do anything any more except smile. He had polished his last boot.

He just stood there now; he was really very heavy and besides was magnetized to the floor, and the fuse tenders hung their dirty shirts and arc welders on him. He stayed there for three watches before someone figured out what to do with him, until finally a squad of MPs came with crowbars and tilted him into a handcar and rolled him away.

So long, Bill called out, waving after him, then went back to polishing his boots. He was a good buddy, even if he was a Chinger spy. Bowb didn't answer him, and welders wouldn't talk to him, and he spent a lot of the time avoiding Reverend Tembo. The grand old lady of the fleet, Christine Keeler, was still in orbit while her engines were being installed.

There was very little to do, because, in spite of what First Class Spleen had said, they had mastered all the intricacies of fuse tending in a little less than the prescribed year; in fact it took them something like maybe fifteen minutes. In his free time Bill wandered around the ship, going as far as the MPs who guarded the hatchways would allow him, and even considered going back to see the chaplain so he could have someone to bitch to. But if he timed it wrong he might meet the laundry officer again, and that was more than he could face. So he walked through the ship, very much alone, and looked in through the door of a compartment and saw a boot on a bed.

Bill stopped, frozen, immobile, shocked, rigid, horrified, dismayed, and had to fight for control of his suddenly contracted bladder.

He knew that boot. He would never forget that boot until the day he died, just as he would never forget his serial number and could say it frontward or backward or from the inside out. Every detail of that terrible boot was clear in his memory, from the snakelike laces in the repulsive leather of the uppers-said to be made of human skin-to the corrugated stamping-soles tinged with red that could only have been human blood. That boot belonged to Deathwish Drang.

The boot was attached to a leg, and paralyzed with terror, as unable to control himself as a bird before a snake, he found himself leaning further and further into the compact ment as his eyes traced up the leg past the belt to the shirt to the neck upon which rested the face that had featured largely in his nightmares since he had enlisted. The lips moved.

Is that you, Bill? C'mon in and rest it. Bill stumbled in.

Have a hunk of candy, Deathwish said, and smiled.

Reflex drove Bill's fingers into the offered box and set his jaw chewing on the first solid food that had passed his lips in weeks. Saliva spouted from dusty orifices, and his stomach gave a preliminary rumble, while his thoughts drove maddingly in circles as he tried to figure out what that expression was on Deathwish's face. Lips curved up at the corners behind the tusks, little crinkles on the cheeks. It was hopeless. He could not recognize it.

I hear Eager Beager turned out to be a Chinger spy, Deathwish said, closing the box of candy and sliding it under the pillow. I should have figured that one out myself. I knew there was something very wrong with him, doing his buddies' boots and that crap, but I thought he was just nuts. Should have known better Deathwish, Bill said hoarsely, it can't be, I know-but you are acting like a human being! Deathwish chuckled, not his ripsaw-slicing-human-bone chuckle, but an almost normal one.

Bill stammered. But you are a sadist, a pervert, a beast, a creature, a thing, a murderer Why, thanks, Bill. That's very nice to hear. I try to do my job to the best of my abilities, but I'm human enough to enjoy a word of praise now and then.

Being a murderer is hard to project, but I'm glad it got across, even to a recruit as stupid as you were. B-but aren't you really a Easy now! Deathwish snapped, and there was enough of the old venom and vileness to lower Bill's body temperature six degrees. Then Deathwish smiled again. Can't blame you, son, for carrying on this way, you being kind of stupid and from a rube planet and having your education retarded by the troopers and all that. But wake up, boyl Military education is far too important a thing to be wasted by allowing amateurs to get involved. If you read some of the things in our college textbooks it would make your blood run cold, yes indeed. Do you realize that in prehistoric times the drill sergeants, or whatever it was they called them, were real sadists! The armed forces would let these people with no real knowledge absolutely destroy recruits. Let them learn to hate the service before they learned to fear it, which plays hell with discipline. And talk about wasteful! They were always marching someone to death by accident or drowning a squad or nonsense like that. The waste alone would make you cry. Could I ask what you majored in in college? Bill asked in a very tiny and humble voice.

Military Discipline, Spirit breaking, and Method Acting. A rough course, four years, but I graduated sigma cum, which is not bad for a boy from a working-class family. I've made a career of the service, and that's why I can't understand why the ungrateful bastards went and shipped me out on this crummy can! He lifted his gold-rimmed glasses to flick away a developing tear.

You expect gratitude from the service? Bill asked humbly.

No, of, course not, how foolish of me. Thanks for jerking me back into line, Bill, -you'll make a good trooper. All I expect is criminal indifference which I can take advantage of by working through the Old Boys Network, bribery, cutting false orders, black-marketing, and the other usual things. It's just that I had been doing a good job on you slobs in Camp Leon Trotsky, and the l east I expected was to be left alone to keep doing it, which was pretty damn stupid of me. I had better get cracking on my transfer now. He slid to his feet and stowed the candy and gold-rimmed glasses away in a locked footlocker.

Bill, who in moments of shock found it hard to adjust instantly, was still bobbing his head and occasionally banging it with the heel of his hand. Lucky thing, he said, for your chosen career that you were born deformed-I mean you have such nice teeth. Luck nothing, Deathwish said, plunking one of his projecting tusks, expensive as hell. Do you know what a genemutated, vat-grown, surgically-implanted set of two-inch tusks cost? I bet you don't know! I worked the summer vac for three years to earn enough to buy these-but I tell you they were worth it. The image, that's everything. I studied the old tapes of prehistoric spirit-breakers, and in their own crude way they were good.

Selected by physical type and low I. Q. of course, but they knew their roles.

Bulletheads, shaved clean, with scars, thick jaws, repulsive manners, hot pants, everything. I figured a small investment in the beginning would pay rich dividends in the end. And it was a sacrifice, believe me, you won't see many implanted tusks around! For a lot of reasons. Oh, maybe they are good for eating tough meat, but what the hell else? Wait until you try kissing your first girl Now, get lost, Bill, I got things to do. See you around His last words faded in the distance, since Bill's well-conditioned reflexes had carried him down the corridor the instant he had been dismissed. When the spontaneous terror faded, he began to walk with a crafty roll, like a duck with a sprung kneecap, that he thought looked like an old spacesailor's gait. He was beginning to feel a seasoned hand and momentarily labored under the delusion that he knew more about the troopers than they knew about him. This pathetic misconception was dispelled instantly by the speakers on the ceiling, which belched and then grated their nasal voices throughout the ship.

Now hear this, the orders direct from the Old Man himself, Captain Zekial, that you all have been waiting to hear. We're heading into action, so we are going to have a clean buckle-down fore and aft, stow all loose gear. A low, heartfelt groan of pain echoed from every compartment of the immense ship.

Chapter 4 | Bill, the Galactic Hero | Chapter 6