“Let’s see,” Peace said, anxious to co-operate. “It looked like a long, narrow metal box with a sort of low tower at each end.”
“Very good, Warren. Very observant. And how far apart would you say those towers were?”
“About two hundred metres, but I don’t see…” Peace stopped speaking as he noticed that Ryan’s eyes had brightened expectantly. “Two hun…” He broke off again, partly because the idea which had sprung into being in his mind was too preposterous for words, partly because Ryan had begun to bounce encouragingly on his chest, driving the air from his lungs.
“Go on, Warren,” Ryan urged. “It’s a privilege and a pleasure for me to see a first-class brain at work.”
“There’s a matter transmitter at the back of the ship,” Peace said in dazed tones. “And a matter receiver at the front of the ship. And the ship transmits itself forward two hundred metres at a time. And receives itself.”
“Stand up, Warren.” Ryan’s face glowed with vicarious pride as he got off Peace’s chest and helped him to his feet. “I knew you could figure it out for yourself, a bright boy like you.”
“Thank you.” Silent shrieks of disbelief were ringing through every compartment of Peace’s mind, but he guessed the penalty for showing his true feelings would be another interlude on the floor. “Of course,” he said tentatively, seeking a neutral form of words, “it’s not quite as simple as that.”
“You’re right there, Warren.” Ryan brushed dust from Peace’s clothes. “I can see your mind is busy delving into the implications of the basic principle.”
Peace nodded. “Naturally.”
“You’re probably delving into stuff that even I don’t really understand—stuff about how it’s stellar-type condensation of matter around the ship’s centre of gravity that produces spatial displacement with every jump, stuff about the need to make one and a half million jumps a second to give an apparent velocity equal to that of light, stuff about the artificial gravity generators…”
“Yes—all that kind of thing,” Peace said faintly, turning away and making for the nearest seat.
Somewhere along the line he had become convinced of the truth of Ryan’s words, and the knowledge that his own body was being torn apart and rebuilt millions of times every second made him feel weak at the knees. This is terrible, he thought. The erasure of all conscious memory meant that his world-picture was being formed in his subconscious—and it appeared that his subconscious self was an impractical, romantic twit with no idea of how anything worked in the real universe. His earlier pleasure at being a legionary had been based on the notion of crusading through the galaxy—in one piece—in a beautiful silver ship, not being wafted from star to star as a cloud of particles inside a steel lunchbox. The adjustment was a difficult one to make, and peace longed for the solace of a cigarette.
“What’s the matter, Warren?” Ryan sat down nearby. “Not feeling so good?”
Peace jumped to his feet to prove there was nothing wrong with him, but he was unable to resist the sympathetic expression on Ryan’s plump face. “Everything’s all wrong,” he said.
“I’m dying for a smoke … and I didn’t know I’d be fighting for a ketchup manufacturer.”
“Please don’t mention fighting,” Ryan said, looking apprehensive. “Anyway, you’ll be … doing what you said … for the Legion. Triple-Ess only kits out the regiment.”
“It’s a bit degrading, isn’t it?”
Ryan pondered for a moment. “For the likes of you, perhaps.”
“What do you mean for the likes of me? Having no memory doesn’t make me special.”
“All I meant was you weren’t cut out to be a ranker, Warren. I can tell from the way you talk you’ve been to college. You must be a bright boy—not like old Coppy over there. I mean, when you joined the Legion you knew there was no way out. Old Coppy talked me into believing we could duck out any time we…”
“College, you say?” Peace turned the new fact over in his mind, but failed to draw any comfort from it. “From the cloisters to the sauce works.”
“Forget about sauce, will you? Look, would you feel better if things hadn’t changed since the seventeenth century and this outfit was called the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment?”
“Daresay I would.”
“Right. And would it make any difference that the Duke who equipped the regiment got most of his money from the revenues of his family estate?”
“And what if the Duke’s biggest tenant was a sauce factory?”
“That’s different,” Peace said, feeling he had been tricked. “Anyway the Duke of Wellington would have given me a better uniform than this.”
“You look great the way you are, Warren.”
“Think so?” Mollified by the compliment, Peace glanced down at himself and wished he had been blessed with thicker legs or that his red-and-gold boots had been ten sizes smaller.
“No kidding, Warren—you look as smart as old General Nightingale himself.” In his enthusiasm, Ryan turned to Copgrove Farr, who had dropped on to the bench beside him.
“How do you think he looks?”
Farr examined Peace with a lacklustre eye. “With those legs—like a jaybird standing in two empty shotgun shells.”
“Aw, come on, Coppy—I’d say he’s a real Beau Geste.”
“You know—Beau Geste.”
Farr’s face became darker. “More like Bo Peep.”
“Now see here!” Peace advanced on Farr, trying to avoid stepping out of his boots as he did so. “Don’t forget who I am.”
“Why not?” Farr said. “You’ve done it.”
“I know, but…”
“I don’t believe you’re such a hard case, anyway,” Farr continued, sneering. “For all we know you’ve just got a lousy memory.”
Ryan raised a placating hand. “Look at the way he faced up to Sergeant Cleet.”
“Anybody can do that.” Farr crooked his fingers and a look of savage anticipation appeared on his face. “The next sergeant I meet I’m gonna…” The klaxon blared out suddenly, obliterating Farr’s words and causing other recruits to scuttle to their seats.
“Attention, men,” an amplified voice said. “We have reached the planet Ulpha and are going into the landing phase. If your seat has a safety belt, fasten it and remain seated until the door opens.”
Peace looked down at his bench and noted that it had ringlike anchorages at intervals along the back, but no straps of any kind. A commotion broke out all around him as men, Ryan and Farr among them, scrambled for the few places on other benches where straps were still in evidence. The panic died down momentarily and then flared up again as most of those who had begun securing themselves discovered they had only one strap each and were unable to complete their restraining loops. The Legions field officers, he decided, would need every last gram of their battle experience and leadership to weld the class often a.m. into an efficient fighting unit. He had no relish for the idea of going into combat, but at least it would be a relief to see the reins taken up by the strong hands of a professional commander, a man who had been honed and tempered and toughened by his years in the front line.
The floor lurched gently, the first indication of movement the ship had given, and Peace sat upright, his heart quickening as the ship seemed to drop a few centimetres, like an elevator with a faulty control mechanism coming to rest, and the metal door sprang open. Beyond it was a swirling of blue-white vapours through which came running a humanoid figure with huge black eyes and a short, wrinkled trunk where its nose and mouth should have been. A multiple gasp of fear arose from the watching recruits.
Peace grabbed nervously for his rifle, then realized the dreadful figure was actually a Legion officer whose face was hidden by a gas mask. The officer staggered into the ship and slammed the door behind him, dispersing little whorls of the blue-white mist through the room. He slumped against the door for a moment, breathing heavily, before taking off the respirator and scanning the group with red-rimmed eyes.
“I’m Lieutenant Merriman,” he said in a thin, fluting voice which was in ill accord with the stained and dust-streaked uniform of a front-line veteran. “You men have arrived just in time—the Ulphans are hitting us with everything they’ve got.” He paused and knuckled his streaming eyes. “Where are your respirators?”
“Respirators, sir?” Peace took his athlete’s protective cup from his pocket and dangled it by its elasticated straps. “This is the only extra equipment we got.”
Merriman gave an impatient wave. “You’ll just have to manage without. All of you follow me— we’re going into action.”
“But, sir…” Even as he spoke, Peace felt the now-familiar sandpapering sensation on the surface of his brain, and knew he was unable to disobey the order. The other rankers shuffled uneasily, faces revealing their mental torment.
“Hurry it up,” Merriman piped, impatience nudging his voice into the falsetto ranges. “You’ll have to be sharper than this when you’re fighting for Terra.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Benger held up his hand. “There must be some mistake—we’re from Earth.”
“I know that, you fool.”
Benger glanced around him in perplexity. “But you just said we’d be fighting for some place I never even…”
“Are you trying to be funny?” Merriman moved closer to Benger and read his name badge.
“Give yourself three tweaks, Benger.”
While the unfortunate Benger was administering his own punishment, Peace had time to look more closely at Merriman and was dismayed to see that, underneath the grease and grime of battle, the lieutenant was a baby-faced youth of about eighteen. He had blue eyes of an idealistic clarity, and girlish lips which were permanently parted to reveal exceptionally large square teeth, and if he had been honed and tempered and toughened by his time in the front line it certainly did not show. Peace was beginning to feel anxious about serving under someone as inexperienced as Merriman when he noticed a tantalizing aroma drifting in the air. He sniffed at it disbelievingly.
“We can’t delay any longer.” Merriman gazed critically at his men, who stared back over the rims of their improvised masks. “It’s too bad you don’t even have goggles to protect your eyes.
That stuff out there really goes for the eyes.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Peace raised a tentative hand. “It smells like tobacco smoke.”
Merriman nodded. “Quick work, Peace—that’s exactly what it is.”
“Ordinary tobacco smoke, sir.”
“There’s no such thing as ordinary tobacco smoke, Peace,” Merriman said impatiently, the ellipse of his mouth changing position slightly with respect to the wall of teeth behind it. “It all stunts your growth. It’s all carcinogenic, and did you know that, weight for weight, nicotine is practically the deadliest poison known to man?”
“It doesn’t bother me, sir—I like it.”
“You mean … you’re a smoker?”
“Yes, sir, I think so, sir.”
“Goodness gracious!” Merriman’s lips tightened in disapproval and actually succeeded in meeting for an instant, but the outward pressure of the teeth within was too great and after a convulsive twitch his mouth sprang open once more. Peace was reminded of somebody struggling to close the zip on an overfull holdall.
“Goodness gracious!” Merriman repeated, relieving his anger by what he apparently regarded as strong language. “A victim of the weed! You’ll have no stamina. No wind. What sort of wretches is Terra reduced to sending us?”
“You’ve said it again, sir,” Benger put in doggedly. “Are you sure there isn’t a mistake? We’re definitely from Earth and not from…”
“Six more tweaks, Benger,” Merriman snapped without turning his head. “All right, you men, we’ve wasted enough time. Follow me!”
He pulled his gas mask up over his face and flung open the metal door. Blue-white smoke wreathed outside, occasionally lit up by orange flashes, and there was the sound of explosions and old-fashioned gunfire. Merriman, quite unnecessarily, windmilled his right arm once in slow motion—a signal which Peace was certain had been culled from twentieth-century war movies, dropped into a crouch and ran forward. His squad of recruits nervously adopted similar attitudes and scuttled along behind him. Ryan, plumply incongruous in his green glitter suit, was snorting with effort before he had taken a dozen paces, and Benger, who was still tweaking himself, kept leaping in the air and emitting yelps of pain.
Peace heard the ship’s door clang shut behind him. He glanced back and saw the long metal structure sail up into the sky in a blurred arc described by fast-fading images of itself. In a second it had vanished, leaving him no recourse but to follow his companions into whatever straits a sardonic destiny had prepared for them.
At first Peace felt too self-conscious to double himself over, but he was quickly persuaded otherwise by the whine of metal fragments slicing through the air close at hand. He tried creeping after the others, but the roominess of his boots meant that he had a tendency to crawl right out of them, and he was reduced to proceeding in a hunkered down position, giving a grotesque imitation of a Ukranian dancer. The boots had proved extremely troublesome despite their splendid appearance, and he began to wish he had retained his snug-fitting civilian shoes.
From the lowly position Peace was able to see little of his surroundings, but his squad was moving across open ground which was uniformly covered with a single species of broadleaved plant. The only agreeable thing about the environment was the abundance of tobacco smoke, and he gratefully inhaled its fragrance while he laboured to catch up on the others. As the minutes went by he began to perspire with his efforts, and then came the realization that this was no localized gas attack. The Ulphans had made a tactical blunder in believing the nicotine-laden smoke would incapacitate all Earthmen, but the scale of their operation suggested they had no need to worry.
Peace risked standing up in an attempt to see the enemy. A warm breeze momentarily lifted the curtain of haze and he glimpsed an undulating plain, covered with the same yellowish vegetation from which protruded several low conical hills. One of the cones appeared to be glowing a rather pretty shade of pink. Entranced by this first vision of an alien planet, Peace shaded his eyes for a better look, scarcely noticing the abrupt swarming of metal hornets in his vicinity.
“Get down, you fool,” Merriman shouted. “You’re drawing their fire.”
Peace dropped into the cover of the vegetation and churned his way forward to where the rest of the squad had taken shelter behind some fresh earthworks. About twenty legionaries were already huddled there, a few wearing gasmasks, and Peace eyed them with interest. Apart from Lieutenant Merriman, who hardly counted, these were the first combat veterans he had seen, and even the filthiness of their clothing and equipment invested them with a rugged glamour. For their part, the veterans appeared not to notice the arrival of reinforcements. A captain who was with them began striding towards Merriman. He paused as he came close to Peace, and the part of his face not covered by his mask showed unmistakable contempt.