“Why are you crouching there like a frightened rabbit?” His eyes had triangulated on Peace.
“What sort of soldier are you? What has proud Terra come to?”
Peace began to salute, then changed his mind. “It was Lieutenant Merriman, sir. He told me…”
“Don’t try to blame an officer of the Legion for your lack of guts,” the captain hissed. “By Jupiter, you’re not fit to live on proud Terra, but I’ll make sure you die for her. That’s a promise.” He crawled away without waiting for a reply.
“Yes, sir,” Peace quavered to the captain’s departing figure.
“Tough luck,” Benger said, approaching on his hands and knees. His expression of sympathy was quickly ousted by one of puzzlement. “Hey, Warren, where’s this Terra these characters keep talking about?”
“How the hell would I know?” Peace was too alarmed by the new turn of events to be interested in the petty worries of others.
“It means Earth,” put in one of the battle-stained legionaries. “All officers say Terra when they mean Earth. Nobody knows why, but you better get used to it. And the ones that call it proud Terra are the worst.” His eyes flickered meaningfully in Peace’s direction.
Peace shivered. “Do you think the captain meant what he said? Has he got me down on his list?”
“Cap’n Handy won’t hold a personal grudge, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s a relief. For a minute I thought…”
“There’s no need for it,” the legionary continued. “He’s going to get the bloody lot of us killed, so he doesn’t have to give nobody no special treatment.”
Peace tightened his grip on his radiation rifle, and tried to bolster his courage. “Some of us mightn’t die so easily.”
“If they order you to march straight up to one of those machine gun posts out there, you’ll do it just like the rest of us—and you’ll die real easy.”
“I can’t listen to any more of this,” Benger said faintly. “I think I’m going to be sick.” He crawled away into the smoke, and there followed sounds which showed his premonition had been correct.
“But it isn’t in an officer’s own interests to squander his men.” Anxious to get all the information he could, Peace squirmed closer to the legionary. “Say, where’s your name badge?”
“The name’s Bud Dinkle, but my badge fell off ages ago—they don’t know how to make ‘em properly.”
Peace looked down at his own badge and noticed for the first time that the plastic rectangle was held in place by nothing more than a small safety pin and a piece of flesh-coloured surgical tape. The tape was already beginning to lose its adhesion, allowing the badge to hang sideways. He adjusted it to a proper angle and pressed it against his chest, hoping to effect a quick repair.
“That won’t help,” Dinkle said. “They tell you to wear your badges at all times, but they…”
He paused and gazed stoically at his fingernails until a series of ear-punishing explosions had died away. Peace, almost certain he had heard a short-lived scream amid the clamour, looked nervously about him, but the smoke had grown thick again and he could see only twenty or thirty paces in any direction.
He tugged Dinkle’s sleeve. “How long will the gas attack go on?”
“Gas?” Dinkle began fumbling urgently with his respirator. “Nobody flaming well told me about gas. What sort?”
“This stuff all around us.”
Dinkle dropped his mask and gave Peace a hard stare. “You trying to be funny?”
“No. It’s just that Lieutenant Merriman said…”
“That poop! Didn’t he tell you guys the whole planet’s like this?”
“The whole planet?”
“It’s the standard Ulphan atmosphere.” Dinkle tore up a piece of the ubiquitous yellow vegetation and held it under Peace’s nose. “Sniff that.”
Peace did as he was told. “Tobacco?”
“Correct, sonny. The entire surface of Ulpha is covered with it, and when you’ve got all those little volcanoes spreading lava and hot cinders about… What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” Peace said through cupped hands. “I didn’t expect things to be like this, that’s all.
Where’s the glory? Where’s the grandeur?”
“Search me,” Dinkle replied unfeelingly. “I’m just here to fight a war.”
“All I know is the Ulphans started the trouble. The only thing Earth expects from the other worlds in the Federation is that they honour the Common Rights Charter and the Free Trading Pact. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”
“I guess so,” Peace said, trying to feel reassured. “What were the Ulphans up to? Slavery?
“Worse than that, Warren. They were screwing up the whole Free Trading Pact. Refusing to import their quota of some Earth products.”
An off inflection in Dinkle’s voice aroused Peace’s interest. “What sort of products?”
“Cigarettes and cigars.”
Dinkle nodded soberly. “Not only that—they wanted to flood the rest of the Federation with underpriced tobacco.” He scowled in patriotic anger. “People like that deserve all that’s coming to them.”
“But you can see their point of view,” Peace said. “I mean…”
“Who can see their point of view?” Dinkle narrowed his eyes. “What are you, Warren? A relativist? A greeno?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so. What’s a greeno?”
“I get it—this is an attitude test,” Dinkle said. “I thought you didn’t sound like an ordinary ranker, Warren, and if I called Lieutenant Merriman a poop just now, I want you to know that, with me, poop’s a term of endearment. I call all my best friends poops.” He tapped the legionary next to him on the shoulder. “Isn’t that right, poop?”
The legionary grabbed Dinkle’s throat. “Who are you callin’ poop?”
Dinkle tried to fight him off, but the struggle was cut short by an order from Lieutenant Merriman, who directed everybody to gather close to Captain Handy. The men, experienced combat veterans and raw recruits alike, formed a semicircle around the point where Handy and Merriman were sitting with their backs to the low earthen wall. Tobacco smoke floated steadily across the scene and hidden machine guns kept up their peevish snapping. Peace found it difficult to believe that only a few hours earlier he had been safely at home on Earth.
He had no idea what had been happening to him before he joined the Legion, but anything had to be better than his current predicament.
“Captain Handy wants to deliver a personal message to all of you,” Merriman fluted, cautiously raising his mask a little. He smiled, which meant that the ellipse of his mouth elongated to show one extra tooth at each end. “I know that, as I do, you respect Captain Handy as one of the finest officers in the entire Legion, and for that reason you’ll regard it as an honour and a privilege—just as I do—that he has found time to come here and direct this phase of the battle in person with all the superb leadership, skill and courage for which he is justly renowned.”
Handy nodded his agreement with everything that had been said, and tapped the cyst-like lump of the command enforcer on his throat. “Men, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that I don’t like wearing this thing. Not only is it an expensive contraption, but I happen to believe it is totally unnecessary. I know that, given the chance, each and every one of you would be prepared to lay down his life for proud Terra without any electronic coercion.”
“We’ve had it,” Dinkle whispered gloomily to those beside him. “This is where he starts blowing off about the daunting psychological impact on the enemy of seeing proud Terra’s warriors marching line abreast and unafraid into the mouths of the cannons.”
“Keep quiet,” Peace said. “No commander would be so stupid.”
“It’s the only tactic Cap’n Handy knows—he’s famous for it.” Dinkle punctuated his words by spitting savagely, realized too late that his foot was in the way, and began wiping saliva off his toecap. “I tell you, we’re buggered.”
“… going to level with you men,” Handy was saying. “Things are going badly in this sector.
Proud Terra’s thin red line is too thin and too … er … red. I can’t promise you a quick victory like the one we had on Aspatria. But we’ve got one tremendous advantage, one great weapon the enemy doesn’t possess—and that is our invincible spirit. These Ulphans are an undisciplined, cowardly rabble. The only way they can bring themselves to fight is by skulking under cover and firing from behind rocks.” Handy paused to register his contempt for what he obviously regarded as a lack of common decency.
“So what we’re going to do in this sector is to use our invincible weapon, our moral superiority, our spirit. The Ulphans expect us to fight in the same lily-livered way that they do—but we’re going to surprise them by going straight in. Straight in with our heads held high and our banners waving. Can you imagine the daunting psychological impact of seeing proud Terra’s warriors marching line abreast and unafraid into the mouths of the cannons?”
His audience shifted uneasily as their imaginations went to work.
“There’ll be casualties, of course,” Handy went on, perhaps disappointed by a lack of favor-able response. “There may even be heavy casualties before the enemy turns tail and flees, but the annals of military history are full of similar glorious episodes. Just think of the charge of the Light Brigade.”
Benger raised his hand. “Sir, I saw a movie about the charge of the Light Brigade. Didn’t they all get killed? Wasn’t it all a big mistake?”
“Ten tweaks, Benger,” Merriman ordered, his mouth sliding about with displeasure like a spotlight playing on a backdrop of teeth. Glad of the diversion, most of the audience turned to watch and listen to Benger sapping himself, but at that moment a shell exploded close by and they threw themselves flat. The shrapnel from it chittered through the vegetation, and when Peace sat up again he noticed that one man, only a few metres from him, was writhing in silent agony. Two others with Red Cross armbands picked him up and retreated as quickly as they could.
“I hope you all saw that,” Captain Handy said crisply. “I hope you all saw that and were comforted and encouraged. Thanks to their refusal to stay in the progressive interstellar society of the Federation the Ulphans are forced to rely on their obsolete projectile weapons. You soldiers of proud Terra, on the other hand, are armed with the finest radiation rifles available. Weapons of unlimited range and unsurpassed accuracy, each one worth a dozen of the enemy’s pathetic machine guns.
“Now I want you to go out there and use them. Use them well. Go out there, walking proud and tall and unafraid, and kill as many dirty Ulphans as you can and make the galaxy a fit place for all right-thinking beings to live in, that is, in which to live … er … in.”
Lieutenant Merriman, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was unnecessary, paddled his hands in the manner of a man damping down applause. “Men, I’m sure that, just as I am, you’re inspired and uplifted by those words from Captain Handy. But now, men, the time for talking is over—it’s time to go over the top.”
“It’s all right for him,” Peace muttered, an icy coldness growing in his stomach. “While we’re going over the top he’ll be back here.”
“No, he won’t,” Dinkle said, tightening the chinstrap of his helmet. “Those young loonies who’ve been through military academy lead all the charges. That’s why they don’t last long—I’ve never seen one older than about twenty.”
“What makes them do it?”
“Tradition, I guess. They’re all the same— crazy as loons.”
“That’s great,” Peace said bitterly as he watched Lieutenant Merriman get to his feet, give his windmill signal with one arm and scramble over the bank of churned earth. The sound of gunfire intensified immediately. Peace thought briefly about crouching down and refusing to move, but the invisible wire brushes went to work inside his head and, before he really knew what was happening, he was on his feet and running towards the Ulphan positions.
As before, the excessive roominess of his footwear made progress difficult and he saw the rest of his unit disappear into the smoke ahead of him. He curled his toes in an effort to hold the boots in place, and one of the odd interior projections he had noticed earlier moved downwards slightly. An instant later he was sailing through the air, like an Olympic ski-jumper making a fantastic leap, borne by the upwards pressure of his boots. Too astonished to cry out, Peace fought to maintain his balance and to keep his legs together as the boots tried to go off in different directions, threatening to pull him apart. They carried him, unseen, in a precarious parabola far above the heads of his companions, and for a few seconds he lost sight of the ground altogether. Suddenly the planet was rushing up to meet him and he landed with an undignified, one-legged, arm-swirling skid which ended when he pitched sideways into a clump of tobacco plants.
Winded and totally unnerved by his experience, he sat up and examined the red-and-gold boots with awe. The supply clerk at Fort Eccles had called them Startrooper Sevenleague boots, and Peace was belatedly realizing why—each had a miniature antigravity machine built into it. He was wondering if it would be safe to stand up again when a twig snapped some distance ahead of him. Peace looked up and saw a man in a tan uniform advancing cautiously through the haze. He was carrying an old type of firearm, which at once identified him as an Ulphan soldier, and he seemed almost as lost and bewildered as Peace felt.
Appalled and sickened by what he was doing, yet unable to disobey the command implanted in his mind, Peace raised his own vastly superior weapon. Anxious to give the Ulphan a quick, clean death, he aimed for the heart and pulled the trigger, unleashing a bolt of lethal radiation. A part of his mind was praying he would miss, but the deadly purple ray found its mark. The Ulphan clapped a hand to his chest, at the same time emitting a yelp of pain and surprise, then he spun round, levelled his rifle and squeezed off a burst of automatic fire in Peace’s direction.
Unable to understand why his supposed dinosaur gun had been unable to knock over a medium-sized man, Peace hunkered down into cover. There was no time for speculation about what had gone wrong, because—obsolete or not —the Ulphan soldier’s rifle was rapidly scything down his screen of vegetation, and it could only be a matter of seconds before a bullet ended Peace’s brief career in the Legion. He decided, in desperation, that the Sevenleague boots which had got him into this predicament represented his only hope of escape.
Making himself ready for flight, he began wiggling his toes and felt the control buttons click downwards.