Peace gripped the toad just in time to prevent it springing away. “What do you mean?”
“They give those things out at the Blue Toad on Aspatria.”
“The Blue Toad?” Peace felt a stirring of excitement. “Is that a bar? Restaurant? Night Club?”
Dinkle nodded. “The fanciest in Touchdown City. In fact, on the whole of Aspatria. It beats me why anybody would want to go to a place like that on a ranker’s pay.”
“It all depends on how you look at things,” Peace said, dropping the toad safely into his pocket as he reached a secret decision. “Some people can’t stay away from places like that.”
In some ways the yellow-skied planet of Threlkeld was less of a nightmare than Peace had expected.
The Ulphan campaign was a police action against dissident colonists—and Peace had been dismayed at the idea of humans fighting humans—but on Threlkeld the Legion was merely engaged in rendering a jungle continent safe for mining operations. Further easing his conscience was the fact that there was no intelligent species indigenous to the planet, the opposition to commercial development coming from an assortment of wild animals. And it was there that the list of good points about service life on Threlkeld came to an abrupt end.
The denizens of the Threlkeldian jungle were so ferocious, ugly and diverse as to create the impression that Nature had made the world a kind of sampler of animal nastiness. In her ingenuity she had produced beasts which trapped their prey by looking like plants, and carnivorous plants which trapped their prey by looking like animals. There were insects which actually thrived on being crushed underfoot, because their internal secretions could burn through a plastic sole in less than a second and also contained eggs which, on the instant of contacting flesh, produced hundreds of ravenous grubs which could reduce a human foot to a bootful of bones in less than a minute.
There were electric snakes, garrotte snakes and dagger snakes—all of which lived up to their names; grenade birds, tomahawk birds and skullpeckers—all of which lived up to their names; and armoured monsters so tenacious of life that even when they were sliced up by rayitzers their individual limbs leaped about like giant demented jackboots for as long as half a day, often enabling the parent to commit more mayhem in kit form than it had been capable of as a single entity.
Every man in the 203rd had his own particular bete noire, an there were lots of those around as well. Peace’s greatest dislike was reserved for the multichew, a composite beast which at first glance looked like a huge caterpillar, but whose segments were animals in their own right. Each module was roughly cheese shaped, with four powerful stubby legs, a vicious set of jaws, and neural interfaces on the upper and lower surfaces. Segments were dangerous enough as individuals—scuttling, malevolent footstools which were difficult to hit with rifle fire—but when ten or twelve of them formed a chain and became a full-blown multichew, their fearsomeness was increased in proportion. Peace had found it necessary to destroy at least half of the composite animal to bring it down, whereupon the undamaged segments would promptly separate and renew the attack from all sides. It was at this stage he felt a belated gratitude towards Savoury Shrimp Sauce Inc. for spending its meagre funds on protective cups rather than on more decorative but less functional items of apparel.
He also felt a renewed determination to proceed with his escape plan, such as it was.
The first step was to prise a vital scrap of information out of Lieutenant Merriman, but securing an interview with him proved difficult because the lieutenant, apparently having recovered all his patriotic fervour, spent most of his waking hours where the fighting was at its height. It was not until the third day on Threlkeld that Peace managed to corner him near the field kitchen, and Merriman’s mouth made several unsuccessful attempts to compress with displeasure when he realized he was trapped.
“I can’t talk to you now, Peace,” he said in a piping voice, moving away. “We can’t serve Terra by standing around jawing.”
“But that’s just it, sir,” Peace countered, uttering the only words he could think of which would grip the young officer’s interest, “I believe we could.” Merriman turned back. “What’s on your mind, Peace?”
“Well, sir, we’ve been losing a lot of men to the multichews, and … and …” Peace listened, aghast, as his own mouth uttered the lie. “I’ve thought of a better way to fight them.”
“Well…” Peace’s mind raced as he sought inspiration. “Well, they’re most dangerous when a dozen or so of them join up together, and all we’ve got to do is prevent that happening.”
“Spray them with oil, sir. So that they keep slipping off each other. Any sort of lubricant would do—even suntan oil.”
“That,” Merriman said ominously, “is a rotten idea.”
Peace, who had formed exactly the same opinion, caught his arm. “Or we could spray them with something to block the nerve signals between the different segments. Any quick-drying varnish would do. How about hair lacquer?”
“What would the people back on Terra think of the Legion if we started requisitioning suntan lotion and hair sprays?” Merriman detached his arm from Peace’s grip and stared at him suspiciously. “Is this some kind of subversive greeno trick?”
“Please don’t say things like that, sir,” Peace said earnestly, at last feeling the conversation veer in the direction he wanted. “Nobody could be more loyal to the Legion and to you. I’d like you to know it isn’t the command enforcer that makes me obey your orders—it’s my love of… er … Terra, and my respect for you as an officer.”
“Don’t try to cream me.”
“It’s the truth, sir.”
“If I thought you really meant that…”
“I do, sir, I do.”
“Why, thank you, Peace. This is the very first time that anybody has…” Merriman blinked several times, then took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “I sometimes wish that more of the Supreme Command had been like General Nightingale and held out against command enforcers in their own divisions. I mean, how am I ever going to know if I’ve got inborn leadership or not?”
“It’s a terrible problem, sir—and all because somebody put a stupid little diaphragm into your throat, vibrating away at … what sort of frequency would you say? Eight or ten thou per second?”
“Twelve,” Merriman said abstractedly. “You know, Peace, I’ve enjoyed this little talk with you. I had no idea you were so sensitive and… Where are you going, Peace?”
“I’m needed at the front, sir.” Peace gestured towards the wall of viridescent jungle which represented the limit of human-controlled territory. Needles of light from radiation rifles burned irregularly in the shade of the overchanging vegetation, and occasional purple flashes showed that rayitzers were in action. The air was filled with the shouts of men and the roars, honks and hisses of the various fauna which were slowly being displaced from their native territories. As he ran towards the firing line Peace felt a certain amount of guilt about his psychological manipulation of the lieutenant, but if he was to stay alive he could not afford to be scrupulous about his methods.
He scanned the surroundings carefully and within a matter of seconds had located his next major requirement—a supply of electronics components. It took the form of a radiation rifle, lying in the undergrowth, which had been grotesquely distorted by some act of violence.
Peace had little doubt that its former owner was in a similar condition, and therefore he was relieved to find there were no organic residues to be wiped off the weapon before he could make use of it. He picked up the rifle, snapped out the ray generator pack and dropped it into his pocket.
At that moment an adult whippersnapper, busily performing both the actions for which it was named, leaped at him from the lower branches of a tree and he spent the next minute beating it off with the broken weapon while his own rifle hung uselessly on his back. He was sweating profusely and gibbering with panic by the time he managed to stun the beast and dispatch it with a five-second squirt of radiation.
The incident was a sharp reminder of what would inevitably happen if he did not remain fully alert. He decided to put all thoughts of the escape plan out of his head until conditions were more suitable for cerebration. A second reminder came an hour later when, only a few metres away, the volatile Latin recruit, whose name Peace had never learned, was scooped up by a scaly monster and—yodelling a final, despairing “Mamma mia!”—was stuffed into its cavernous maw.
When darkness had put an end to the day’s fighting the remnants of Lieutenant Merriman’s unit were sent back to the shelter of an encampment, given a bowl of gruel each and allowed to rest on heaps of dried grass. Tired though the recruits were, most were unable to sleep because the grass had been gathered locally and had a disturbing habit of moving about of its own accord and trying to take root in any bodily orifices it could reach.
Peace settled down in a corner and, pausing only to break off exploring tendrils of straw, began dismantling the rifle generator pack. The light in the tent was rather dim for intricate work, but he was pleased to discover that his fingers had an in-built gift for dealing with the circuitry. It would have meant the end of his scheme if the knowledge of electronics he had divined within himself had been as far out of touch with reality as his ideas about spaceships.
He worked for two hours, grateful for the extensive use of button terminals which enabled him to rebuild circuits without soldering equipment, and at the end of that time had created a small device which would, within a limited radius, neutralize all sound vibrations in the frequency range upon which the Legion’s command enforcers operated. It took him a further ten minutes to fit the gadget into his helmet, then he lay down to sleep, well satisfied with his progress.
Ryan, who had been watching with covert interest, raised himself on one elbow. “Hey, Warren—what’s that thing you just put in your helmet?”
“Keep your voice down,” Peace whispered. “I don’t want everybody to know about it.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s … ah … a miniature hi-fi.” Peace conducted an imaginary orchestra for a few seconds.
“When I go, I want to go with music in my ears.”
“I wish I could build something like that,” Ryan said admiringly. “All I know about hi-fi is that there’s a main speaker and a tweeter, and some circuits in between to make sure that…”
“Never the main shall tweet,” Peace cut in. “That’s an ancient joke, Vernie, and it was rotten even when it was first invented. Do you mind if we get some sleep?”
“Only trying to cheer us up, Warren. Don’t you like gags?”
“If I had a gag right now I’d roll it up tight and…” Peace fell into an exhausted sleep before he could finish the sentence, and for the remainder of that night he dreamed the short, simplified dreams appropriate to a man whose personal memory went back only three days.
Being deaf to the special harmonics in officers’ voices gave Peace a considerable degree of freedom. He had to make a show of promptly obeying every direct order, but as soon as he was out of sight of the officer concerned he could—in the confusion of the battle zone—safely return to his own pursuits. The command enforcer system positively aided him in this because the idealistic young lieutenants who made up the command cadre never thought of querying his activities as long as he went about them with a sufficiently grim and purposeful look.
On his first day of comparative liberty he went to the flattened area used for spaceship landings and was disappointed to find that his new ideas about the vessels were wrong in one important respect.
Having rid himself of the concept of spaceships looking like graceful gleaming spires, he had formed the notion that at each end of the rectangular structures there were hand-operated roller signs announcing their destinations. When he saw, instead, the featureless metal walls of the transceiver towers he had to accept that his visualised signs belonged to some other mode of transportation, and this led to a new thought.
He had proved that he still retained an excellent knowledge of electronics, and yet the machine used on him at Fort Eccles—designed to wipe out all memories associated with his guilt and remorse—had chosen to obliterate everything he must have known about spaceship technology and operation. Did this mean that his life had been intimately concerned with spacecraft? Had he been a pilot? Or a spaceship designer?
Peace toyed with the idea that he might be able to identify his previous areas of expertise by listing all the subjects of which he currently knew nothing; then came the realization that it was difficult to discriminate between natural and induced ignorance. Did the fact that he knew nothing whatsoever about the breeding habits of Anobium punctatum prove that he had been a woodworm eradicator?
Deciding that action was better than introspection, he returned his attention to the present. He had set his heart on reaching the planet Aspatria, and to that end began spending as much time as possible around the landing area, hoping to stow himself away on a ship going in the right direction. His first plan was to question crew members about their destinations, but dozens of ship arrivals and take-offs went by without his seeing a single astronaut and he developed a strong suspicion that the vessels were fully automatic in their operation. He then took to questioning departing rankers about their destinations. This actively, apart from bringing him close to being apprehended by an unusually alert officer, produced only the information that—incredible though it might seem—there were other war zones which made Threlkeld look like a picnic ground.
Three days after he had built his command neutralizer, Peace and his unit were shipped out to Torver, a rainy world where the morose Copgrove Farr died horribly as a result of kicking a toadstool which exploded with such violence that millions of its spores passed through his clothing and skin. By the time his fellow legionaries buried him, ten minutes later, he was sprouting fungi from head to foot. Peace awarded Farr a posthumous forgiveness for various remarks made about the thinness of his legs. He also redoubled his efforts to find a ship heading for Aspatria.
A week later Lieutenant Merriman and his unit were moved on to the planet Hardknott, where the unlucky Private Benger swarmed up a tree to escape from a pack of armourdillos and was promptly devoured by the tree itself. By this time Peace was becoming desperate, even though he inherited Benger’s shoes, which proved a remarkably good fit once he had shaken out of them all that remained of their donor. When he turned in at night he would speculate, in the few seconds before sleep claimed him, on why the crooked lawyers who drew up the Legion’s service contract had taken such pains to secure his labour for thirty, forty or fifty years. The way things were going with the 203rd, it was a statistical certainty that—even with his invention enabling him to disobey the more suicidal orders—he would be poisoned, crushed, torn apart or eaten within a matter of weeks. There was even a possibility of his meeting all of those fates at more or less the same time.