“Yes. Go back, Useless!”
“I’ve got you by eye now. Where is he?”
“Right ahead of me, maybe quarter mile. Scram! He’s my man.”
I didn’t answer; I simply cut left oblique to reach Ace about where he said Dizzy was.
And found Ace standing over him, a couple of skinnies flamed down and more running away. I lit beside him. “Let’s get him out of his armor—the boat’ll be down any second!”
“He’s too bad hurt!”
I looked and saw that it was true—there was actually a hole in his armor and blood coming out. And I was stumped. To make a wounded pickup you get him out of his armor…then you simply pick him up in your arms—no trouble in a powered suit—and bounce away from there. A bare man weighs less than the ammo and stuff you’ve expended. “What’ll we do?”
“We carry him,” Ace said grimly. “Grab ahold the left side of his belt.” He grabbed the right side, we manhandled Flores to his feet. “Lock on! Now…by the numbers, stand by to jump—one—two!”
We jumped. Not far, not well. One man alone couldn’t have gotten him off the ground; an armored suit is too heavy. But split it between two men and it can be done.
We jumped—and we jumped—and again, and again, with Ace calling it and both of us steadying and catching Dizzy on each grounding. His gyros seemed to be out.
We heard the beacon cut off as the retrieval boat landed on it—I saw it land…and it was too far away. We heard the acting platoon sergeant call out: “In succession, prepare to embark!”
And Jelly called out, “Belay that order!”
We broke at last into the open and saw the boat standing on its tail, heard the ululation of its take-off warning—saw the platoon still on the ground around it, in interdiction circle, crouching behind the shield they had formed.
Heard Jelly shout, “In succession, man the boat—move!”
And we were still too far away! I could see them peel off from the first squad, swarm into the boat as the interdiction circle tightened.
And a single figure broke out of the circle, came toward us at a speed possible only to a command suit.
Jelly caught us while we were in the air, grabbed Flores by his Y-rack and helped us lift.
Three jumps got us to the boat. Everybody else was inside but the door was still open. We got him in and closed it while the boat pilot screamed that we had made her miss rendezvous and now we had all bought it! Jelly paid no attention to her; we laid Flores down and lay down beside him. As the blast hit us Jelly was saying to himself, “All present, Lieutenant. Three men hurt—but all present!”
I’ll say this for Captain Deladrier: they don’t make any better pilots. A rendezvous, boat to ship in orbit, is precisely calculated. I don’t know how, but it is, and you don’t change it. You can’t.
Only she did. She saw in her scope that the boat had failed to blast on time; she braked back, picked up speed again—and matched and took us in, just by eye and touch, no time to compute it. If the Almighty ever needs an assistant to keep the stars in their courses, I know where he can look.
Flores died on the way up.
It scared me so, I hooked it off,
Nor stopped as I remember,
Nor turned about till I got home,
Locked up in mother’s chamber.
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
I never really intended to join up.
And certainly not the infantry! Why, I would rather have taken ten lashes in the public square and have my father tell me that I was a disgrace to a proud name.
Oh, I had mentioned to my father, late in my senior year in high school, that I was thinking over the idea of volunteering for Federal Service. I suppose every kid does, when his eighteenth birthday heaves into sight—and mine was due the week I graduated. Of course most of them just think about it, toy with the idea a little, then go do something else—go to college, or get a job, or something. I suppose it would have been that way with me…if my best chum had not, with dead seriousness, planned to join up.
Carl and I had done everything together in high school—eyed the girls together, double-dated together, been on the debate team together, pushed electrons together in his home lab. I wasn’t much on electronic theory myself, but I’m a neat hand with a soldering gun; Carl supplied the skull sweat and I carried out his instructions. It was fun; anything we did together was fun. Carl’s folks didn’t have anything like the money that my father had, but it didn’t matter between us. When my father bought me a Rolls copter for my fourteenth birthday, it was Carl’s as much as it was mine; contrariwise, his basement lab was mine.
So when Carl told me that he was not going straight on with school, but would serve a term first, it gave me to pause. He really meant it; he seemed to think that it was natural and right and obvious.
So I told him I was joining up, too.
He gave me an odd look. “Your old man won’t let you.”
“Huh? How can he stop me?” And of course he couldn’t, not legally. It’s the first completely free choice anybody gets (and maybe his last); when a boy, or a girl, reaches his or her eighteenth birthday, he or she can volunteer and nobody else has any say in the matter.
“You’ll find out.” Carl changed the subject.
So I took it up with my father, tentatively, edging into it sideways.
He put down his newspaper and cigar and stared at me. “Son, are you out of your mind?”
I muttered that I didn’t think so.
“Well, it certainly sounds like it.” He sighed. “Still… I should have been expecting it; it’s a predictable stage in a boy’s growing up. I remember when you learned to walk and weren’t a baby any longer—frankly you were a little hellion for quite a while. You broke one of your mother’s Ming vases—on purpose, I’m quite sure…but you were too young to know that it was valuable, so all you got was having your hand spatted. I recall the day you swiped one of my cigars, and how sick it made you. Your mother and I carefully avoided noticing that you couldn’t eat dinner that night and I’ve never mentioned it to you until now—boys have to try such things and discover for themselves that men’s vices are not for them. We watched when you turned the corner on adolescence and started noticing that girls were different—and wonderful.”
He sighed again. “All normal stages. And the last one, right at the end of adolescence, is when a boy decides to join up and wear a pretty uniform. Or decides that he is in love, love such as no man ever experienced before, and that he just has to get married right away. Or both.” He smiled grimly. “With me it was both. But I got over each of them in time not to make a fool of myself and ruin my life.”
“But, Father, I wouldn’t ruin my life. Just a term of service—not career.”
“Let’s table that, shall we? Listen, and let me tell you what you are going to do—because you want to. In the first place this family has stayed out of politics and cultivated its own garden for over a hundred years—I see no reason for you to break that fine record. I suppose it’s the influence of that fellow at your high school—what’s his name? You know the one I mean.”
He meant our instructor in History and Moral Philosophy—a veteran, naturally. “Mr. Dubois.”
“Hmmph, a silly name—it suits him. Foreigner, no doubt. It ought to be against the law to use the schools as undercover recruiting stations. I think I’m going to write a pretty sharp letter about it—a taxpayer has some rights!”
“But, Father, he doesn’t do that at all! He—” I stopped, not knowing how to describe it. Mr. Dubois had a snotty, superior manner; he acted as if none of us was really good enough to volunteer for service. I didn’t like him. “Uh, if anything, he discourages it.”
“Hmmph! Do you know how to lead a pig? Never mind. When you graduate, you’re going to study business at Harvard; you know
that. After that, you will go on to the Sorbonne and you’ll travel a bit along with it, meet some of our distributors, find out how business is done elsewhere. Then you’ll come home and go to work. You’ll start with the usual menial job, stock clerk or something, just for form’s sake—but you’ll be an executive before you can catch your breath, because I’m not getting any younger and the quicker you can pick up the load, the better. As soon as you’re able and willing, you’ll be boss. There! How does that strike you as a program? As compared with wasting two years of your life?”
I didn’t say anything. None of it was news to me; I’d thought about it. Father stood up and put a hand on my shoulder. “Son, don’t think I don’t sympathize with you; I do. But look at the real facts. If there were a war, I’d be the first to cheer you on—and to put the business on a war footing. But there isn’t, and praise God there never will be again. We’ve outgrown wars. This planet is now peaceful and happy and we enjoy good enough relations with other planets. So what is this so-called ‘Federal Service’? Parasitism, pure and simple. A functionless organ, utterly obsolete, living on the taxpayers. A decidedly expensive way for inferior people who otherwise would be unemployed to live at public expense for a term of years, then give themselves airs for the rest of their lives. Is that what you want to do?”
“Carl isn’t inferior!”
“Sorry. No, he’s a fine boy…but misguided.” He frowned, and then smiled. “Son, I had intended to keep something as a surprise for you—a graduation present. But I’m going to tell you now so that you can put this nonsense out of your mind more easily. Not that I am afraid of what you might do; I have confidence in your basic good sense, even at your tender years. But you are troubled, I know—and this will clear it away. Can you guess what it is?”
He grinned. “A vacation trip to Mars.”
I must have looked stunned. “Golly, Father, I had no idea—”
“I meant to surprise you and I see I did. I know how you kids feel about travel, though it beats me what anyone sees in it after the first time out. But this is a good time for you to do it—by yourself; did I mention that?—and get it out of your system…because you’ll be hard-pressed to get in even a week on Luna once you take up your responsibilities.” He picked up his paper. “No, don’t thank me. Just run along and let me finish my paper—I’ve got some gentlemen coming in this evening, shortly. Business.”
I ran along. I guess he thought that settled it…and I suppose I did, too. Mars! And on my own! But I didn’t tell Carl about it; I had a sneaking suspicion that he would regard it as a bribe. Well, maybe it was. Instead I simply told him that my father and I seemed to have different ideas about it.
“Yeah,” he answered, “so does mine. But it’s my life.” I thought about it during the last session of our class in History and Moral Philosophy. H. & M. P. was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it—and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.
But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”
They had tangled before—since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”
“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea—a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue—and thoroughly immoral—doctrine that ‘violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”
He sighed. “Another year, another class—and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.” Suddenly he pointed his stump at me. “You. What is the moral difference, if any, between the soldier and the civilian?”
“The difference,” I answered carefully, “lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”
“The exact words of the book,” he said scornfully. “But do you understand it? Do you believe it?”
“Uh, I don’t know, sir.”
“Of course you don’t! I doubt if any of you here would recognize ‘civic virtue’ if it came up and barked in your face!” He glanced at his watch. “And that is all, a final all. Perhaps we shall meet again under happier circumstances. Dismissed.”
Graduation right after that and three days later my birthday, followed in less than a week by Carl’s birthday—and I still hadn’t told Carl that I wasn’t joining up. I’m sure he assumed that I would not, but we didn’t discuss it out loud—embarrassing. I simply arranged to meet him the day after his birthday and we went down to the recruiting office together.
On the steps of the Federal Building we ran into Carmencita Ibañez, a classmate of ours and one of the nice things about being a member of a race with two sexes. Carmen wasn’t my girl—she wasn’t anybody’s girl; she never made two dates in a row with the same boy and treated all of us with equal sweetness and rather impersonally. But I knew her pretty well, as she often came over and used our swimming pool, because it was Olympic length—sometimes with one boy, sometimes with another. Or alone, as Mother urged her to—Mother considered her “a good influence.” For once she was right.
She saw us and waited, dimpling. “Hi, fellows!”
“Hello, Ochee Chyornya,” I answered. “What brings you here?”
“Can’t you guess? Today is my birthday.”
“Huh? Happy returns!”
“So I’m joining up.”
“Oh…” I think Carl was as surprised as I was. But Carmencita was like that. She never gossiped and she kept her own affairs to herself. “No foolin’?” I added, brilliantly.
“Why should I be fooling? I’m going to be a spaceship pilot—at least I’m going to try for it.”
“No reason why you shouldn’t make it,” Carl said quickly. He was right—I know now just how right he was. Carmen was small and neat, perfect health and perfect reflexes—she could make competitive diving routine look easy and she was quick at mathematics. Me, I tapered off with a “C” in algebra and a “B” in business arithmetic; she took all the math our school offered and a tutored advance course on the side. But it had never occurred to me to wonder why. Fact was, little Carmen was so ornamental that you just never thought about her being useful.
“We—uh, I,” said Carl, “am here to join up, too.”
“And me,” I agreed. “Both of us.” No, I hadn’t made any decision; my mouth was leading its own life.
“And I’m going to buck for space pilot, too,” I added firmly.
She didn’t laugh. She answered very seriously, “Oh, how grand! Perhaps in training we’ll run into each other. I hope so.”
“Collision courses?” asked Carl. “That’s a no-good way to pilot.”
“Don’t be silly, Carl. On the ground, of course. Are you going to be a pilot, to
“Me?” Carl answered. “I’m no truck driver. You know me—Starside R&D, if they’ll have me. Electronics.”
“‘Truck driver’ indeed! I hope they stick you out on Pluto and let you freeze. No, I don’t—good luck! Let’s go in, shall we?”
The recruiting station was inside a railing in the rotunda. A fleet sergeant sat at a desk there, in dress uniform, gaudy as a circus. His chest was loaded with ribbons I couldn’t read. But his right arm was off so short that his tunic had been tailored without any sleeve at all…and, when you came up to the rail, you could see that he had no legs.
It didn’t seem to bother him. Carl said, “Good morning. I want to join up.”
“Me, too,” I added.
He ignored us. He managed to bow while sitting down and said, “Good morning, young lady. What can I do for you?”
“I want to join up, too.”
He smiled. “Good girl! If you’ll just scoot up to room 201 and ask for Major Rojas, she’ll take care of you.” He looked her up and down. “Pilot?”
“You look like one. Well, see Miss Rojas.”
She left, with thanks to him and a see-you-later to us; he turned his attention to us, sized us up with a total absence of the pleasure he had shown in little Carmen. “So?” he said. “For what? Labor battalions?”
“Oh, no!” I said. “I’m going to be a pilot.”
He stared at me and simply turned his eyes away. “You?”
“I’m interested in the Research and Development Corps,” Carl said soberly, “especially electronics. I understand the chances are pretty good.”
“They are if you can cut it,” the Fleet Sergeant said grimly, “and not if you don’t have what it takes, both in preparation and ability. Look, boys, have you any idea why they have me out here in front?”
I didn’t understand him. Carl said, “Why?”
“Because the government doesn’t care one bucket of swill whether you join or not! Because it has become stylish, with some people—too many people—to serve a term and earn a franchise and be able to wear a ribbon in your lapel which says that you’re a vet’ran…whether you’ve ever seen combat or not. But if you want to serve and I can’t talk you out of it, then we have to take you, because that’s your constitutional right. It says that everybody, male or female, shall have his born right to pay his service and assume full citizenship—but the facts are that we are getting hard pushed to find things for all the volunteers to do that aren’t just glorified K.P. You can’t all be real military men; we don’t need that many and most of the volunteers aren’t number-one soldier material anyhow. Got any idea what it takes to make a soldier?”