“That’s enough—don’t waste the batteries.” Toogood folded his arms and waited until the last of the purple rays had faded away.
“Congratulations, men! I take back all the things I said about you earlier—you have all completed your basic training with flying colours. You will now board the personnel carrier for transportation to the nearest war.” He pointed at a blue truck which had entered the yard and was lumbering towards the group.
Ryan, who was standing beside Peace, gave a bleat of alarm. “Sir! Please, sir! You can’t do this to us, sir,” he shouted. “I thought the basic training went on for weeks.”
“Why should it?” Toogood said mildly, apparently enjoying himself. “What more do you need to learn?”
“Well…” Ryan looked about him in desperation. “How about more weaponry? You didn’t warn us not to point the rifles at each other.”
“But that goes without saying, Private Ryan—I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but… How about a toughening-up course, sir? We’re all as weak and puny as old ladies.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ryan. You’re expected to shoot the enemy—not wrestle him. Why do you think we provide rifles in the first place?”
“Yes, but…” Ryan fell silent and his lower lip began to quiver.
Toogood put on his now-familiar grin. “I thought you were pleased about the way we eliminated all the spit-and-polish and square-bashing.
It’s not as if you were planning to hang around Porterburg and contact your family or friends, is it?”
Ryan’s mouth opened and closed silently. Farr sidled in close to him and whispered, “Don’t give up, Vernie. Ask him about the…”
“You can bugger off,” Ryan sobbed, stamping his heel on Farr’s toes. “This is all your fault. I shouldn’t have listened to you in the first place.” Farr managed to suppress an exclamation as Ryan’s considerable weight came down on his foot, but a wan, thoughtful expression appeared on his face and he moved away. At that moment the personnel carrier rolled to a halt beside the group. To Peace’s eyes it looked curiously like an ordinary goods wagon which had been given a coat of Space Legion blue. He examined it closely and thought he could discern, beneath the military crest, an overpainted picture of a bottle of sauce being upended on a plate of shrimps. His scrutiny of the vehicle ended when an automatic door in its side slid open to reveal rows of wooden seats.
“Good luck, men,” Toogood said in a ringing voice. “And no matter what the years ahead may bring, no matter how far you travel in the service of the Legion, I want you to remember—with affection and loyalty—the happy times and comradeship you found here at Fort Eccles in the class of…” he paused to glance at his wristwatch, “…ten a.m., November tenth, 2386.”
Peace nodded without conviction and, keeping his voluminous boots on with great difficulty, clambered into the truck to begin the first stage of the journey to an unknown star.
The journey from Fort Eccles to the spacefield was uncomfortable.
There were no windows in the passenger compartment of the personnel carrier, which meant the recruits were denied the meagre solace of being able to watch the scenery, and for the most part they maintained a broody silence which was broken only by an occasional moan of despair or an outburst of bickering between Ryan and Farr. One man, with a Latin cast of features and temperament to match, even jumped to his feet with a loud cry of “Mamma mia!” and began banging his head on the metal wall of the compartment. This action, emotionally cathartic though it may have been, produced such thunderous reverberations—plus showers of rust flakes and condensation from the ceiling—that he was quickly prevailed upon to return to his seat.
In contrast to the obvious misery of his companions, all of whom had been nursing secret hopes of beating the system, Peace began to feel perversely cheerful. Leaving Porterburg and Earth was no wrench for him, because he had no memory at all of his previous life, and the prospect of boarding a starship and voyaging away to another part of the galaxy was both glamorous and exciting. He could not recollect ever having seen a spaceship, but he had no difficulty in visualizing the tall, graceful ships with prows like gleaming spires reaching towards the heavens. And here he was—decked out with a helmet, magnificent boots and a rifle— on his way to the stars, sworn to do battle with the enemies of Earth.
Sitting upright on the hard seat, almost relishing its spartan discomfort, Peace began to feel like a real soldier. The effect would have been more complete had he been given a full uniform to wear in place of his houndstooth check jacket and hose, but he knew it was the calibre of the man within that really mattered. As he glanced down at his clothes Peace was struck by the notion that they might contain some information about his identity. He looked inside his jacket and found that the manufacturer’s label had been removed— seemingly proof that his former self had been determined to make a complete break with the past. What could I have done that was so awful? he wondered as he plucked out the severed threads which had held the label. His curiosity aroused, he began searching his pockets and found that one after another was empty except for a few coins. It appeared that before joining the Legion he had deliberately rid himself of all personal possessions, apart from the money and cigarettes which had been appropriated by Captain Widget. But why? Had he been hiding out from the police?
Peace checked his breast pocket last. As is often the case with such pockets, it was too deep and narrow for his hand to reach the bottom, and he was on the point of abandoning the search when a fingertip touched something smooth and hard. Grunting with the effort, he scrabbled the object up into the light and found he was holding a small toad molded in blue plastic. He gazed at it in perplexity. The toad must have been pressed from a memory-plastic which was activated by the heat of his hand, for—as he was trying to decide its significance—it gathered its haunches and sprang on to the neck of the recruit in front of him. Whimpering with panic, the man—whose name was Benger—swiped the little creature to the floor and stamped on it, reducing it to a shapeless blob.
“Who’s trying to be funny?” Benger demanded, swinging round. “I’ll tear… Oh, it’s you, Warren.” He gave a sickly smile. “That was a good one, Warren—you nearly scared the tripes out of me.”
Peace withheld his instinctive apology, deciding to let his fearsome reputation go on smoothing the way for him. “You didn’t have to flatten it, did you?”
“Sorry, Warren. I’ll buy you another one first chance I get.”
Peace retrieved the piece of plastic, becoming interested. “You’ve seen them on sale somewhere?”
“No, but toys like that can’t be too hard to…” Benger broke off and a doleful expression appeared on his face as the truck swerved and came to a halt. “We must be at the spacefield.”
Peace forgot about the destruction of his single personal possession as the compartment’s automatic doors began to open, giving him his first glimpse of a bustling interstellar port. He hurried to the door and eagerly looked out, only to experience a pang of disappointment as he discovered he had apparently arrived at a slack period. There were no starships to be seen anywhere on the expanse of frozen mud. A dozen shabby seagulls wandered dispiritedly on the barren ground, emitting raucous cries of disapproval. The sole human presence was that of a Space Legion lieutenant who— judging by the corpse-like pallor of his face—had been awaiting the personnel carrier for some time. He was standing at the entrance to a low, window-less metal building which was about two hundred metres long and had a raised section at each end. Its heavily welded seams gave it the appearance of a hastily constructed air-raid shelter.
“This way, you men,” the lieutenant ordered, opening a steel door. “In here.”
Peace led a reluctant file of men into the building and discovered that, for a space terminal, it was singularly lacking in amenities. He was in a long narrow room which had a door at each end, transverse rows of benches, and a lone coffee machine. The lieutenant, who remained outside, slammed the entrance door behind them and there followed the sound of bolts clunking into place. A klaxon howled briefly, wringing a fresh chorus of moans from Peace’s companions. Puzzled by and slightly contemptuous of their nerviness, he sat down slightly apart from the others and composed himself to wait for the arrival of the spaceship which was to carry him across the oceans of infinity. He was disappointed that the terminal building had no windows through which he would be able to view the great vessel descending from the sky, but consoled himself with the thought that as a legionary he would have lots of other opportunities to admire the tall ships.
Thirty minutes went by before Peace became restless. He toyed with the flattened corpse of his plastic toad, threw it irreverently to the floor, went to the coffee machine and found it was empty, then walked around the room several times, growing more and more impatient. The gloomy torpor of the other recruits, who remained slumped on the benches, served to heighten his annoyance and resentment at being penned up like an animal. Finally, losing his temper altogether, he went to the door by which he had entered the room and tried to throw it open. It refused to move. He slid his hand into a recess in the metal, pressed down on a lever within and began hitting the door with his shoulder.
“Hey, look at old Warren,” somebody said in the background. “He’s pretending to open the door.”
“That’s Warren for you,” Benger commented. “Anything for a laugh.”
“Wait a minute,” cut in another voice, “I think he’s really trying to…”
“My God! He’s trying to open the door!”
A bench was knocked over and an instant later Peace found himself lying on the floor, with Vernie Ryan sitting on his chest. Another recruit was sprawled across his legs, immobilizing him.
“Sorry to have to do this, Warren,” Ryan said, panting. “I know a guy like you doesn’t care about anything, but the rest of us aren’t ready to die.”
“Die? What are you talking about?” Peace found it difficult to speak with Ryan’s bulk compressing his ribcage. “I just wanted to look for our ship.”
Ryan exchanged glances with the onlookers. “This is our ship, Warren. We’re in it. Didn’t you know we took off half an hour ago?”
“In this tin box!” Peace sneered his disbelief. “Do I look like an idiot?”
Fair’s dark face came into view. “Which idiot do you mean?”
“That’s enough, Coppy,” Ryan said. “Remember Warren’s memory has been wiped out. He knows hardly anything about anything.”
Peace fought for breath. “I know this isn’t a spaceship, that’s for sure. It isn’t even the right shape.”
“It doesn’t have to be any special shape,” Ryan explained. “It doesn’t have to be streamlined—not when it doesn’t move.”
“Got you!” Peace said triumphantly. “You said we took off. How can we take off in something that doesn’t move?”
Fair appeared again. “This boy was in orbit before we started.”
“Lay off him, Coppy.” Ryan looked down at Peace with a kindly, pleading expression on his face, like a junior school teacher giving special attention to a dull child. “Don’t you see, Warren, that a spaceship which moved would never get you anywhere?”
“No, I…” In view of Ryan’s obvious sincere ity, Peace began to doubt his own position.
“Who said so?”
“Albert Einstein, among others. Oh, you could do a bit of local planet-hopping like they did in the old days, but your ship would never be able to go faster than the speed of light, which means it would be pretty useless for interstellar work. The light barrier would see to that.”
“So you get around the light barrier by using a ship which doesn’t move?”
“That’s it!” Ryan looked pleased. “You’re getting the idea.”
“Of course you are. A brainy character like you… Already you’ll be asking yourself what a spaceship designer would do if all the conventional forms of locomotion were ruled out.”
“That’s right,” Peace admitted. “That’s what I’m asking myself.”
“I knew it! And already your mind will be sifting through the various possibilities…”
“Yes, yes,” Peace said, compliantly, feeling the growing excitement of intellectual adventure.
“… spurning one unsatisfactory solution after another …”
“… until it finally settles on …”
“… non-Elucidean tachyon displacement.”
“Oh!” Peace tried to conceal his disappointment.
“Non-Elucidean tachyon displacement.”
Ryan nodded eagerly. “Which, of course, is just another way of saying instantaneous matter transmission.”
Peace’s hopes picked up, but only momentarily. “If it’s instantaneous why have we been sitting around in here for so long?”
“Well, it can’t be completely instantaneous— that would involve us with the logical absurdity of being in two different places at once. But it’s so close to instantaneous that you wouldn’t notice the difference.”
“I notice the difference,” Peace said. “It seems to me that forty minutes…”
“Ah, but you haven’t thought it through, Warren. We don’t complete journeys in one jump.”
“Because you can’t have too great a distance between your transmitting station and your receiving station. Above a certain range there’s a loss of fidelity, and a risk of incomplete reception.” A solemn expression flitted across Ryan’s face. “That could be very nasty.”
“So what sort of distance do we transmit across?”
“Two hundred metres.”
“Two hun…!” Peace renewed his efforts to wriggle free, but fell back, exhausted.
“I’m sorry, Warren—we can’t risk letting you up until you understand that we’re out in space and would all be killed if you opened that door.”
“All right,” Peace said in a strangled voice. “Tell me the rest. Tell me we’ve got chains of matter transceivers all over the galaxy… trillions of them… two hundred metres apart.”
“Now you’re being silly,” Ryan reproved. “Just when you were doing so well, too.”
“I’m sorry—I won’t argue again. Teach me how it all works.”
“I wouldn’t presume to try teaching anything to a well-educated guy like you, Warren. You’re working it out for yourself. Remember?”
“Yes, but…” Peace gazed up into Ryan’s watchful eyes, seeking inspiration. “Give me a clue, Vernie.”
Ryan glanced at the others, most of whom, Peace was relieved to see, were nodding vigorously. “All right, then. Tell me what you noticed about this ship when you got down out of the personnel carrier.”