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Chapter 6

There was plenty of latrine rumor and scuttlebutt about this first flight of the Chris Keeler, but none of it was true. The rumors were planted by undercover MPs and were valueless. About the only thing they could be sure of was that they might be going someplace because they seemed to be getting ready to go someplace. Even Tembo admitted to that as they lashed down fuses in the storeroom.

Then again, he added, we might be doing all this just to fool any spies into thinking we are going someplace, when really some other ships are going there. Where? Bill asked irritably, tying his forefinger into a knot and removing part of the nail when he pulled it free.

Why anyplace at all, it doesn't matter. Tembo was undisturbed by anything that did not bear on his faith. But I do know where you are going, Bill. Where? Eagerly. A perennial sucker for a rumor.

Straight to hell unless you are saved. Not again Bill pleaded.

Look there, Tembo said temptingly, and projected a heavenly scene with golden gates, clouds, and a soft tom-tom beat in the background.

Knock off that salvation-crap! First Class Spleen shouted, and the scene vanished.

Something tugged slightly at Bill's stomach, but he ignored it as being just another of the symptoms sent up continually by his panic-stricken gut, which thought it was starving to death and hadn't yet realized that all its marvelous grinding and dissolving machinery had been condemned to a liquid diet. But Tembo stopped work and cocked his head to one side, then poked himself experimentally in the stomach.

We're moving, he said positively, and going interstellar too. They've turned on the star-drive. You mean we are breaking through into sub-space and will soon experience the terrible wrenching at every fiber of our being? No, they don't use the old sub-space drive any more, because though a lot of ships broke through into sub-space with a fiber-wrenching jerk, none of them have yet broke back out. I read in the Trooper's Times where some mathematician said that there had been a slight error in the equations and that time was different in sub-space, but it was different faster not different slower, so that it will be maybe forever before those ships come out. Then we're going into hyper-space? No such thing. Or we're being dissolved into our component atoms and recorded in the memory of a giant computor who thinks we are somewhere else so there we are? Wow! Tembo said, his-eyebrows crawling up to his hairline. For a Zoroastrian farm boy you have some strange ideas! Have you been smoking or drinking something I don't know about? Tell me! Bill pleaded. If it's not one of them-what is it? We're going to have to cross interstellar space to fight the Chingers. How are we going to do it? It's like this. Tembo looked around to make sure that First Class Spleen was out of sight, then put his cupped hands together to form a ball. You make believe that my hands are the ship, just floating in space. Then the Bloater Drive is turned on- The what? The Bloater Drive. It's called that because it bloats things up. You know, everything is made up of little bitty things called electrons, protons, neutrons, trontrons, things like that, sort of held together by a kind of binding energy. Now, if you weaken the energy that holds things together I forgot to tell you that also they are spinning around all the time like crazy, or maybe you already knew-you weaken the energy, and because they are going around so fast all the little pieces start to move away from each other, and the weaker the energy the farther apart they move. Are you with me so far? I think I am, but I'm not sure that I like it. Keep cool. Now-see my hands? As the energy gets weaker the ship gets bigger, he moved his hands further apart. It gets bigger and bigger until it is as big as a planet, then as big as a sun then a whole stellar system. The Bloater Drive can make us just as big as we want to be, then it's turned the other way and we shrink back to our regular size and there we are. Where are we? Wherever we want to be, Tembo answered patiently.

Bill turned away and industriously rubbed shine-o onto a fuse as First Class Spleen sauntered by, a suspicious glint in his eye. As soon as he had turned the corner, Bill leaned over and hissed at Tembo.

How can we be anywhere else than where we started? Getting bigger, getting smaller doesn't get us anyplace. Well, they're pretty tricky with the old Bloater Drive. The way I heard it it's like you take a rubber band and hold one end in each hand. You don't move your left hand, but you stretch the band out as far as it will go with your right hand. When you let the band shrink back again you keep your right hand steady and let go with your left. See? You never moved the rubber band, just stretched it and let it snap-but it has moved over. Like our ship is doing now.

It's getting bigger, but in one direction. When the nose reaches wherever we are going the stern will be wherever we were. Then we shrink, and bangol there we are. And you can get into heaven just that easily, my son, if only Preaching on government time, Tembol First Class Spleen howled from the other side of the fuse rack over which he was looking with a mirror tied to the end of a rod. I'll have you polishing fuse clips for a year. You've been warned before. They tied and polished in silence after that, until the little planet about as big as a tennis ball swam in through the bulkhead. A perfect little planet with tiny icecaps, cold fronts, cloud cover, oceans, and the works.

What's that? Bill yiped.

Bad navigation, Tembo scowled. Backlash, the ship is slipping back a little on one end instead of going all the other way. No-no! Don't touch it, it can cause accidents sometimes. That's the planet we just left, Phigerinadon II. My home, Bill sobbed, and felt the tears rise as the planet shrank to the size of a marble. So long, Mom. He waved as the marble shrank to a mote, then vanished.

After this the journey was uneventful, particularly since they could not feel when they were moving, did not know when they stopped, and had no idea where they were. Though they were sure they had arrived somewhere when they were ordered to strip the lashings from the fuses. The inaction continued for three watches, and then the General Quarters alarm sounded. Bill ran with the others, happy for the first time since he had enlisted. All the sacrifices, the hardships would not be in vain. He was seeing action at last against the dirty Chingers.

They stood in first position opposite the fuse racks, eyes intent on the red bands on the fuses that were called the fusebands. Through the soles of his boots Bill could feel a faint, distant tremor in the deck.

What's that? he asked Tembo out of the corner of his mouth.

Main drive, not the Bloater Drive. Atomic engines. Means we must be maneuvering, doing something. But what? Watch them fusebandsl First Class Spleen shouted.

Bill was beginning to sweat-then suddenly realized that it was becoming excruciatingly hot. Tembo, without taking his eyes from the fuses, slipped out of his clothes and folded them neatly behind him.

Are we allowed to do that? Bill asked, pulling at his collar. What's happening? It's against regulations, but you have to strip or cook. Peel, son, or you will die unblessed. We must be going into action because the shields are up.

Seventeen force screens, one electromagnetic screen, a double-armored hull, and a thin layer of pseudo-living jelly that flows over and seals any openings.

With all that stuff there is absolutely no energy loss from the ship, nor any way to get rid of energy. Or heat. With the engines running and everyone sweating it can get pretty hot. Even hotter when the guns fire. The temperature stayed high, just at the boundary of tolerability for hours, while they stared at the fusebands. At one point there was a tiny plink that Bill felt through his bare feet on the hot metal rather than heard.

And what was that? Torpedoes being fired. At what? Tembo just shrugged in answer and never let his vigilant gaze stray from the fusebands. Bill writhed with frustration, boredom, heat rash, and fatigue for another hour, until the all clear blew and a breath of cool air came in from the ventilators. By the time he had pulled his uniform back on Tembo was gone, and he trudged wearily back to his quarters.

There was a new mimeographed notice pinned to the bulletin board in the corridor and he bent to read its blurred message.

FROM: Captain Zekial TO: All Personnel RE: Recent engagement On 23/118956 this ship did participate in the destruction by atomic torpedo of the enemy installation 17KL-345 and did in concert with the other vessels of said flotilla Red Crutch accomplish its mission, it is thereby hereby authorized that all personnel of this vessel shall attach an Atomic Cluster to the ribbon denoting the Active Duty Unit Engagement Award, or however if this is their first mission of this type they will be authorized to wear the Unit Engagement Award.

NOTE: Some personnel have been observed with their Atomic Clusters inverted and this is WRONG and a COURTS-MARTIAL OFFENSE that is punishable by DEATH.

Chapter 5 | Bill, the Galactic Hero | Chapter 7