Like the other men in his unit, Peace found himself crying quite a lot, and becoming thinner and more jumpy with every passing day. By the end of the first month Vernie Ryan’s plumpness had disappeared and the shreds of his green glitter suit hanging around him created the impression he was covered with some form of seaweed. Private Dinkle, who had had more combat time than either of them, developed a nervous tic and a habit of crossing himself and muttering gloomily about Armageddon.
“The way he talks about Armageddon,” Ryan whispered to Peace over his breakfast gruel one morning, “you’d think it was the end of the world.”
“I warned you about those blasted jokes,” Peace replied, grabbing a convenient strip of Ryan’s suit and twisting it round his neck. He began to apply pressure, then realized the enormity of what he was doing and relaxed his grip. “I’m sorry, Vernie. I think I’m cracking up.”
“It’s all right,” Ryan said, massaging his throat. “I used to be a professional comic, you know, and my gags used to have the same effect on people even when times were good.”
“I can’t remember any good times—that’s the trouble. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always been like this.” Peace felt in his pocket for his blue toad, the small companion which had once offered him a crumb of hope. “But that’s no excuse for getting rough with you.”
“Let’s forget it.”
Peace nodded miserably. He stroked the smooth plastic of the toad with his thumb, wishing it could summon a genie with the power to grant his dearest wishes.
The entrance flap of the mess tent was lifted up and Lieutenant Merriman came through the triangular opening. Something about his appearance struck Peace as being highly unusual; then he realized that the lieutenant had left off his battle dress and was spruced up in a smart new uniform. He was accompanied by a timid-looking sergeant who had a box filled with small buff envelopes. The sergeant was also carrying an armful of flim-sey blue clothing.
“Gather round,” Merriman cried. “This is it! The day you’ve all been waiting for!”
“What day is that, sir?” Ryan said cautiously.
“Leave day, of course. Didn’t I tell you?”
“No, sir.” Ryan gave the others a glance of round-eyed surmise. “Do we get time off?”
“What a question!” Merriman’s mouth tried to stretch itself into a grin, but as this set up an impossible stress on the limited amount of lip material available it had to content itself with several rapid oscillations at the corners. “What a silly question! Did you really think your commanding officers were too lofty and too remote to appreciate how much strain you’ve been under? No, men, we know only too well that you can’t fight off battle fatigue indefinitely, that you need time in which to relax, to recuperate, to let the mental scars heal themselves.”
“That’s great, sir. How much time do we get?”
Merriman glanced at his watch. “Well, Ryan, as you’ve been in the Legion for thirty days, you’re entitled to three hours.”
Ryan stepped back. “I’ll be buggered!”
“Language!” Merriman said, frowning, then his brow cleared. “Don’t worry, Ryan—it’s within my discretion to allow you and Peace some extra rest and recreation time as a reward for loyal service, and that’s what I’m going to do. You’re going to enjoy the maximum leave period with the rest of the unit. Four hours.”
“Four hours,” Ryan whispered. “I don’t believe this. It’s too much.”
“No—you’ve earned it, and you’ll be even more pleased to hear that it doesn’t include travelling time.” Merriman swelled with benevolence as he beamed at Ryan. “Your four hours won’t even begin until you step off the ship on Aspatria.”
Peace, who had been listening to the conversation with considerable interest, felt his heart give a wild lurch at the mention of Aspatria. He resolved to do nothing which might attract undue attention and, simultaneously, his fingers opened of their own accord and allowed his bowl of gruel to upend itself in his lap. Lieutenant Merriman stared at him with distaste as he got to his feet and tried to brush the porridge off his ragged hose.
“What are you getting so excited about, Peace?” Merriman said. “You aren’t hoping to desert on Aspatria, are you?”
“Of course not, sir.” Peace simpered at him in a manner he hoped would be expressive of total loyalty and devotion to duty.
“That’s good, because …” Merriman fingered the lump on his throat, “… I’m giving you all a direct order to be back at the Legion field and on board ship—ready to leave—not more than four hours after we reach Touchdown City. Now, line up and collect your pay packets and leave suits.”
Peace queued with the rest of the unit and was issued with an envelope bearing his name, -together with a two-piece suit of a material which resembled crepe paper. He was grateful for the Legion’s consideration in providing clean clothing until he opened his packet and found that, of the three hundred monits due to him, a hundred had been deducted for the paper suit and a further forty had been put into the regiment’s retirement fund. The latter item, considering the average life expectancy of a legionary, suggested corruption in high places, but at least he still had the price of a good meal in the Blue Toad.
And, with luck, during the two hours or so that it would take to consume it he would pick up a vital clue to his past. He had no clear idea of what he was hoping to find—perhaps a waiter who remembered him, perhaps his name and address on a creditputer card—but this was the only chance he had and he was determined to grasp it with both hands. It would be necessary for him to hide out when his desertion was noticed by the Legion, but in its three centuries of existence Touchdown City had grown large enough to house a population of four million, and he was confident he could remain undiscovered for weeks or months. That, hopefully, would be ample time in which to follow up any clues he found. There was always the possibility that he had never actually been near Aspatria, that he had found or been given the little plastic souvenir, but this did not bear contemplation and he pushed the idea out of his mind.
Lieutenant Merriman led his depleted band to a waiting ship, which proved different from the type Peace already knew in that the passenger compartment was larger and included a locker room with toilet and shower facilities. As soon as the klaxon had sounded, and the vessel had begun its inertialess flight, he went into the locker room where the sergeant, who also served as toilet attendant, gave him the option of a cold shower for five monits or a hot one for twenty. Peace chose the expensive luxury, but economized by not renting a shaver to remove the short red-gold beard he had grown during his month of service. The face which gazed back at him in the mirror was leaner, harder and more mature than the one he remembered.
“What do you think of the beard?” he said to Ryan, who was donning his paper suit close by.
“It gives you a certain je ne sais quoi,” Ryan replied, “but I don’t know what it is.”
Peace stared at his companion. “Another of your so-called jokes?”
“What do you mean so-called?” Ryan said indignantly. “You’re lucky to have me around to cheer you up.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” It dawned on Peace that he had developed a real affection for Ryan, the only friend he could remember having, and that if his plans worked out they would shortly be parting for ever. It was ironic that he, who had begun by earnestly committing his life to the Legion, was about to make an early escape, while Ryan—who had joined in the spirit of somebody taking a week at a health farm—was doomed to soldier on until he died. Peace thought about the matter for a few seconds and decided to take a dangerous risk. He glanced around the room to make sure nobody could see what he was doing, then he took Ryan’s plastic helmet out of his locker and replaced it with his own.
Ryan looked perplexed. “What’s the idea, Warren?”
“I’m giving you my built-in hi-fi.” Peace pointed at the command neutralizer before concealing it by turning the helmet over. “I won’t need it any more.”
“But what about when you come back?” Ryan’s voice faded as he saw that Peace was shaking his head. “Warren, are you saying what I think you’re saying? I knew you were a bright boy, but this is too—”
Peace signalled him to keep quiet and in a confidential whisper explained how his invention operated. “It’ll help you to stay alive till you get a good chance to duck out,” he concluded.
“Do it in a battle zone, if possible, and they’ll write you off as missing, presumed dead. They won’t even bother to look for you.”
“Why aren’t you doing that?”
“I’ve got business on Aspatria,” Peace said. “At least, I think I have. Perhaps I’ll see you around.”
“I hope so. And I hope you find what you’re looking for, Warren.”
The two men shook hands and, feeling quite distressed, Peace hurried out into the passenger compartment and dropped on to a bench beside Private Dinkle, who was staring dully at the floor. At the impact of Peace’s arrival, Dinkle started violently, crossed himself and sank back into his gloomy torpor.
“Cheer up, Bud,” Peace said. “You’re going on leave!”
Dinkle stirred slightly. “On Aspatria? You can keep it.”
“Bad scene, is it?”
“Not any more, it isn’t—not since we beat hell out of the Aspatrians back in ‘83.”
“But you’re not happy about going there?”
Dinkle nodded slowly. “Too many memories.”
“My trouble is I haven’t enough.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever had to shoot a buddy who had a throwrug over him. There oughta be a limit to what a man has to do.”
Peace felt an inexplicable chill. His brief spell in the Legion had made him conversant with many unpleasant ways of entering the hereafter, but the scene described by Dinkle always had the effect of making his blood corpuscles turn into millions of tiny clunking ice cubes. He shivered slightly and tried to offer a little comfort.
“What’s done,” he said, “is done.”
Dinkle fixed him with a leaden eye. “Is that some advanced philosophy? Have you just extended the boundaries of human thought?”
“There’s no need to take it like that,” Peace said, offended. “All I meant was … the past’s over and done with.”
“The Oscar’s aren’t over and done with, sonny.” Dinkle crossed himself once more.
The strange dread returned to Peace in full force, but his curiosity was aroused. “What are these Oscars you keep talking about?”
“Supermen, sonny. Big guys with bald heads and muscles all over the place. They look like they’re made out of polished bronze.”
“They sound like statues.”
“Statues can’t move.” Dinkle’s voice took on a hollow quality. “But Oscars can run like the wind, and they can smash down trees with their bare hands, and nothing hurts them.
Radiation, bullets, bombs—everything just bounces off. They’re really what ended the war on Aspatria. Even the officers got to be afraid of them, so they pulled us out of all the up-country forests.”
“I don’t get this,” Peace said. “Are the Oscars the native Aspatrians?”
“You college types don’t know much about the real galaxy, do you?” Dinkle stopped brooding on the past long enough to give Peace a look of contempt. “Aspatria is a human colony—one of the oldest there is. In fact, that’s what the war was about. Just because they’d been around for three centuries or so, and were a few thousand light years from Earth, they thought they could go independent and stop paying their taxes. What would happen to the Federation if every Tom, Dick and Harry decided …?”
“But who are the Oscars?” Peace cut in. “Where did they come from?”
“Nobody knows officially. They appeared back on Aspatria back around ‘82 or ‘83. Some people say they’re mutants, but I know better.” Dinkle’s face began to twitch and his voice grew louder. “Soldiers of the Devil—that’s what they are-mustering for the last big battle between good and evil. And they’re going to win! I tell you, Warren, Armageddon’s almost on us, and we’re on the losing side.”
“Calm down,” Peace said uneasily as men in other parts of the room began to glance in Dinkle’s direction. He had wanted to remain as unobtrusive as possible before quietly slipping away, but Dinkle’s story had a hypnotic fascination for him. “What makes you so sure the Oscars are evil?”
“I’ve seen them in action.” Dinkle crossed himself again and his eyes glazed over. “Got separated from my unit one day … making my own way back through the forest when I heard this noise … got down on my hands and knees and crawled up to the edge of a clearing for a look-see … and I saw … I saw about five Oscars there … and they had some of our boys with them, lying there on the ground…
“Our boys were wounded, you see. I could hear them moaning and groaning and pleading for mercy, but it was no use. The Oscars kept right on doing it…” Dinkle covered his face with his hands. “I can’t go on.”
“You’ve got to.” An icy breeze seemed to be stirring the hair on the nape of Peace’s neck, but his mind was totally in thrall to the ghastly story Dinkle was unfolding. “What were the Oscars doing?”
“They were feeding our boys to the … to the throwrugs.”
Peace felt his stomach heave. “Oh, my God! You don’t mean…”
“It’s true, Warren. The Oscars had collected up some throwrugs—they could do that, you see, because nothing hurts them—and they were throwing them over our boys while they lay there on the ground. I can still hear them screaming and pleading for quick deaths. I can still see them writhing around while the throwrugs digested them and…” Dinkle clawed his fingers into Peace’s knee. “Know something else, Warren?”
“The Oscars were laughing. They enjoyed seeing good men being eaten alive. If I’d been a brave man I’d have gone in there with my rifle and tried to put our boys out of their misery—but I was a coward, Warren. I was too scared of the same thing being done to me—so I crawled away and saved my own skin. I don’t deserve to be alive.” The blood was pounding in Peace’s ears as he stood up. “Listen, Bud,” he said, seeking a way to change the subject, “why don’t you clean up and change into your leave suit? It’ll make you feel better.”
Dinkle shook his head. “I don’t need any leave suit. I’m staying right here in the ship till we take off again.”
Dinkle hunched around the slim prop of his rifle. “I’m not going to risk bumping into no Oscars. They swagger around like they own the place, and everybody’s afraid of them. I’ve heard they can read people’s minds, and if I saw them that day…” Dinkle crossed himself several times in quick succession and began swaying and muttering wildly about Armageddon, retribution and the Day of Judgment.