After the heroic razing of 17KL-345 there were weeks of training and drill to restore the battle-weary veterans to their usual fitness. But midway in these depressing months a new call sounded over the speakers, one Bill had never heard before, a clanging sound like steel bars being clashed together in a metal drum full of marbles. It meant nothing to him nor to the other new men, but it sent Tembo springing from his bunk to do a quick two-step Death Curse Dance with tom-tom accompaniment on his footlocker cover.
“Are you around the bend?” Bill asked dully from where he sprawled and read a tattered copy, of Real Ghoul Sex Fiend Shocker Comics with Built-in Sound Effects. A ghastly moan was keening from the page he was looking at.
“Don't you know?” Tembo asked. “Don't you KNOW That's mail call, my boy, the grandest sound in space.” The rest of the watch was spent in hurrying up and waiting standing in line, and all the rest. Maximum inefficiency was attached to the delivery of the mail, but finally, in spite of all barriers, the post was distributed and Bill had a precious spacial-postal from his mother. On one side of the card was a picture of the Noisome-Offal refinery just outside of his home town, and this alone was enough to raise a lump in his throat. Then, in the tiny square allowed for the message, his mother's pathetic scrawl had traced out: “Bad crop, in debt, robmule has packing glanders, hope you are the same-love, Maw.” Still, it was a message from home, and he read and reread it as they stood in line for chow. Tembo, just ahead of him, also had a card, all angels and churches, just what you would expect, and Bill was shocked when he saw Tembo read the card one last time then plunge it into his cup of dinner.
“What are you doing that for?” he asked, shocked.
“What else is mail good for?” Tembo hummed, and poked the card deeper.
“You just watch this now.” Before Bill's startled gaze, and right in front of his eyes, the card was starting to swell. The white surface broke off and fell away in tiny flakes while the brown insides grew and grew until they filled the cup and were an inch thick. Tembo fished the dripping slab out and took a large bite from one corner.
“Dehydrated chocolate,” he said indistinctly. “Good! Try yours.” Even before he spoke Bill had pushed his card down into the liquid and was fascinatedly watching it swell. The message fell away, but instead of brown a swelling white mass became visible.
“Taffy-or bread maybe,” he said, and tried not to drool.
The white mass was swelling, pushing against the sides of the cup, expanding out of the top. Bill grabbed the end and held it as it rose. Out and out it came until every drop of liquid had been absorbed and Bill held between his out-stretched hands a string of fat, connected letters over two yards long.
VOTE-FOR-HONEST-DEER-THE-TROOPERS'-FRIEND they read. Bill leaned over and bit out an immense mouthful of T. He spluttered and spat the damp shards onto the deck.
“Cardboard,” he said sadly. “Mother always shops for bargains. Even in dehydrated chocolate…” He reached for his cup for something to wash the old-newsprint taste out of his mouth, but it was empty.
Somewhere high in the seats of power, a decision was made, a problem resolved, an order issued. From small things do big things grow; a tiny bird turd lands on a snow-covered mountain slope, rolls, collects snow, becomes bigger and bigger, gigantic and more gigantic until it is a thundering mass of snow and ice, an avalanche, a ravening mass of hurtling death that wipes out an entire village. From small beginnings… Who knows what the beginning was here, perhaps the Gods do, but they are laughing. Perhaps the haughty, strutting peahen wife of some High Minister saw a bauble she cherished and with shrewish, spiteful tongue exacerbated her peacock husband until, to give himself peace, he promised her the trinket, then sought the money for its purchase. Perhaps this was a word in the Emperor's ear about a new campaign in the 77sub7th Zone, quiet now for years, a victory there-or even a draw if there were enough deaths-would mean a medal, an award, some cash. And thus did a woman's covetousness, like a tiny bird's turd, start the snowball of warfare rolling, mighty fleets gathering, ship after ship assembling, like a rock in a pool of water the ripples spread until even the lowliest were touched by its motion…
“We're heading for action,” Tembo said as he sniffed at his cup of lunch.
“They're loading up the chow with stimulants, pain depressors, saltpeter, and antibiotics.” “Is that why they keep playing the patriotic music?” Bill shouted so that he could be heard over the endless roar of bugles and drums that poured from the speakers. Tembo nodded.
“There is little time left to be saved, to assure your place in Samedi's legions-” “Why don't you talk to Bowb Brown?” Bill screamed. “I got tom-toms coming out of my ears! Every time I look at a wall I see angels floating by on clouds.
Stop bothering me! Work on Bowb—anybody who would do what he does with thoats would probably join up with your Voodoo mob in a second.” “I have talked with Brown about his soul, but the issue is still in doubt. He never answers me, so I am not sure if he has heard me or not. But you are different, my son, you show anger, which means you are showing doubt, and doubt is the first step to belief…” The music cut off in mid-peal, and for three seconds there was an echoing blast of silence that abruptly terminated.
“Now hear this. Attention all hands… stand by… in a few moments we will be taking you to the flagship for a on-the-spot report from the admiral… stand by…” The voice was cut off by the sounding of General Quarters but went on again when this hideous sound had ended. “.. . and here we are on the bridge of that gigantic conquistadore of the spacelanes, the twenty-mile-long, heavily armored, mightily gunned super battleship the Fairy Queen… the men on watch are stepping aside now and coming toward me in a simple uniform of spun platinum is the Grand Admiral of the Fleet, the Right Honorable Lord Archaeopteryx… Could you spare us a moment Your Lordship?
Wonderfull The next voice you hear will be… “ The next voice was a burst of music while the fusemen eyed their fusebands, but the next voice after that had all the rich adenoidal tones always heard from peers of the Empire.
“Lads-we're going into action! This, the mightiest fleet the galaxy has ever seen is heading directly toward the enemy to deliver the devastating blow that may win us the war. In my operations tank before me I see a myriad pinpoints of light, stretching as far as the eye can see, and each point of light-I tell you they are like holes in a blanket!—is not a ship, not a squadron-but an entire fleet! We are sweeping forward, closing in…” The sound of tom-toms filled the air, and on the fuseband that Bill was watching appeared a matched set of golden gates, swinging open.
“Tembo!” he screamed. “Will you knock that off I want to hear about the battle…” “Canned tripe,” Tembo sniffed. “Better to use the few remaining moments of this life that may remain to you to seek salvation. That's no admiral, that's a canned tape. I've heard it five times already, and they only play it to build morale before what they are sure is to be a battle with heavy losses. It never was an admiral, it's,from an old TV program…” “Yippee!” Bill shouted, and leaped forward. The fuse he was looking at crackled with a brilliant discharge around the clips, and at the same moment the fuseband charred and turned from red to black. “Unggh!” he grunted, then “Unggh! Ungghl Ungghl” in rapid succession, burning his palms on the still hot fuse, dropping it on his toe, and finally getting it into a fuseway. When he turned back Tembo had already clipped a fresh fuse into the empty clips.
“That was my fuse you shouldn't have…” there were tears in his eyes.
“Sorry. But by the rules I must help if I am free.” “Well, at least we're in action,” Bill said, back in position and trying to favor his bruised foot.
“Not in action yet, still too cold in here. And that was just a fuse breakdown, you can tell by the clip discharge, they do that sometimes when they get old.” “.. . massed armadas manned by heroic troopers…” “We could have been in combat.” Bill pouted.
“.. . thunder of atomic broadsides and lightning trails of hurtling torpedoes… “ “I think we are now. It does feel warmer, doesn't it, Bill? We had better undress; if it really is a battle we may get too busy.” “Let's go, let's go, down to the buff,” First Class Spleen barked, leaping gazellelike down the rows of fuses, clad only in a pair of dirty gym socks and his tattooed-on stripes and fouled-fuse insignia of rank. There was a sudden crackling in the air, and Bill felt the clipped-short stubs of his hair stirring in his scalp.
“What's that?” he yiped.
“Secondary discharge from that bank of fuses,” Tembo pointed. “It's classified as to what is happening, but I heard tell that it means one of the defense screens is under radiation attack, and as it overloads it climbs up the spectrum to green, to blue to ultraviolet until finally it goes black and the screen breaks down.” “That sounds pretty way out.” “I told you it was just a rumor. The material is classified..” “THERE SHE GOES!!” A crackling bang split the humid air of the fuse room, and a bank of fuses arced, smoked, burned black. One of them cracked in half, showering small fragments like shrapnel in every direction. The fusemen leaped,,grabbed the fuses, slipped in replacements with sweating hands, barely visible to each other through the reeking layers of smoke. The fuses were driven home, and there was a moment's silence, broken only by a plaintive bleating from the communications screen.
“Son of a bowb!” First Class Spleen muttered, kicking a fuse out of the way and diving for the screen. His uniform jacket was hanging on a hook next to it, and he struggled into this before banging the RECEIVE switch. He finished closing the last button just as the screen cleared. Spleen saluted, so it must have been an officer he was facing; the screen was edge-on to Bill, so he couldn't tell, but the voice had the quacking no-chin-and-plenty-of-teeth whine that he was beginning to associate with the officer class.
“You're slow in answering, First Class Spleen-maybe Second Class Spleen would be able to answer faster?” “Have pity, sir-I'm an old man.” He dropped to his knees in a prayerful attitude which took him off the screen.
“Get up, you idiot! Have you repaired the fuses after that last overload?” “We replace, sir, not repair…” “None of your technical gibberish, you swine! A straight answer!” “All in order, sir. Operating in the green. No complaints from anyone, your worship.” “Why are you out of uniform?” “I am in uniform, sir,” Spleen whined, moving closer to the screen so that his bare behind and shaking lower limbs could not be seen.
“Don't lie to me! There's sweat on your forehead. You aren't allowed to sweat in uniform. Do you. see me sweating? And I have a cap on too-at the correct angle. I'll forget it this time because I have a heart of gold. Dismissed.” “Filthy bowb!” Spleen cursed at the top of his lungs, tearing the jacket from his stifling body. The temperature was over 120 and still rising. “Sweat! They have air conditioning on the bridge-and where do you think they discharge the heat? In here! YEEOOW!!” Two entire banks of fuses blew out at the same time, three of the fuses exploding like bombs. At the same moment the floor under their feet bucked hard enough to actually be felt.
“Big trouble!” Tembo shouted. “Anything that is strong enough to feel through the stasis field must be powerful enough to flatten this ship like a pancake.
There go some morel” He dived for the bank and kicked a fuse clear of the clips and jammed in. a replacement It was an inferno. Fuses were exploding like aerial bombs, sending whistling particles of ceramic death through the air. There was a lightning crackle as a board shorted to the metal floor and a hideous scream, thankfully cut short, as the sheet of lightning passed through a fuse tender's body. Greasy smoke boiled and hung in sheets, making it almost impossible to see. Bill raked the remains of a broken fuse from the darkened clips and jumped for the replacement rack.
He clutched the ninety-pound fuse in his aching arms and had just turned back toward the boards, when the universe exploded.
All the remaining fuses seemed to have shorted at once, and the screaming bolt of crackling electricity crashed the length of the room. In its eye-piercing light and in a single, eternal moment Bill saw the flame sear through the ranks of the fuse tenders, throwing them about and incinerating them like particles of dust in an open fire. Tembo crumpled and collapsed, a mass of seared flesh; a flying length of metal tore First Class Spleen open from neck to groin in a single hideous wound.
“Look at that vent in Spleen!” Bowb shouted, then screamed as a ball of lightning rolled over him and turned him to a blackened husk in a fraction of a second.
By chance, a mere accident, Bill was holding the solid bulk of the fuse before him when the flame struck. It washed over his left arm, which was on the outside of the fuse, and hurled its flaming weight against the thick cylinder.
The force hit Bill, knocked him back toward the reserve racks of fuses, and rolled him end over end flat on the floor while the all-destroying sheet of fire crackled inches above his head. It died away as suddenly as it had come, leaving behind nothing but smoke, heat, the scorched smell of roasted flesh, destruction, and death, death, death. Bill crawled painfully for the hatchway, and nothing else moved down the blackened and twisted length of the fuse room.
The compartment below seemed just as hot, its air as bereft of nourishment for his lungs as the one he had just quitted. He crawled on, barely conscious of the fact that he moved on two lacerated knees and one bloody hand. His other arm just hung and dragged, a twisted and blackened length of debris, and only the blessings of deep shock kept him from screaming with unbearable pain.
He crawled on, over a sill, through a passageway. The air was clearer here and much cooler: he sat up andinhaled its blessed freshness. The compartment was familiar-yet unfamiliar-he blinked at it, trying to understand why. Long and narrow, with a curved wall that had the butt ends of immense guns projecting from it. The main battery, of course, the guns Chinger spy Eager Beager had photographed. Different now, the ceiling closer to the deck, bent and dented, as if some gigantic hammer had beat on it from the outside. There was a man slumped in the gunner's seat of the nearest weapon.
“What happened?” Bill asked, dragging himself over to the man and clutching him by the shoulder. Surprisingly enough the gunner only weighed a few pounds, and he fell from the seat, light as a husk, with a shriveled parchment face as though not a drop of liquid were left in his body.
“Dehydrator Ray,” Bill grunted. “I thought they only had them on TV.” The gunner's seat was padded and looked very comfortable, far more so than the warped steel deck: Bill slid into the recently vacated position and stared with unseeing eyes at. the screen before him. Little moving blobs of light.
In large letters, just above the screen, was printed: GREEN LIGHTS OUR SHIPS, RED LIGHTS ENEMY. FORGETTING THIS IS A COURTS-MARTIAL OFFENSE. “I won't forget,” Bill mumbled, as he started to slide sideways from the chair. To steady himself he grabbed a large handle that rose before him, and when he did a circle of light with an X in it moved on the screen. It was very interesting.
He put the circle around one of the green lights, then remembered something about a courtsmartial offense. He jiggled it a bit, and it moved over to . a red light, with the X right over the light. There was a red button on top of the handle, and he pressed it because it looked like the kind of button that is made to be pressed. The gun next to him went wh f f le… in a very subdued way, and the red light went out. Not very interesting; he let go of the handle.
“Oh, but you are a fighting fool!” a voice said, and, with some effort, Bill turned his head. A man stood in the doorway wearing a burned and tattered uniform still hung with shreds of gold braid. He weaved forward. “I saw it,” he breathed. “Until my dying day I won't forget it. A fighting fooll What guts!
Fearless! Forward against the enemy, no holds barred, don't give up the ship…” “What the bowb you talking about?” Bill asked thickly.
“A hero!” the officer said, pounding Bill on the back; this caused a great deal of pain and was the last straw for his conscious mind, which let go the reins of command and went away to sulk. Bill passed out.