Peace snatched a deep breath as the antigrav units came into operation, but—in place of the dizzy ascent he had been expecting—the boots propelled him directly forward in a flat trajectory. The Ulphan’s jaw sagged as he saw Peace, still in an undignified squatting position, zooming towards him through the murk. Dismayed by the further wayward behaviour of his footwear, Peace tried to stay on an even keel, but the boots surged ahead of his centre of gravity, tilting him backwards in the process. He felt a fierce impact on his behind and an instant later found himself rested squarely on the enemy soldier’s chest. His red-and-gold boots were dislodged in the collision and, relieved of any load, soared off into the sky like frightened parakeets. He watched with mixed feelings as they disappeared towards the zenith, then became aware that he no longer had his rifle and was probably in mortal danger. He made a belated grab for his opponent’s throat, but released it apologetically when he saw that the Ulphan, badly winded and unable to move, was gazing up at him in abject terror.
“Don’t try anything,” Peace said, getting to his feet. He located the two fallen rifles and was picking them up when the figures of Dinkle, Ryan and Farr emerged from the surrounding smoke.
“Warren! How did you get ahead of us? I thought you were…” Ryan’s eyes widened as he noticed the recumbent form of the Ulphan soldier. “Is he dead?”
“No.” Peace looked curiously at the Ulphan’s tan uniform and saw only a faint scorch mark on the left side of the chest. He turned to Dinkle and proffered his radiation rifle. “Do you see anything wrong with this? I shot him from about twenty metres and all it did was make him mad.”
Dinkle shrugged. “That always happens.”
“But we were told the rifles had unlimited range and…”
“Not in smoke—too much energy absorption by particles in the air. And it’s the sarnie in fog.”
Dinkle savored the morose pleasure that comes from imparting bad news. “In fact, any time there’s a touch of mist you could defend yourself better with a croquet mallet. And when there’s smoke…”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Ryan put in, “but aren’t battlegrounds usually covered with smoke?”
“Only because the opposition generally uses obsolete equipment like guns and bombs and flame-throwers.”
“This is worse than I thought,” Ryan said, his plump face growing paler. “Isn’t anybody else equipped with radiation equipment?”
“Only our allies—the ones we’ve equipped with advanced arms.”
Dinkle glanced at his three companions to see if they appreciated the irony of his words, then went on to belabour the point. “If we could just set up a system where we were friends with our enemies—and where we only fought our friends—we’d be all right. The trouble is…”
“I don’t believe all this crap,” Farr said, giving a characteristic scowl. “We beat Aspatria, didn’t we? Cap’n Hardy said it was a quick victory, too.”
Surprisingly, Dinkle showed signs of apprehension. “If you ask me, it wasn’t us or the Aspatrians who ended that war—it was the throwrugs. The throwrugs and the Oscars.”
The words had no sinister connotation that Peace knew of, yet he felt a flicker of unease.
“What are throwrugs and Oscars?”
“Be glad you don’t know—I saw a throwrug get one of my buddies.” Dinkle’s eyes seemed to lose focus, as though horrific memories were parading in front of him. “Dropped out of a tree, it did. Straight on to him. Covered him up, just like a big rug, and started digesting him. I’ll never forget those screams. It was a good thing for him I was right there. Lucky, he was.”
“You managed to pull it off him,” Ryan prompted.
Dinkle shook his head. “I managed to shoot him before he’d suffered more’n a few seconds.
Took a risk waiting around that long, but it was the least I could do for a pal.”
Ryan edged away from Dinkle. “Don’t do me any favors, will you? Any time you see me suffering just look the other…”
“What’s going on here?” Lieutenant Merriman’s voice was muffled by his gas mask as he came stumbling through the layered curtains of smoke. “Why aren’t you men moving up front?”
“Private Peace took a prisoner, sir.” Dinkle pointed at the recumbent Ulphan, who was showing the first signs of getting his breath back. “We were just about to interrogate him.”
“Good work, Peace. Good thinking.” Merriman gave Peace an approving glance. “I’ll be sure to keep you up front in future.”
“Thank you, sir.” Peace was less than happy about this fresh development, but the combat incident just described by Dinkle had had a strangely disturbing effect on him, and the prospect of stopping an Ulphan bullet no longer seemed so terrible. His thoughts on the matter were interrupted by the discovery that his feet, unprotected by boots or shoes, seemed to have glued themselves to the ground. He looked down at them and saw he was standing in a patch of black goo which appeared to have seeped upwards through the soil. Holding his socks on with difficulty, he moved to a better position.
“I’ll question the prisoner now.” Merriman nudged the Ulphan soldier with his toe. “Listen to me, you cowardly extraterrestrial dog, you’d better tell me all you know about the strength and disposition of your forces in this area.”
The Ulphan raised himself on one elbow. “Are you going to shoot me or torture me?”
“How dare you!” Merriman gave the others a scandalized glance. “Terra doesn’t treat her prisoners in that way.”
“In that case,” the Ulphan said comfortably, “get lost.”
Merriman pulled his gas mask down in fury, received a lungful of the smoky atmosphere, and was forced to cover up again. He began choking and coughing, the rubberized mask clapping in and swelling horribly with each spasm, and what could be seen of his face turned a plummy crimson.
“You shouldn’t have told him what you did, sir.” Dinkle pounded the lieutenant on the back.
“Let me try a different approach.”
“What can…?” Merriman wiped tears from his eyes. “What can you do?”
“The old sympathetic bit, sir. It never fails. Just watch.” Dinkle took two flat packages from his pocket and knelt beside the prisoner. He opened one of the packages, exposing a row of slim white cylinders which appeared to be cigarettes, and held it out to the Ulphan. “Have one of these.”
“Thanks.” The Ulphan took one of the cylinders, placed it between his lips and sucked eagerly. A contented expression spread over his face.
“What’s going on here?” Merriman demanded. “That thing isn’t even lit. What have you just given the prisoner?”
“The Ulphans use them instead of cigarettes, sir.” Dinkle stood up and showed the package to the officer. “We captured a truckload last week. The locals breathe tobacco smoke all the time, but they get a lift by sucking pure air through these long filters. This brand is just for hardened air-puffers, though—some of the Ulphans, specially the women, go in for these weaker ones.” He opened the second package and displayed a row of cylinders which looked like Earth-style filter cigarettes in reverse, each being mainly white filter with a short tobacco-packed section at one end.
“Disgusting habit,” Merriman said. “See what you can get out of him.”
Dinkle returned to the prisoner and dropped the two packages into his hand. “Have the lot, pal— compliments of the Legion.”
“Thanks.” The Ulphan slid open the flat trays and glanced inside. “No coupons?”
Looking rather guilty, Dinkle handed over a bundle of blue chits. “Now—how about some co-operation?”
The Ulphan inhaled deeply. “Get lost.”
Peace, who felt a proprietory interest in the prisoner, started forward angrily to relieve him of the anti-smokes. The Ulphan promptly cowered away, his face distorted by fear.
“Don’t let that one near me,” he babbled, his eyes pleading with Merriman. “Don’t let him jump on me.”
Merriman stared suspiciously at Peace. “What did you do to this man?”
“I just … ah … jumped on him, sir. You know—unarmed combat.”
“I told you Warren was something special,” Ryan said to Copgrove Farr. “I bet you Warren can get all the information we need.” He turned to Peace. “Go ahead, Warren, let’s see you jump on him.”
“I’ll talk,” the Ulphan said, clutching at Merriman’s leg. “Look, I’m talking already. We haven’t any men in this sector, apart from a few technicians and scouts. All the fire is coming from robot weapons, and if you detour round the back you can switch ‘em all off.”
“No men?” Merriman said. “Why’s that?”
“It’s that stuff.” The Ulphan pointed at the tacky patch in which Peace had been standing.
“This is a high tar area—most of our boys refuse to breathe the sort of smoke you get around here. Personally, I say it doesn’t do you any harm. My grandfather breathed it every day and he lived to be ninety. What I say is, if you’re…”
“Be quiet,” Merriman ordered. “I’m not sure about this story of yours—it might be a cunning Ulphan trick. Robot weapons would be as big a danger to you as they would to us.”
The prisoner shook his head. “We carry transmitters which broadcast a coded identity signal.
You can have mine if you want—as long as I’m allowed to stay near it.”
“It definitely has gone quiet since he’s been around,” Peace said. “Not a shot or shell anywhere near us.”
“You’ve done well, Private Peace,” Merriman’s thin voice was almost lost within his respirator, but his excitement was unmistakable. “This could be a turning point in the battle, in the whole war. I’ll report to Captain Handy immediately.” He raised his wrist communicator to the general region of his mouth. While he was talking to the captain, Ryan grasped Peace’s hand and shook it energetically, and even Farr looked reluctantly amiable.
“Great stuff, Warren,” Ryan said. “The way things were going here we wouldn’t have lasted a week. Now it looks like victory celebrations all the way. I’ve always fancied riding into town on the side of a tank. Girls throwing flowers at me … girls throwing cigarettes at me … girls throwing girls at me…” He broke off, his attention caught by the slight but unmistakable argumentative tone which was creeping into Lieutenant Merriman’s radio conversation. The note of dissension was all the more noticeable for being completely unexpected.
“With all due respect, sir,” Merriman was saying, “I don’t believe the Ulphans would feel any daunting psychological impact when they heard we had marched line abreast and unafraid against their robot guns. As a matter of fact, I think they would laugh their heads off. I realize how disappointed you must be at not getting another chance to prove your tactical theories, but…”
Merriman had to stop and listen for a moment, nodding his head. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were…”
He listened again, still nodding, and— incredibly—his shoulders began to droop. “Yes, sir. I know it’s a privilege to die for Terra.”
Ryan clutched Peace’s arm. “I don’t like the sound of this, Warren.”
Lieutenant Merriman signed off and turned to face the others. He removed his gas mask, somehow managing not to cough, and his mouth travelled upwards and to the right on the fire curtain of teeth, assuming a comma-shape which was indicative of blighted illusion. Peace suddenly felt sorry for him.
“Captain Handy sends his congratulations,” the lieutenant said after a brief pause. “You have proved yourselves such a valuable and resourceful combat team that you’re to be trans-shipped immediately to the planet Threlkeld. You’ll be there in a couple of hours. I’m going with you, of course.”
Ryan wiggled his fingers to attract the lieutenant’s attention. “Is Threlkeld an R&R world, sir?”
“Not unless you’ve got your own ideas about how to spell death and destruction—we’re losing men there faster than we can ship them in.”
“Oh, God!” Ryan turned to Peace and his eyes hardened with accusation. “This is your fault, Warren—we’re on our way to a second war and we haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet.”
Peace replied with the crudest swear word he could summon to mind, but he did it in an abstracted manner. It had become clear to him that he had only one chance of achieving a reasonable life span. No matter how impossible the task might appear, no matter how many difficulties lay in the way, he would have to regain his memory and thus invalidate his contract with the Legion. The problem was that there was simply nowhere for him to begin, and now that he was no longer on Earth the chances of finding someone who had known him in his previous existence seemed vanishingly small.
While he was trudging with the rest of the unit towards the embarkation point, Peace’s thoughts returned to the mystery surrounding his past. People kept assuring him that he must have been steeped in evil, but—on taking mental inventory—he was unable to find any antisocial urges within himself. This set him a philosophical poser—would he be able to recognize a criminal tendency if it was handed to him on a plate? Did any individual consciously think of himself as “bad”? When even the most hardened wrongdoer was setting out to commit a misdeed, did he not feel as justified and as “good” as any other member of society?
His speculations came to an end when the ship appeared, an angular dumb-bell which came down from the sky in a blurred arc and clumped into place on the soft ground. Its central doors sprang open without any visible human agency and Merriman gave the order for everybody to go on board.
Peace trooped into the ship, wincing as his unshod feet encountered the chill of the metal floor, and dropped dejectedly onto a bench without taking part in the scramble for serviceable seat belts. The hazards of space flight were negligible compared to those of the battle zone and, being coldly realistic, he had less hope of escape than any other ranker in the entire Legion. Without a single clue to help him solve the mystery of his past, he was doomed to flit about the galaxy in ugly, identical-seeming ships and…
Peace’s eyes suddenly focused on a small blue object on the floor in front of him, and he realized the ship was actually the same one which had brought him to Ulpha. The last time he had seen the little plastic toad it had been squashed flat, but its molecular memory had enabled it to return to its original shape. Wishing he could be equally indestructible, Peace gathered up the little toad and gazed at it with something akin to affection—had it been able to speak it might have told him something about the person he used to be.
“What did you find?” Dinkle, who had sat down near him unnoticed, leaned sideways for a better look. “Huh! Somebody’s been living it up.”