The recruits nodded glumly, thinking along the lines Toogood had suggested.
“But I’m not going to burden you with my worries,” Toogood continued magnanimously. “It’s my job to look after you while you undergo basic training here at Fort Eccles, and I want you to think of me as your friend. Will you do that?”
Peace nodded vigorously, along with the others. He made a conscientious effort to see the debonair young lieutenant as a friend, but a not-so-still, not-so-small voice in the back of his mind kept telling him otherwise.
“Things are looking worse,” Ryan whispered in his ear. “I may not even stay long enough to complete basic training.”
“Now that we know exactly where we stand,” Toogood said, “which one of you upset Sergeant Cleet?”
Peace considered keeping quiet and remaining within the comradely protection of the group, but there was an immediate return of the sandpapering effect on the surface of his brain.
Simultaneously, the group—apparently feeling no desire to go into the comradely protection business—shoved him forward with a collective hand.
Trying to look as though he had advanced of his own accord, he fluttered his fingers and said, “I did it, sir. Private Peace. I didn’t mean to…”
“Full marks, Peace,” Toogood interrupted. “What you did shows courage and a quick grasp of the situation— I think you’ll be a useful man in the front line.”
He directed his stern gaze at the other recruits. “The thing which Peace realized immediately— but which the rest of you were too slow to grasp— is that the non-commissioned officer is an anachronism, a virtually useless appendage in the modern army. In the old days his function was that of enforcing discipline, acting as an interface between officers and rankers. But, now that we have the command enforcer and mental conditioning techniques, corporals, sergeants, warrant officers and all others of that ilk are almost redundant. They still exist to carry out the most menial tasks, but no man is given the rank of sergeant until he has proved he’s too stupid or cowardly to serve in any other capacity.”
Toogood drew delicately on his cigarette and his eyes became even harder. “Looking at you men, my first impression is that—with the exception of Private Peace—the Legion has just acquired a bunch of potential NCOs.”
Stung by the insult, the rest of the group stirred uneasily and Peace, still mindful of their lack of solidarity, was unable to resist giving them a smug glance.
” Don’t get too full of yourself, Peace,” Toogood continued, withdrawing his approval.
“Sergeant Cleet has locked himself in the toilets. He’s probably crying, which means he’ll be good for nothing for the rest of the day—and that throws extra work on to me. I’m going to overlook it this time, but you’d all better remember that being tough on sergeants and upsetting them is misconduct which calls for considerable sapping.
“A few of you may already have been introduced to the tweak, but I assure you it’s nothing compared to some of the saps I specialize in.” Toogood smiled unpleasantly through plumes of smoke.
“That settles it,” Ryan muttered to Peace. “I’m not going to stay in this outfit—I’ll take my chances outside with the law.”
“Stop talking and follow me,” Toogood ordered, leading the way to a table on which sat a square metal box. He removed the lid of the box, revealing a greenish interior glow which showed it was a molecular disintegrator of the type used for domestic garbage disposal. The seven recruits glanced at each other nervously and Toogood’s smile broadened into a grin.
“This is the bit I always enjoy most,” he said. “In every batch of rookies there are always a few smart alecs who think they can beat the system. And how do they plan to beat the system?
Why, by hiding little memory-joggers somewhere on their persons. Little notes. Little tape recordings. Mi-crodots.” Toogood was still grinning, but his gaze raked the group like machine-gun fire.
“Listen closely to the following order. Any of you who have such mementos tucked away will now produce them, and—without attempting to read their contents—drop them in here.” He illustrated his command by flicking the stub of his cigarette into the disintegrator. The glow within brightened momentarily as the cigarette end was converted to invisible dust.
Toogood’s words were followed by a deathly silence which lasted perhaps three seconds, although it seemed to Peace to go on forever. He glanced at Ryan and Fair. Their faces were horribly contorted and he guessed both men were enduring the agonies of cerebral sandpapering as their wills clashed with their mental conditioning. Finally, Ryan took a small envelope from the pocket of his sparkling green suit and, with trembling fingers, dropped it into the waiting box. Fan-did the same with a scrap of paper removed from his left sock, while others in the line fumbled similar items out of their underwear and from beneath wristwatch straps. The disintegrator cast a Mephistophelian glow over Toogood’s features as it devoured the souvenirs of forgotten crimes and follies.
“That’s better,” he said benignly. “You’ll feel a deep inner peace and contentment now that you’ve rid yourselves of temptation, now that you know you’re fully committed to the Legion.
How about you, Ryan? You feel better already, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Ryan gritted. For a man who was supposed to be enjoying deep inner peace and contentment he looked strangely ill.
Toogood nodded. “Again, full marks to Private Peace—he was the only one of you who came here today with the honest intention of devoting his life to the Legion. I like that. Do you come from a military family, Peace?”
Peace blinked at him. “I don’t know, sir.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know what sort of family I come from. My memory’s all been wiped out.”
“All of it?”
“Yes, sir. I can’t remember anything that happened before I came round in that chair.”
Toogood looked impressed. “You must have been a monster, Peace. Your whole life must have been steeped in crime and guilt.”
“Yes, sir,” Peace said unhappily. Repeated assurances that he had been some kind of Anti-Christ in his former existence were beginning to have a bludgeoning effect on him. He wished Toogood would drop the subject and let him forget that he had nothing to remember.
“It’s funny, but you don’t look like a monster.” Toogood approached Peace and stared intently into his face. “Or do you? Wait! I think I… Has your picture been in the papers?”
“How would I know?” Peace snapped, losing his patience.
“Don’t get prickly with me, Peace.” Toogood tapped the lump on his throat as he spoke. “Remember this. You’re in the Legion now—with no gang of thugs and murderers to back you up.”
“Hold on a minute,” Peace protested. “I hadn’t any gang.”
“How do you know? Can you remember not having one?”
“Ah … no.”
“There you are,” Toogood said triumphantly.
Recognizing the same kind of logical ploy that had been used on him by Captain Widget, Peace made up his mind to avoid arguing with officers who had years of practice in dealing with amnesiacs. He glanced hopefully past the lieutenant towards the middle of the hall.
Toogood, as though taking the hint, gave orders for the group to pass along the central counter, where they would be issued with uniforms and equipment. Ryan and Farr, recovering their powers of speech, immediately began to whisper recriminations over the failure of their scheme. Peace moved away from them and approached a clerk who was sitting under a sign marked: UNIFORMS.
The clerk examined him with baleful yellowish eyes, went to a rack and returned with a plastic helmet and a smaller cup-like object fitted with narrow elasticated straps. He pushed both items towards Peace through a space in the mesh screen, sat down again and appeared to go into a coma. Peace prodded the hollowed-out artifact and saw that it was an athlete’s protective cup. “Excuse me,” he said. “What’s this?” Light slowly returned to the clerk’s eyes.
“That’s your uniform.”
“I thought these things were for ball games.”
“In this case they’re for preventing ball games.”
The clerk gave an evil leer. “Some of the species you’ll be up against fight real dirty.”
Peace stifled a pang of dread. “Where’s the rest of my uniform?”
“That’s it, pal. That’s all you get.”
Peace laughed uncertainly. “A helmet and a cup! That’s not a uniform.”
“It is if you join 203 Regiment,” the clerk said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand much, do you?” The clerk sighed in exasperation, made as if to walk away, then leaned across the counter. “The 203rd is sponsored by Triple-Ess. Right?”
Peace nodded. “What does Triple-Ess mean?”
“Savoury Shrimp Sauce, you dummy. Don’t you know anything about the Legion?”
“Not a thing.” Peace lowered his voice and leaned forward until his nose was almost touching the other man’s through the wire mesh. “You see, the machine they hooked me up to in surgery wiped out all my memory.”
“All of it?” The clerk pulled backwards abruptly, his eyes widening. “You must have been a real…”
“Don’t say it,” Peace cut in. “I’m sick of hearing that.”
“All right, pal. No offence intended.” The clerk read Peace’s name badge. “I don’t want to cross somebody like you, Warren. Honest. I was only…”
Peace silenced him with an upraised hand. “What were you saying about Savoury Shrimp Sauce?”
“Well, they’ve been having a bad time lately— ever since it was found that the local shrimps are so full of mercury they get taller on a hot day. Sales have dropped right off, so Triple-Ess have a lot less money to put into the Regiment, and they decided to cut down on uniforms.”
“I didn’t know the Legion worked that way.”
“You should’ve joined the 186 Regiment. It’s home city is Porterburg, too—the recruiting station’s just a few blocks south of here—but it’s backed by Stingo Pesticides, and they’re loaded these days. You’d have got a nice uniform there, Warren.”
Peace pressed the back of a hand to his forehead, wondering why the news about the Space Legion’s commercial orientation should have shocked him so much, and his gaze fastened on the resplendent figure of Lieutenant Toogood. “The Lieutenant’s got a full uniform,” he pointed out. “And Captain Widget, and Sergeant Cleet.”
“Ah, but they’re base personnel, stationed right here in Porterburg,” the clerk said. “It would be bad for Triple-Ess’s image if they were seen going around dressed like bums—but you guys will be shipping out as soon as you finish basic training.”
“I see,” Peace turned to leave.
“Thanks for putting me in the picture.”
“Wait a minute, Warren.” The clerk had developed an air of conspiratorial friendliness.
“What sort of shoes are you wearing?”
“Thin ones,” Peace said, realizing that the pain in his damaged toe had faded only because of the numbing coldness seeping up from the concrete floor.
“They’ll be no use in the sort of places you’ll be sent to. I tell you what I’ll do, Warren. I never met a ranker who’d lost more than three months out of his memory, so ‘cause you’re kind of special I’ll let you have these.” The clerk reached under the counter and came up with a huge pair of red boots with gold heels and toe caps.
“What are they?” Peace said, impressed. “Genuine Startrooper Sevenleague boots— standard issue when Triple-Ess was at the top of the Dow-Jones ratings. That’s the last pair on the whole base, Warren. I’ve been keeping them to sell to some ranker who had a bit of extra cash, but since Captain Widget took over out there nobody gets through with two cents to rub together. You might as well have them.”
“Thanks.” Peace gathered up the heavy boots, tucked them under his arm with the rest of his uniform, and set off towards another window where he could see men being issued with rifles.
“Wear them in health, Warren,” the clerk called after him. “As long as it lasts, anyway.”
As Peace was approaching the window Ryan and Fair fell into step beside him. Ryan was looking cheerful again, his eyes gleaming in accompaniment to the sparkling of his green suit.
Fair’s slate-coloured countenance wore a look of shifty contentment.
“Me and Coppy have worked out a new plan,” Ryan said in a low voice. “I was a bit worried back there, but everything’s okay now.”
Peace was reluctantly impressed by their refusal to accept defeat. “What are you going to do?”
“It’s easy! Me and Coppy have a lot of friends in Porterburg, friends who are bound to know what we did to get into this mess. The first leave we get during basic training we’ll go and see them—and get our memories back.”
“Supposing we don’t get any leave?”
“We’re bound to. Anyway, it wouldn’t make any difference—me and Coppy would get over the wall some way. We’ll get out. Just wait and see.”
“Good luck.” Peace barely had time to wonder if he too had friends in Porterburg when he found himself at the equipment window. A gleaming weapon, vaguely recognizable as a radiation rifle, was thrust into his hands, and in a few seconds he had been jostled out of the building and into a large quadrangle surrounded by a high wall. It resembled the exercise yard in a prison, except that a blue dinosaur-like creature with a single white spot on its belly had been painted on the brickwork opposite the doorway from which the group had emerged.
Iron-grey clouds were pursuing each other across the sky and a sleet-laden wind made the dismal hall the recruits had just quit seem a haven of warmth and good cheer. They put on their helmets and huddled together like sheep while Lieutenant Toogood ascended the steps of a small rostrum.
Peace took the opportunity to kick off his lightweight shoes and slip his feet into the resplendent calf-length red-and-gold boots which had so unexpectedly come into his possession. They were much too large, the tops gaping open around his rather thin legs, but the stout soles gave excellent protection against the cold. He felt blocky little projections under each of his big toes, which seemed a strange flaw in such expensive footwear, and made up his mind to fix them at the first leisure moment.
“Pay attention, men,” Lieutenant Toogood ordered. “You are about to begin your basic training.”
“I think I’ll go over the wall tonight,” Ryan muttered through chattering teeth. “I couldn’t stand much of this.”
“You’ve all been issued with standard service rifles,” Toogood continued. “I want you to point them at the blue silhouette on the wall opposite you and pull the triggers. Proceed.”
Slightly surprised at being allowed to fire a lethal weapon with so little preparation, Peace aimed the rifle at the blue dinosaur and pulled the trigger. A slender purple ray stabbed out of the muzzle and struck the wall several metres above the animal silhouette. As effortlessly as he would have directed a spotlight, he brought the ray down until it was hosing its energy against the target circle on the dinosaur’s mid-section. The other recruits did likewise and flakes of brickwork began to fall to the ground from the glowing circle.