11

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

—W. Churchill, XXth century soldier-statesman

As we came back into the ship after the raid on the Skinnies — the raid in which Dizzy Flores bought it, Sergeant Jelal’s first drop as platoon leader — a ship’s gunner who was tending the boat lock spoke to me:

“How’d it go?”

“Routine,” I answered briefly. I suppose his remark was friendly but I was feeling very mixed up and in no mood to talk — sad over Dizzy, glad that we had made pickup anyhow, mad that the pickup had been useless, and all of it tangled up with that washed-out but happy feeling of being back in the ship again, able to muster arms and legs and note that they are all present. Besides, how can you talk about a drop to a man who has never made one?

“So?” he answered. “You guys have got it soft. Loaf thirty days, work thirty minutes. Me, I stand a watch in three and turn to.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I agreed and turned away. “Some of us are born lucky.”

“Soldier, you ain’t peddlin’ vacuum,” he said to my back.

And yet there was much truth in what the Navy gunner had said. We cap troopers are like aviators of the earlier mechanized wars; a long and busy military career could contain only a few hours of actual combat facing the enemy, the rest being: train, get ready, go out — then come back, clean up the mess, get ready for another one, and practice, practice, practice, in between. We didn’t make another drop for almost three weeks and that on a different planet around another star — a Bug colony. Even with Cherenkov drive, stars are far apart.

In the meantime I got my corporal’s stripes, nominated by Jelly and confirmed by Captain Deladrier in the absence of a commissioned officer of our own. Theoretically the rank would not be permanent until approved against vacancy by the Fleet M.I. repple-depple, but that meant nothing, as the casualty rate was such that there were always more vacancies in the T.O. than there were warm bodies to fill them. I was a corporal when Jelly said I was a corporal; the rest was red tape.

But the gunner was not quite correct about “loafing”; there were fifty-three suits of powered armor to check, service, and repair between each drop, not to mention weapons and special equipment. Sometimes Migliaccio would down-check a suit, Jelly would confirm it, and the ship’s weapons engineer, Lieutenant Farley, would decide that he couldn’t cure it short of base facilities — whereupon a new suit would have to be broken out of stores and brought from “cold” to “hot,” an exacting process requiring twenty-six man-hours not counting the time of the man to whom it was being fitted.

We kept busy.

But we had fun, too. There were always several competitions going on, from acey-deucy to Honor Squad, and we had the best jazz band in several cubic light-years (well, the only one, maybe), with Sergeant Johnson on the trumpet leading them mellow and sweet for hymns or tearing the steel right off the bulkheads, as the occasion required. After that masterful (or should it be “mistressful”?) retrieval rendezvous without a programmed ballistic, the platoon’s metalsmith, PFC Archie Campbell, made a model of the Rodger Young for the Skipper and we all signed and Archie engraved our signatures on a base plate: To Hot Pilot Yvette Deladrier, with thanks from Rasczak’s Roughnecks, and we invited her aft to eat with us and the Roughneck Downbeat Combo played during dinner and then the junior private presented it to her. She got tears and kissed him — and kissed Jelly as well and he blushed purple.

After I got my chevrons I simply had to get things straight with Ace, because Jelly kept me on as assistant section leader. This is not good. A man ought to fill each spot on his way up; I should have had a turn as squad leader instead of being bumped from lance and assistant squad leader to corporal and assistant section leader. Jelly knew this, of course, but I know perfectly well that he was trying to keep the outfit as much as possible the way it had been when the Lieutenant was alive — which meant that he left his squad leaders and section leaders unchanged.

But it left me with a ticklish problem; all three of the corporals under me as squad leaders were actually senior to me — but if Sergeant Johnson bought it on the next drop, it would not only lose us a mighty fine cook, it would leave me leading the section. There mustn’t be any shadow of doubt when you give an order, not in combat; I had to clear up any possible shadow before we dropped again.

Ace was the problem. He was not only senior of the three, he was a career corporal as well and older than I was. If Ace accepted me, I wouldn’t have any trouble with the other two squads.

I hadn’t really had any trouble with him aboard. After we made pickup on Flores together he had been civil enough. On the other hand we hadn’t had anything to have trouble over; our shipside jobs didn’t put us together, except at daily muster and guard mount, which is all cut and dried. But you can feel it. He was not treating me as somebody he took orders from.

So I looked him up during off hours. He was lying in his bunk, reading a book, Space Rangers against the Galaxy—a pretty good yarn, except that I doubt if a military outfit ever had so many adventures and so few goof-offs. The ship had a good library.

“Ace. Got to see you.”

He glanced up. “So? I just left the ship, I’m off duty.”

“I’ve got to see you now. Put your book down.”

“What’s so aching urgent? I’ve got to finish this chapter.”

“Oh, come off it, Ace. If you can’t wait, I’ll tell you how it comes out.”

“You do and I’ll clobber you.” But he put the book down, sat up, and listened.

I said, “Ace, about this matter of the section organization — you’re senior to me, you ought to be assistant section leader.”

“Oh, so it’s that again!”

“Yep. I think you and I ought to go see Johnson and get him to fix it up with Jelly.”

“You do, eh?”

“Yes, I do. That’s how it’s got to be.”

“So? Look, Shortie, let me put you straight. I got nothing against you at all. Matter of fact, you were on the bounce that day we had to pick up Dizzy; I’ll hand you that. But if you want a squad, you go dig up one of your own. Don’t go eyeing mine. Why, my boys wouldn’t even peel potatoes for you.”

“That’s your final word?”

“That’s my first, last, and only word.”

I sighed. “I thought it would be. But I had to make sure. Well, that settles that. But I’ve got one thing on my mind. I happened to notice that the washroom needs cleaning … and I think maybe you and I ought to attend to it. So put your book aside … as Jelly says, non-coms are always on duty.”

He didn’t stir at once. He said quietly, “You really think it’s necessary, Shortie? As I said, I got nothing against you.”

“Looks like.”

“Think you can do it?”

“I can sure try.”

“Okay. Let’s take care of it.”

We went aft to the washroom, chased out a private who was about to take a shower he didn’t really need, and locked the door. Ace said, “You got any restrictions in mind, Shortie?”

“Well … I hadn’t planned to kill you.”

“Check. And no broken bones, nothing that would keep either one of us out of the next drop — except maybe by accident, of course. That suit you?”

“Suits,” I agreed. “Uh, I think maybe I’ll take my shirt off.”

“Wouldn’t want to get blood on your shirt.” He relaxed. I started to peel it off and he let go a kick for my kneecap. No wind up. Flat-footed and not tense.

Only my kneecap wasn’t there — I had learned.

A real fight ordinarily can last only a second or two, because that is all the time it takes to kill a man, or knock him out, or disable him to the point where he can’t fight. But we had agreed to avoid inflicting permanent damage; this changes things. We were both young, in top condition, highly trained, and used to absorbing punishment. Ace was bigger, I was maybe a touch faster. Under such conditions the miserable business simply has to go on until one or the other is too beaten down to continue — unless a fluke settles it sooner. But neither one of us was allowing any flukes; we were professionals and wary.

So it did go on, for a long, tedious, painful time. Details would be trivial and pointless; besides, I had no time to take notes.

A long time later I was lying on my back and Ace was flipping water in my face. He looked at me, then hauled me to my feet, shoved me against a bulkhead, steadied me. “Hit me!”

“Huh?” I was dazed and seeing double.

“Johnnie … hit me.”

His face was floating in the air in front of me; I zeroed in on it and slugged it with all the force in my body, hard enough to mash any mosquito in poor health. His eyes closed and he slumped to the deck and I had to grab at a stanchion to keep from following him.

He got slowly up. “Okay, Johnnie,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ve had my lesson. You won’t have any more lip out of me … nor out of anybody in the section. Okay?”

I nodded and my head hurt.

“Shake?” he asked.

We shook on it, and that hurt, too.

Almost anybody else knew more about how the war was going than we did, even though we were in it. This was the period, of course, after the Bugs had located our home planet, through the Skinnies, and had raided it, destroying Buenos Aires and turning “contact troubles” into all-out war, but before we had built up our forces and before the Skinnies had changed sides and become our co-belligerents and de facto allies. Partly effective interdiction for Terra had been set up from Luna (we didn’t know it), but speaking broadly, the Terran Federation was losing the war.

We didn’t know that, either. Nor did we know that strenuous efforts were being made to subvert the alliance against us and bring the Skinnies over to our side; the nearest we came to being told about that was when we got instructions, before the raid in which Flores was killed, to go easy on the Skinnies, destroy as much property as possible but to kill inhabitants only when unavoidable.

What a man doesn’t know he can’t spill if he is captured; neither drugs, nor torture, nor brainwash, nor endless lack of sleep can squeeze out a secret he doesn’t possess. So we were told only what we had to know for tactical purposes. In the past, armies have been known to fold up and quit because the men didn’t know what they were fighting for, or why, and therefore lacked the will to fight. But the M.I. does not have that weakness. Each one of us was a volunteer to begin with, each for some reason or other — some good, some bad. But now we fought because we were M.I. We were professionals, with esprit de corps. We were Rasczak’s Roughnecks, the best unprintable outfit in the whole expurgated M.I.; we climbed into our capsules because Jelly told us it was time to do so and we fought when we got down there because that is what Rasczak’s Roughnecks do.

We certainly didn’t know that we were losing.

Those Bugs lay eggs. They not only lay them, they hold them in reserve, hatch them as needed. If we killed a warrior — or a thousand, or ten thousand — his or their replacements were hatched and on duty almost before we could get back to base. You can imagine, if you like, some Bug supervisor of population flashing a phone to somewhere down inside and saying, “Joe, warm up ten thousand warriors and have ’em ready by Wednesday … and tell engineering to activate reserve incubators N, O, P, Q, and R; the demand is picking up.”

I don’t say they did exactly that, but those were the results. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that they acted purely from instinct, like termites or ants; their actions were as intelligent as ours (stupid races don’t build spaceships!) and were much better co-ordinated. It takes a minimum of a year to train a private to fight and to mesh his fighting in with his mates; a Bug warrior is hatched able to do this.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with “lessons from history” is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

But we were learning. Technical instructions and tactical doctrine orders resulted from every brush with them, spread through the Fleet. We learned to tell the workers from the warriors — if you had time, you could tell from the shape of the carapace, but the quick rule of thumb was: If he comes at you, he’s a warrior; if he runs, you can turn your back on him. We learned not to waste ammo even on warriors except in self-protection; instead we went after their lairs. Find a hole, drop down it first a gas bomb which explodes gently a few seconds later, releasing an oily liquid which evaporates as a nerve gas tailored to Bugs (it is harmless to us) and which is heavier than air and keeps on going down — then you use a second grenade of H.E. to seal the hole.

We still didn’t know whether we were getting deep enough to kill the queens — but we did know that the Bugs didn’t like these tactics; our intelligence through the Skinnies and on back into the Bugs themselves was definite on this point. Besides, we cleaned their colony off Sheol completely this way. Maybe they managed to evacuate the queens and the brains … but at least we were learning to hurt them.

But so far as the Roughnecks were concerned, these gas bombings were simply another drill, to be done according to orders, by the numbers, and on the bounce.

Eventually we had to go back to Sanctuary for more capsules. Capsules are expendable (well, so were we) and when they are gone, you must return to base, even if the Cherenkov generators could still take you twice around the Galaxy. Shortly before this a dispatch came through breveting Jelly to lieutenant, vice Rasczak. Jelly tried to keep it quiet but Captain Deladrier published it and then required him to eat forward with the other officers. He still spent all the rest of his time aft.

But we had taken several drops by then with him as platoon leader and the outfit had gotten used to getting along without the Lieutenant — it still hurt but it was routine now. After Jelal was commissioned the word was slowly passed around among us and chewed over that it was time for us to name ourselves for our boss, as with other outfits.

Johnson was senior and took the word to Jelly; he picked me to go along with him as moral support. “Yeah?” growled Jelly.

“Uh, Sarge — I mean Lieutenant, we’ve been thinking—”

“With what?”

“Well, the boys have sort of been talking it over and they think — well, they say the outfit ought to call itself: ‘Jelly’s Jaguars.’”

“They do, eh? How many of ’em favor that name?”

“It’s unanimous,” Johnson said simply.

“So? Fifty-two ayes … and one no. The noes have it.” Nobody ever brought up the subject again.

Shortly after that we orbited at Sanctuary. I was glad to be there, as the ship’s internal pseudo-gravity field had been off for most of two days before that, while the Chief Engineer tinkered with it, leaving us in free fall — which I hate. I’ll never be a real spaceman. Dirt underfoot felt good. The entire platoon went on ten days’ rest & recreation and transferred to accommodation barracks at the Base.

I never have learned the co-ordinates of Sanctuary, nor the name or catalogue number of the star it orbits — because what you don’t know, you can’t spill; the location is ultra-top-secret, known only to ships’ captains, piloting officers, and such … and, I understand, with each of them under orders and hypnotic compulsion to suicide if necessary to avoid capture. So I don’t want to know. With the possibility that Luna Base might be taken and Terra herself occupied, the Federation kept as much of its beef as possible at Sanctuary, so that a disaster back home would not necessarily mean capitulation.

But I can tell you what sort of a planet it is. Like Earth, but retarded.

Literally retarded, like a kid who takes ten years to learn to wave bye-bye and never does manage to master patty-cake. It is a planet as near like Earth as two planets can be, same age according to the planetologists and its star is the same age as the Sun and the same type, so say the astrophysicists. It has plenty of flora and fauna, the same atmosphere as Earth, near enough, and much the same weather; it even has a good-sized moon and Earth’s exceptional tides.

With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it’s short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth’s high level of natural radiation.

Its typical and most highly developed plant life is a very primitive giant fern; its top animal life is a proto-insect which hasn’t even developed colonies. I am not speaking of transplanted Terran flora and fauna—our stuff moves in and brushes the native stuff aside.

With its evolutionary progress held down almost to zero by lack of radiation and a consequent most unhealthily low mutation rate, native life forms on Sanctuary just haven’t had a decent chance to evolve and aren’t fit to compete. Their gene patterns remain fixed for a relatively long time; they aren’t adaptable — like being forced to play the same bridge hand over and over again, for eons, with no hope of getting a better one.

As long as they just competed with each other, this didn’t matter too much — morons among morons, so to speak. But when types that had evolved on a planet enjoying high radiation and fierce competition were introduced, the native stuff was outclassed.

Now all the above is perfectly obvious from high school biology … but the high forehead from the research station there who was telling me about this brought up a point I would never have thought of.

What about the human beings who have colonized Sanctuary?

Not transients like me, but the colonists who live there, many of whom were born there, and whose descendants will live there, even unto the umpteenth generation — what about those descendants? It doesn’t do a person any harm not to be radiated; in fact it’s a bit safer — leukemia and some types of cancer are almost unknown there. Besides that, the economic situation is at present all in their favor; when they plant a field of (Terran) wheat, they don’t even have to clear out the weeds. Terran wheat displaces anything native.

But the descendants of those colonists won’t evolve. Not much, anyhow. This chap told me that they could improve a little through mutation from other causes, from new blood added by immigration, and from natural selection among the gene patterns they already own — but that is all very minor compared with the evolutionary rate on Terra and on any usual planet. So what happens? Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a spaceship?

Or will they worry about the fate of their descendants and dose themselves regularly with X-rays or maybe set off lots of dirty-type nuclear explosions each year to build up a fallout reservoir in their atmosphere? (Accepting, of course, the immediate dangers of radiation to themselves in order to provide a proper genetic heritage of mutation for the benefit of their descendants.)

This bloke predicted that they would not do anything. He claims that the human race is too individualistic, too self-centered, to worry that much about future generations. He says that the genetic impoverishment of distant generations through lack of radiation is something most people are simply incapable of worrying about. And of course it is a far-distant threat; evolution works so slowly, even on Terra, that the development of a new species is a matter of many, many thousands of years.

I don’t know. Shucks, I don’t know what I myself will do more than half the time; how can I predict what a colony of strangers will do? But I’m sure of this: Sanctuary is going to be fully settled, either by us or by the Bugs. Or by somebody. It is a potential utopia, and, with desirable real estate so scarce in this end of the Galaxy, it will not be left in the possession of primitive life forms that failed to make the grade.

Already it is a delightful place, better in many ways for a few days R&R than is most of Terra. In the second place, while it has an awful lot of civilians, more than a million, as civilians go they aren’t bad. They know there is a war on. Fully half of them are employed either at the Base or in war industry; the rest raise food and sell it to the Fleet. You might say they have a vested interest in war, but, whatever their reasons, they respect the uniform and don’t resent the wearers thereof. Quite the contrary. If an M.I. walks into a shop there, the proprietor calls him “Sir,” and really seems to mean it, even while he’s trying to sell something worthless at too high a price.

But in the first place, half of those civilians are female.

You have to have been out on a long patrol to appreciate this properly. You need to have looked forward to your day of guard duty, for the privilege of standing two hours out of each six with your spine against bulkhead thirty and your ears cocked for just the sound of a female voice. I suppose it’s actually easier in the all-stag ships … but I’ll take the Rodger Young. It’s good to know that the ultimate reason you are fighting actually exists and that they are not just a figment of the imagination.

Besides the civilian wonderful 50 per cent, about 40 per cent of the Federal Service people on Sanctuary are female. Add it all up and you’ve got the most beautiful scenery in the explored universe.

Besides these unsurpassed natural advantages, a great deal has been done artificially to keep R&R from being wasted. Most of the civilians seem to hold two jobs; they’ve got circles under their eyes from staying up all night to make a service man’s leave pleasant. Churchill Road from the Base to the city is lined both sides with enterprises intended to separate painlessly a man from money he really hasn’t any use for anyhow, to the pleasant accompaniment of refreshment, entertainment, and music.

If you are able to get past these traps, through having already been bled of all valuta, there are still other places in the city almost as satisfactory (I mean there are girls there, too) which are provided free by a grateful populace — much like the social center in Vancouver, these are, but even more welcome.

Sanctuary, and especially Espiritu Santo, the city, struck me as such an ideal place that I toyed with the notion of asking for my discharge there when my term was up — after all, I didn’t really care whether my descendants (if any) twenty-five thousand years hence had long green tendrils like everybody else, or just the equipment I had been forced to get by with. That professor type from the Research Station couldn’t frighten me with that no radiation scare talk; it seemed to me (from what I could see around me) that the human race had reached its ultimate peak anyhow.

No doubt a gentleman wart hog feels the same way about a lady wart hog — but, if so, both of us are very sincere.

There are other opportunities for recreation there, too. I remember with particular pleasure one evening when a table of Roughnecks got into a friendly discussion with a group of Navy men (not from the Rodger Young) seated at the next table. The debate was spirited, a bit noisy, and some Base police came in and broke it up with stun guns just as we were warming to our rebuttal. Nothing came of it, except that we had to pay for the furniture — the Base Commandant takes the position that a man on R&R should be allowed a little freedom as long as he doesn’t pick one of the “thirty-one crash landings.”

The accommodation barracks are all right, too — not fancy, but comfortable and the chow line works twenty-five hours a day with civilians doing all the work. No reveille, no taps, you’re actually on leave and you don’t have to go to the barracks at all. I did, however, as it seemed downright preposterous to spend money on hotels when there was a clean, soft sack free and so many better ways to spend accumulated pay. That extra hour in each day was nice, too, as it meant nine hours solid and the day still untouched — I caught up sack time clear back to Operation Bughouse.

It might as well have been a hotel; Ace and I had a room all to ourselves in visiting non-com quarters. One morning, when R&R was regrettably drawing to a close, I was just turning over about local noon when Ace shook my bed. “On the bounce, soldier! The Bugs are attacking.”

I told him what to do with the Bugs.

“Let’s hit dirt,” he persisted.

“No dinero.” I had had a date the night before with a chemist (female, of course, and charmingly so) from the Research Station. She had known Carl on Pluto and Carl had written to me to look her up if I ever got to Sanctuary. She was a slender redhead, with expensive tastes. Apparently Carl had intimated to her that I had more money than was good for me, for she decided that the night before was just the time for her to get acquainted with the local champagne. I didn’t let Carl down by admitting that all I had was a trooper’s honorarium; I bought it for her while I drank what they said was (but wasn’t) fresh pineapple squash. The result was that I had to walk home, afterwards — the cabs aren’t free. Still, it had been worth it. After all, what is money?—I’m speaking of Bug money, of course.

“No ache,” Ace answered. “I can juice you — I got lucky last night. Ran into a Navy file who didn’t know percentages.”

So I got up and shaved and showered and we hit the chow line for half a dozen shell eggs and sundries such as potatoes and ham and hot cakes and so forth and then we hit dirt to get something to eat. The walk up Churchill Road was hot and Ace decided to stop in a cantina. I went along to see if their pineapple squash was real. It wasn’t, but it was cold. You can’t have everything.

We talked about this and that and Ace ordered another round. I tried their strawberry squash — same deal. Ace stared into his glass, then said, “Ever thought about greasing for officer?”

I said, “Huh? Are you crazy?”

“Nope. Look, Johnnie, this war may run on quite a piece. No matter what propaganda they put out for the folks at home, you and I know that the Bugs aren’t ready to quit. So why don’t you plan ahead? As the man says, if you’ve got to play in the band, it’s better to wave the stick than to carry the big drum.”

I was startled by the turn the talk had taken, especially from Ace. “How about you? Are you planning to buck for a commission?”

“Me?” he answered. “Check your circuits, son — you’re getting wrong answers. I’ve got no education and I’m ten years older than you are. But you’ve got enough education to hit the selection exams for O.C.S. and you’ve got the I.Q. they like. I guarantee that if you go career, you’ll make sergeant before I do … and get picked for O.C.S. the day after.”

“Now I know you’re crazy!”

“You listen to your pop. I hate to tell you this, but you are just stupid and eager and sincere enough to make the kind of officer that men love to follow into some silly predicament. But me — well, I’m a natural non-com, with the proper pessimistic attitude to offset the enthusiasm of the likes of you. Someday I’ll make sergeant … and presently I’ll have my twenty years in and retire and get one of the reserved jobs — cop, maybe — and marry a nice fat wife with the same low tastes I have, and I’ll follow the sports and fish and go pleasantly to pieces.”

Ace stopped to wet his whistle. “But you,” he went on. “You’ll stay in and probably make high rank and die gloriously and I’ll read about it and say proudly, ‘I knew him when. Why, I used to lend him money — we were corporals together.’ Well?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” I said slowly. “I just meant to serve my term.”

He grinned sourly. “Do you see any term enrollees being paid off today? You expect to make it on two years?”

He had a point. As long as the war continued, a “term” didn’t end — at least not for cap troopers. It was mostly a difference in attitude, at least for the present. Those of us on “term” could at least feel like short-timers; we could talk about: “When this flea-bitten war is over.” A career man didn’t say that; he wasn’t going anywhere, short of retirement — or buying it.

On the other hand, neither were we. But if you went “career” and then didn’t finish twenty … well, they could be pretty sticky about your franchise even though they wouldn’t keep a man who didn’t want to stay.

“Maybe not a two-year term,” I admitted. “But the war won’t last forever.”

“It won’t?”

“How can it?”

“Blessed if I know. They don’t tell me these things. But I know that’s not what is troubling you, Johnnie. You got a girl waiting?”

“No. Well, I had,” I answered slowly, “but she ‘Dear-Johned’ me.” As a lie, this was no more than a mild decoration, which I tucked in because Ace seemed to expect it. Carmen wasn’t my girl and she never waited for anybody — but she did address letters with “Dear Johnnie” on the infrequent occasions when she wrote to me.

Ace nodded wisely. “They’ll do it every time. They’d rather marry civilians and have somebody around to chew out when they feel like it. Never you mind, son — you’ll find plenty of them more than willing to marry when you’re retired … and you’ll be better able to handle one at that age. Marriage is a young man’s disaster and an old man’s comfort.” He looked at my glass. “It nauseates me to see you drinking that slop.”

“I feel the same way about the stuff you drink,” I told him.

He shrugged. “As I say, it takes all kinds. You think it over.”

“I will.”

Ace got into a card game shortly after, and lent me some money and I went for a walk; I needed to think.

Go career? Quite aside from that noise about a commission, did I want to go career? Why, I had gone through all this to get my franchise, hadn’t I?—and if I went career, I was just as far away from the privilege of voting as if I had never enrolled … because as long as you were still in uniform you weren’t entitled to vote. Which was the way it should be, of course — why, if they let the Roughnecks vote the idiots might vote not to make a drop. Can’t have that.

Nevertheless I had signed up in order to win a vote.

Or had I?

Had I ever cared about voting? No, it was the prestige, the pride, the status … of being a citizen.

Or was it?

I couldn’t to save my life remember why I had signed up.

Anyhow, it wasn’t the process of voting that made a citizen — the Lieutenant had been a citizen in the truest sense of the word, even though he had not lived long enough ever to cast a ballot. He had “voted” every time he made a drop.

And so had I!

I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part … and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

I still didn’t know whether I yearned to place my one-and-only body “between my loved home and the war’s desolation”—I still got the shakes every drop and that “desolation” could be pretty desolate. But nevertheless I knew at last what Colonel Dubois had been talking about. The M.I. was mine and I was theirs. If that was what the M.I. did to break the monotony, then that was what I did. Patriotism was a bit esoteric for me, too large-scale to see. But the M.I. was my gang, I belonged. They were all the family I had left; they were the brothers I had never had, closer than Carl had ever been. If I left them, I’d be lost.

So why shouldn’t I go career?

All right, all right — but how about this nonsense of greasing for a commission? That was something else again. I could see myself putting in twenty years and then taking it easy, the way Ace had described, with ribbons on my chest and carpet slippers on my feet … or evenings down at the Veterans Hall, rehashing old times with others who belonged. But O.C.S.? I could hear Al Jenkins, in one of the bull sessions we had about such things: “I’m a private! I’m going to stay a private! When you’re a private they don’t expect anything of you. Who wants to be an officer? Or even a sergeant? You’re breathing the same air, aren’t you? Eating the same food. Going the same places, making the same drops. But no worries.”

Al had a point. What had chevrons ever gotten me?—aside from lumps.

Nevertheless I knew I would take sergeant if it was ever offered to me. You don’t refuse, a cap trooper doesn’t refuse anything; he steps up and takes a swing at it. Commission, too, I supposed.

Not that it would happen. Who was I to think that I could ever be what Lieutenant Rasczak had been?

My walk had taken me close to the candidates’ school, though I don’t believe I intended to come that way. A company of cadets were out on their parade ground, drilling at trot, looking for all the world like boots in Basic. The sun was hot and it looked not nearly as comfortable as a bull session in the drop room of the Rodger Young—why, I hadn’t marched farther than bulkhead thirty since I had finished Basic; that breaking-in nonsense was past.

I watched them a bit, sweating through their uniforms; I heard them being chewed out — by sergeants, too. Old Home Week. I shook my head and walked away from there—

—went back to the accommodation barracks, over to the B.O.Q. wing, found Jelly’s room.

He was in it, his feet up on a table and reading a magazine. I knocked on the frame of the door. He looked up and growled, “Yeah?”

“Sarge — I mean, Lieutenant—”

“Spit it out!”

“Sir, I want to go career.”

He dropped his feet to the desk. “Put up your right hand.”

He swore me, reached into the drawer of the table and pulled out papers.

He had my papers already made out, waiting for me ready to sign. And I hadn’t even told Ace. How about that?

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