“Dignity you want? It’s lucky for you I’m straight.” Widget’s eyes flickered ominously. “This is nothing to what…”
“All right, I give in,” Peace said. “I’m convinced.”
“In that case you can sit down again while I explain the basic terms of service.” Widget stared at the ceiling until Peace had resumed his seat. “Cigarette?”
Peace nodded gratefully. “I’d love one.”
“I’m talking about your cigarettes, Warren. Get them out.”
Peace took a pack of Selfigs from his jacket pocket and offered them across the desk.
“I’ll get rid of these for you,” Widget said, snatching the whole pack. “Rankers aren’t permitted to smoke during basic training.” He took out a cigarette for himself, puffed it into life, and dropped the others into a drawer.
“Thanks.” Peace stared wistfully at the ascending smoke and wondered how long he had been a tobacco addict. The strength of his craving suggested it had been some time, but his memory held no details. It was disconcerting to find a complete blank where the stored experience of a lifetime ought to be, but—assuming Captain Widget had been right in what he said earlier—he could be better off not knowing what sort of person he really was. His best plan might be to write off the past and accept whatever his new life in the Legion might bring. After all, there was bound to be a great deal of adventure and travel.
“… conditions of service are absolutely standard,” Widget was saying. “The pay is ten monits a day, and…”
“An hour,” Peace corrected. “You meant ten monits an hour.”
“I meant exactly what I said. Don’t argue with an officer.”
“Pardon me,” Peace said heavily. “It must be my lack of memory playing tricks—I thought slavery had been abolished ages ago.”
“You really are a hard case, aren’t you?” Widget gazed at him with growing dislike. “You know, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s totally impossible, I’d give you back your memory and leave you to the mercy of the police. You don’t deserve the Legion.”
“All I said was…”
“Private Peace!” Widget’s mouth twitched with anger. “I see I’m going to be forced to sap you.”
Peace stared at him in alarm. “Are you allowed to strike a private soldier?”
“SAP stands for Self Administered Punishment,” Widget explained with a vindictive glint in his eyes. “And I think we’ll begin with the good old Bilateral Mamillary Compression and Torsion, otherwise known as the tweak.”
“Wait a minute,” Peace said apprehensively. “Perhaps I was a little out of line just now.
“Grasp your nipples between forefingers and thumbs,” Widget ordered.
“Look, can’t we behave like sensible adults?”
As he spoke, Peace opened his jacket and gripped his nipples through the thin material of his shirt.
“On the command of ‘tweak’ squeeze as hard as you can, at the same time contra-rotating nipples through an angle of approximately two radians,” Widget said, his face stern. “If you’re not familiar with circular measurement, ninety degrees will do.”
“Captain, I’m sure you don’t really want to degrade both of us in this…”
Peace gave a yowl of agony as his hands, obeying his electropsycho conditioning, carried out the order with what seemed to him an unnecessary vigour. “You’ve done it,” he reproached as soon as he could trust his vocal chords. “You’ve degraded both of us.”
“I can live with it,” Widget said comfortably. “Now, I think we were discussing money—how much have you got?”
Peace put his hand in his pocket and produced a slim wad of notes. “Looks like about two hundred monits.”
“Lend it to me, Warren.” Widget held out his hand. “I’ll pay you back next time I see you.”
Unable to refuse, Peace surrendered the thin sheaf. “Please don’t think I’m implying anything Captain, but is there any chance of your ever seeing me again?”
“Very little, but you never know your luck. It’s a small galaxy, after all.”
Peace considered making a wry comment, but was dissuaded by the painful tingling he could still feel on each side of his chest. He listened in silence to the rest of a brief induction lecture, and then—shorn of cigarettes, money, dignity, and all knowledge of his previous life—he obediently marched out of Captain Widget’s office to begin his thirty, forty or fifty years as a ranker in the Space Legion.
Peace found himself standing with six other youngish men in a corner of a large hall. All were wearing plastic name badges, and they were gathered in a tight apprehensive group within a small enclosure somebody had set up using portable stanchions linked by rope. Peace examined his surroundings with some curiosity.
The hall was divided into two equal parts by a long counter surmounted by a mesh screen reaching up to the bare, sloping rafters. Lighting strips near the apex glowed a dismal green amidst the tendrils of November fog which had crept in from outside. The more distant tubes were so dimmed by vapour that they resembled rods of luminous ice. Beyond the screen were rows of storage shelves, and at intervals along the counter sat uniformed clerks. They were as motionless as if they had been petrified by the currents of chill air which swirled on the concrete floor.
“What the hell was the hold-up in there?” The speaker was one of the men closest to Peace, a moody-looking individual whose face would have been blue with beard shadow had it not been for the putty-coloured mottling induced in it by the intense cold. His name badge identified him as Pvt.
“Sergeant Cleet told us you’d only be a couple of minutes in there, but you’ve kept us waiting half an hour,” Fair continued. “What was going on?”
Peace blinked at him. “They took away my memory.”
“We all had things to forget. That’s no reason to—”
“But you don’t understand. I’ve no memory left—it’s all gone.”
“All of it?” Fair took a step back and a look of wary respect came into his brown eyes. “You must have been a real monster.”
“Might have been,” Peace said gloomily. “The trouble is I’ll never be able to know.”
“You should have done what I did.” A plump, round-shouldered youth—labelled Pvt. Vernon A. Ryan—in a green twinkle-suit nudged Peace in the ribs. “I wrote my problem down, and I’ve got it hidden away.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“Covers me each way,” Ryan gloated. “I can’t be hauled up for whatever it was I did, and while the heat’s dying down I get a lot of free travel, and…”
“Wait a minute,” Peace said. “Is that right? I didn’t know you can’t be tried for something if your memory of it has been erased.”
“Where’ve you been all your life? Oh, I forgot …you don’t know.”
“Do you mean … you weren’t being tortured by your conscience?”
“I doubt it, but then I’m not like you—there seems to be only one strike against me.” Ryan’s button-nosed face radiated a smug happiness. “I’m only going to stay in this outfit for a month or two—see how it goes—then, when I think the time is right, I’ll just peep at my bit of paper and I’ll be out. Free and clear. Laughing.”
Ryan’s ebullience began to irritate Peace. “Have you looked at your contract?”
“Of course I’ve looked at it! That’s the whole point, my friend. It binds me to serve the Legion in exchange for memory erasure, but if my memory happens to come back the deal’s off.”
Ryan elbowed the swarthy man who had first spoken to Peace. “Just ask old Coppy, here—he’s the one who thought the idea up.”
“Keep your voice down,” Farr said, scowling. “You want the whole world to know?”
“It doesn’t matter if you have to give your memory a quiet boost,” Ryan whispered, winking with one eye and then the other, “the contract will still be nullified. I tell you, this is going to be more like a paid holiday for me.” He gazed all about him with evident satisfaction, further increasing Peace’s annoyance. Several of the men near him nodded in furtive agreement.
“Why are we penned up like sheep?” Peace demanded. He moved one of the lightweight stanchions aside and walked out of the enclosure.
“You shouldn’t have done that, soldier,” another man said. “Sergeant Cleet told us to stay put.”
Peace stamped his feet to ward off the encroaching numbness. “I’m not worried about any sergeant.”
“You would be if you’d seen him,” Ryan put in. “He’s just about the biggest, ugliest, scariest brute I’ve ever seen. He’s got arms like my legs, his mouth’s so big that even when it’s shut it’s half open, and when he…” Ryan’s voice died away and some of the colour fled from his cheeks as his eyes focused on a point above Peace’s head.
Peace turned and found himself confronted by a vision of dread which, despite the incompleteness of Ryan’s description, he immediately identified as Sergeant Cleet. The sergeant was a good two metres tall. He was a pyramid of muscle and bone which began with a skull pointed like a howitzer shell and steadily widened downwards through massive, sloping shoulders, a barrellike torso and legs which were easily as thick as Peace’s waist. The power of these limbs was so great that, regardless of the enormous weight they supported, the whole assemblage moved with a silent, springy gait, appearing to bounce a short distance clear of the floor with every step.
“Wadja say, Peace?” Cleet’s voice was a subterranean rumble emerging from the cavern of his mouth, which was every bit as large as Ryan had indicated. It appeared to stretch from ear to ear, and for one horrified moment Peace got the impression that it extended around the back of the sergeant’s head, a circular band of lips and teeth on the artillery shell of his cranium.
“I … I didn’t say anything, Sergeant,” Peace mumbled.
“I’m real glad about that.” Cleet came closer, darkening Peace’s field of view with his blue uniform. “And whyja move my stanchion?”
The fear which arose within Peace joined forces with the shock and despair he was already feeling to produce the sudden realization that he could not go on like this for thirty, forty or fifty years, that he would prefer to die at once and get it over with. And, mercifully, the means for a swift and spectacular suicide had placed themselves before him.
“I didn’t move it,” he said. “I kicked it, because it was in my way. Anything gets in my way, I kick it.” He demonstrated his brand-new approach to life’s problems by lashing out at the stanchion with his foot and toppling it over. His shoes were thinner than he had realised and the contact with the corner of the square post sent waves of pain racing up his leg, but he stood his ground without flinching and waited for annihilation. Cleet’s mouth sagged open with amazement, a process which occurred in stages, like the gradual collapse of a suspension bridge. He took a deep breath, a huge machine fuelling up for some monstrous feat of destruction, then sank to his knees and cradled the fallen stanchion in his arms.
“Wadja do that for?” he whimpered. “You’ve scuffed the paint. What’s Lieutenant Toogood gonna say?”
“I don’t care,” Peace said, taken aback.
“It’s all right for you—but I’m responsible for these stanchions.” Cleet raised his eyes in reproach. “I know your type, Peace. You’re nothin’ but a bully.”
“Listen…” Peace shuffled his feet, partly in embarrassment, partly to ease the throbbing in his injured toe.
“Don’t kick me!” Cleet cringed back to what he considered a safe distance before speaking again. “I’m gonna report you to Lieutenant Toogood, Peace. The Lieutenant will fix you, all right. You’ll see. You’re gonna be tweakin’ yourself from now till Christmas. You’ll see. By the time the Lieutenant’s finished with you your tits are gonna be upside down. You’ll see.”
He spun around and hurried off down the hall. His conical form was trembling with agitation and he was visibly springing clear of the floor with every step. The group of recruits watched his departure in silence, then— as if responding to a signal—crowded around Peace, overturning the rest of Cleet’s stanchions as they did so.
“I never saw anything like that,” one man said, grabbing Peace’s hand and shaking it. “I thought that big gorilla would eat you, but you had him sized up right from the start. How did you do it?”
“It’s a knack,” Peace said weakly. His self-destructive impulse had faded and he was beginning to fear that the moment of recklessness had made the outlook for his future even bleaker than before. “I wonder what this Lieutenant Toogood’s like? If somebody like Cleet is afraid of him…”
Ryan eyed the door through which Cleet had vanished. “I don’t like the way things are going, men. I think I’ll only stay in the Legion long enough to do the basic training and get a free trip to some other world.” Those near him, still recovering from the mental stress of having looked at Cleet, gave murmurs which indicated they had similar plans.
The realization that he was the only man present who had not had the foresight to prepare an escape route from the Legion depressed Peace even further. In a bid to make some reparation for his bad conduct he began uprighting the fallen stanchions and adjusting the linking rope.
He had almost completed the task when there was the sound of approaching footsteps.
Looking up he saw a spruce, handsome young officer who had a cigarette in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. His red-brown hair was worn in the traditional military style—full in the front and long enough to touch his collar at the back.
“I’m Lieutenant Toogood,” he announced. He paused while the group of recruits—Peace among them—produced an assortment of ragged salutes, bows, curtsies and heel-clicks in their eagerness to show respect, then shook his head.
“You can forget all your preconceived notions about saluting officers,” Toogood said. “We don’t bother with that sort of thing in the 203rd. That’s all part of an ancient disciplinary system which was designed to inculcate the habit of complete obedience, and as such it’s no longer required. The old time-consuming square-bashing and spit-and polish nonsense has all been done away with, too—that’s good to know, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir.” Sheepish smiles broke out among the recruits.
Toogood tapped the lump of the command enforcer in his throat. “After all, why should we waste all that time and money when you’re already conditioned to the point where if I told you to go and cut your throats you’d dash right out and do it?”
The recruits’ smiles abruptly vanished.
“The present system, while greatly superior to the old methods, places a crushing load of responsibility on your officers. Suppose, for example, that one of you behaved in such a way as to make me lose my temper, and I—unthinkingly, of course—shouted the sort of thing that people sometimes say when they are angry … the results could be catastrophic.” Toogood puffed luxuriously on his cigarette for a moment while the imaginations of his audience ran riot. “Think how awful I’d feel afterwards. Think how awful you’d feel.”