“You feel better now, don’t you?” The pretty technician-nurse smiled at Peace as she leaned across and removed the terminals from his forehead. She had coppery hair and her fingernails were manicured to the perfection of rose petals. “Tell me how you feel.”
“I’m fine,” Peace said unthinkingly, then realized it was true. He was aware of tensions fleeing from his body, being driven out by the warm sense of ease which was spreading downwards from his brain. Relaxing into the skilfully contoured chair, he looked around the gleaming surgery with benign approval. “I feel great.”
“I’m so glad.” The girl placed the medallion-like terminals and associated leads on top of a squat machine and pushed it away on noiseless casters.” You know, I get a lot of personal satisfaction through helping people like you.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“It’s a kind of—” She smiled again, shyly. “I guess the word is fulfilment.”
“I’ll bet it is.” Peace gazed happily at her for a moment, then a stray thought obtruded. “By the way,” he said, “what exactly have you done for me?”
“Well, damn you!” she snapped, her face growing pale with anger. “Thirty seconds you waited before you started asking your bloody stupid questions. Thirty seconds! How much personal satisfaction and fulfilment is a girl expected to cram into thirty seconds?”
“I… Wait a mo…” Peace was so shocked by her abrupt change of attitude that he found difficulty in speaking. “I only asked…”
“That’s right—you only asked. You couldn’t simply accept my gift of happiness and be grateful, could you? You had to start checking up on things.”
“I don’t understand,” Peace pleaded. “What’s going on here?”
“Come on, buster— out!” The girl marched to the door of the surgery, flung it open and spoke to somebody in the next room. “Private Peace is ready for you now, sir.”
“There must be some mistake,” Peace said, getting to his feet. “I’m not a private. I’m not in the—”
“You want to bet?” the girl said nastily as she pushed him into the adjoining room and slammed the door. His bewildered eyes took in the details of a square office whose walls were decorated with militaria and a large banner of midnight blue on which were embroidered, in silver, the words: SPACE LEGION—203 Regiment. There was a single desk, behind which was seated a pudgy man wearing the uniform of a Space Legion captain. The blue carpet featured the Space Legion crest, and the various items of office equipment around the room, including the tubs which held ornamental plants, were similarly stencilled or engraved.
Nodding a silent greeting, the captain waved Peace into a chair which had “Space Legion” woven into the fabric of the back and cushion.
“What is this place?” Peace demanded.
“Would you believe,” the officer’s gaze flicked around the room, “the headquarters of the YWCA?”
The sarcasm missed Peace by several light years. “That woman in the next room called me a private,” he said anxiously.
“Pay no attention to Florence—she gets a bit edgy. The frustrations of the job, you know.”
Peace sighed with relief. “For a moment I thought I’d done something stupid.”
“No, you haven’t done anything stupid. Not in the slightest.” The pudgy man began to scrutinize his fingers with great care, as though taking inventory. “I’m Captain Widget—the local induction officer for the Space Legion.”
“When I said I thought I had done something stupid,” Peace said, alarm bells clamoring in his mind, “I meant something like joining the Space Legion.”
Widget lowered his face into his hands, and his shoulders quivered slightly. He remained that way for perhaps a minute, during which Peace stared at the top of his head with growing concern, then he straightened up, apparently making a great effort to bring himself under control.
“Warren,” he said, “may I call you Warren?”
“That’s my name,” Peace said noncommitally.
“Thank you. Warren, doesn’t the idea of being in the Legion appeal to you?”
Peace gave a hoot of derision. “Are you kidding? I’ve heard all about that—getting shipped all over the galaxy, getting shot at, getting burned up, getting frozen up, getting ate up by monsters, getting…” Peace stopped speaking as his suspicions crystallized into certainty that something awful had happened. “Why should I do anything as crazy as joining the Legion?”
“You’ve no idea?”
“Of course not.”
“There you are, then!” Widget said triumphantly. “There you are!”
“Captain, what are you talking about?”
“Let me put it this way, Warren.’” Widget leaned across his desk and, unaware that he had placed one of his elbows in a well-used ashtray, fixed Peace with an intense stare. “Back in the old days—three or four hundred years ago—why did men join the French Foreign Legion?”
“I don’t want to play games with you, Captain.”
“Why did they join, Warren?”
“To forget,” Peace said peevishly. “Everybody knows that, but I…”
“And today, Warren, why do men join the Space Legion?”
“To forget—but I haven’t got anything I want to forget.”
“Not any more you haven’t.” Widget leaned back in his chair, satisfied he had made his point.
“You’ve forgotten it.”
Peace’s jaw sagged. “This is stupid. What have I forgotten?”
“If I told you that it would spoil everything,” Widget said reasonably. “Besides, I don’t even know what was on your mind when you came in here thirty minutes ago. The Legion respects a man’s privacy. We don’t ask embarrassing questions—we just hook you up to the machine, and … bleep! … it’s all gone.”
“Yes. Bleep! The crushing burden of guilt and shame is lifted from your soul.”
“I…” Peace delved into his memory and found he had no recollection of having walked into the recruiting office. A smothering sense of panic developed within him as he discovered he had no memories at all of a previous life. It was as if he had been created, conjured up out of thin air, a few minutes earlier in the surgery next door.
“What have you done to me?” he mumbled, tentatively pressing his head with his fingertips as though it was a puffball which could cave in at the slightest touch. “I can’t remember anything! No past life! No childhood! No nothing!”
Widget raised his eyebrows. “That’s unusual. The machine usually blanks out the previous day or two in their entirety—because of neuro surge—then it becomes selective to take out specific memories. If you can’t remember anything at all you must have been a hard case, Warren. Everything you ever did must have been rotten.”
“This is terrible.” Peace was unable to keep a quaver out of his voice. “I can’t even remember what’s-her-name—my mother.”
“That makes me feel a lot better,” Widget said. He sat upright and the curvatures of his well-padded face firmed out and became shiny as he smiled. “It really churns me up when I have to reorientate nice young men—clean-cut boys who perhaps made only one mistake in their whole lives—but you’re different. You must have been evil, Warren.
“It’s a good thing for you that you didn’t have to spend years of hard soldiering trying to wipe out the memories of your guilty past, because you’d probably have never made it. It’s a good thing for you we’ve reached the stage where memories can be electronically erased, and that the Legion is prepared to accept you and…”
“Shut up!” Peace bellowed, overwhelmed with fear and the urge to find a quiet place where he could concentrate on forcing his brain to do all the things normally expected of it. He rose to his feet. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
“I can understand that desire,” Widget said gleefully, “but there’s a snag.”
“What is it?”
Widget picked up a sheet of pale blue paper.
“This contract—it binds you to serve in the Legion for thirty years.”
“You know what you can do with that,” Peace sneered. “I’m not going to sign it.”
“But you’ve already signed it,” Widget said. “Before we put you on the machine.”
“I did not.” Peace shook his head emphatically. “What are you trying to pull here? I can’t remember anything about myself, but there’s one thing I do know, and that is that I would never ever, not in a million years, never ever sign a thing like that, so you can…” His voice faded away as Widget pressed a button on a control panel built into his desk and a moving image glimmered into existence on the wall behind him. It depicted a tall young man with a doll-pink face, wide mouth, blue eyes and blond hair which was fashionably thinned above the forehead. Peace had difficulty in recognizing himself at first, then he realized it was because—in the picture—he was a caricature of despair. His eyes were dull and broody, his mouth was turned down at the corners, and his whole drooping, defeated posture suggested a spirit which had broken under some unguessable load.
As Peace watched, his other self sagged into a chair at a table, picked up a pen and signed a pale blue document which was recognizably the same as the one now in Widget’s hands.
Florence, the technician-nurse, appeared and led an obedient Peace away as would a zoo-keeper attending to a sickly chimp. The images faded from the wall.
“You should see your face!” Widget put a hand over his mouth and nostrils and gave a prolonged snort of amusement. “Boy, I’m really enjoying this. I’m going to feel good all day after this.”
“Let me see that paper,” Peace said, reaching for the document.
“Certainly.” There was a curious light, which might have been a gleam of anticipation, in Widget’s eyes as he handed the sheet across the desk.
“Thank you.” Peace looked at the contract only for as long as it took to satisfy himself that he had actually signed it and that it was printed on ordinary paper instead of indestructible plastic. He held it up by one edge, pinched it between his forefingers and thumbs with an extravagant flourish, and made ready to rip the sheet in half.
“Don’t tear that,” Widget snapped. There was a clear note of command in his voice, but he remained at ease and made an attempt to retrieve the document. The glow in his eyes seemed brighter.
Peace gave a contemptuous sniff and tried to pull the sheet apart. A painful and nauseating sensation, like somebody briskly scrubbing the surface of his brain with a rough towel, filled his cranium—and his fingers refused to move.
Widget pointed at the desk. “Set the paper down there.”
Peace shook his head, but in the same instant his right hand leapt forward and placed the sheet exactly where Widget had indicated. He was staring at his hand, shocked by its treachery, when Widget spoke again.
“Do me an imitation of a rooster.”
Peace shook his head and began crowing at the top of his voice.
Peace shook his head and began stalking around the office, flapping his elbows.
“That’s enough,” Widget ordered. “I’m tempted to say don’t call us, we’ll call you—but perhaps farmyard impressions aren’t your forte.”
“Captain,” Peace said weakly, “what’s going on here?”
“Had enough, eh?” Widget discovered the cigarette ash on his elbow and spent a minute brushing it off before pointing at the empty chair. “Sit down there and read your contract, with special attention to Clause Three. The whole thing is written in ultrasimplified language that even a moron can understand, but feel free to ask any questions you want.”
Peace sank into the chair and picked up the contract. It had been imperfectly duplicated from a typescript, and said:
THIRTY* YEAR SERVICE CONTRACT
FOR VOLUNTEER RANKERS
1. I, Warren Peace, citizen of Earth, agree to serve as a private soldier in the Space Legion for thirty* years, and to accept all conditions of service.
2. I enter this Covenant willingly, and without coercion, in return for psychological adjustment—namely, electropsycho engram erasure— performed by a suitably qualified Medical Officer of the Space Legion.
3. I also agree, in the interests of efficiency, to standard electropsycho response conditioning.
(signed) Warren Peace
Date: 10th day of November, 2386 A.D.
* The figure of thirty given here may be taken to read as forty**, depending on the Space Legion’s manpower requirements thirty years from the signing of this contract.
** The figure of forty given here may be taken to read as fifty or sixty years or any other number the Supreme Command of the Space Legion may decide upon if current longevity research proves successful.
Peace set the contract down with a pounding sense of dismay. “It’s obscene,” he said simply.
“It’s like something a used car dealer would dream up.”
Widget shrugged. “You signed it.”
“What was I thinking about?”
“That’s between you and your conscience,” Widget said primly. “The point is, you signed it.”
“It would never hold up in a court of law,” Peace challenged, gathering what remained of his strength of mind. “Why, it doesn’t even specify Earth years, and there’s no…”
Widget held up a plump hand. “Forget all that stuff, Warren—you won’t be taking any legal action.”
“Who says so?”
“Clause Three says so.”
Peace leaned forward and checked the relevant wording. “What’s all this about ‘standard electropsycho response conditioning’?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” The look of malicious enjoyment returned to Widget’s round face as he tapped a small lump protruding from his throat, just above his collar. “Do you know what this is?”
“It looks like a cyst. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“It isn’t a cyst, and I’m not worried—because nearly every officer in the Space Legion has one just like it.”
Peace shrank back. “Is there an epidemic?”
“Don’t be so damn stupid, man.” Widget paused to reassemble his smile. “This is a surgically-implanted Mark Three command enforcer. It adds certain harmonics to my voice— harmonics to which every legionary from the rank of NCO downwards is conditioned to respond with absolute, unthinking obedience. Have you got the picture?”
“I don’t believe it,” Peace breathed, aghast. “Even the Legion wouldn’t be allowed to go that far.”
Widget sighed and glanced at his watch. “Do the rooster impression again—and for God’s sake try to get the neck movements right. Last time you were more like a dromedary.”
“I refuse,” Peace said as he left his chair and high-stepped across the office, flapping his elbows and darting his head this way and that in search of worms.
Widget folded his arms and made himself comfortable. “Let me know when you’ve had enough.”
“You don’t leave a fellow much dignity,” Peace crowed in protest. He essayed a short flight which ended disastrously in a clump of Sirian sparkle plants.