Authors: Harry Harrison
Special thanks to Kirby McCauley, Nat Sobel, John Douglas, David Keller and Alice Alfonsi
“Gather round, folks,” Brownnose said through the loudhailer he had stolen from the drill sergeant. The built-in circuitry made his voice sound gravelly and disgusting just like the sergeant's. “It's the event you've all been waiting for — the unveiling of Bill's new foot now growing from an implanted foot bud. Only ten bucks a ticket to see this unique and possibly revolting event.”
The barracks where the unveiling was to be held was filling up fast. Most of the enlisted men in Camp Diplatory wanted to attend the unveiling of Bill's new foot bud. The foot bud had been implanted in Bill's stump three days previously, on the medical satellite BRIP 32 situated at Point Less. After implantation, Bill had been shipped to Diplatory, the large military establishment on the planet Shyster. He had to wait three days before he could unveil his transplant. Time-controlled bandages ensured that he would follow medical orders. There had been difficulties with time-controlled bandages, but luckily Bill didn't have any. At least as far as he knew.
There wasn't much to do for the fifty thousand Space Troopers stationed in Camp Diplatory. The camp was set on a hundred semi-submerged acres in the middle of Unholy Bog, the largest and wettest swamp on the planet Shyster. Why the camp had been built in the middle of a bog was a mystery. Or maybe it wasn't. Some said it was an accident, probably made in Central Headquarters back on Helior. Others said that the location had been picked deliberately because tough conditions produce strong men, if they don't kill them. Or maim them. Or drive them mad.
“And if they do, there are more where those came from.”
That is the motto of the Fighting 69th Deep Space Screaming Killers, the unit to which Bill was presently attached.
“So take off the bandage,” Kanarsie said. “Let's get a look.”
Bill looked around. The barracks was full. At ten bucks a head, which Brownnose was collecting at the door for him, Bill figured he'd made enough to buy himself some new combat boots. The rate at which he accumulated foot operations made this necessary, since the military wouldn't reimburse him for constantly having to turn in shoeware that wasn't even worn, or just didn't fit the present disgusting shape of Bill's wounded foot.
Brownnose waved enthusiastically that he could begin. He was enthusiastic about everything, kind, reverent and obedient. And wanted to help his buddies all the time. Which is not the troopers' way and that is why they hated him. And called him Brownnose. Bill liked him because he reminded Bill of Eager Beager who had acted the same way. But of course he had been a Chinger spy. And a robot too.
“Here goes,” Bill said and grabbed the bandage. An alarm sounded and an electric shock stung his fingers. “Ouch. Not quite time yet.” The bandage buzzed hoarsely and the end dropped free. “Time now,” he said and unwound one turn of the bandages and the spectators all leaned forward. They emitted a collective sigh as Bill unwound the second layer. Their faces got all flushed and nervous, and their breath came in short pants, exceedingly uncomfortable, and some could be seen nervously wringing their hands as Bill threw off the third layer of bandage. Bill's foot wasn't exactly big box office, but in a boring, despicable, uncomfortable dump like this even a cockroach fight was an event the stature of naked ladies wrestling in jello.
Excitement, or whatever it was, reached a fever pitch as the eighty or so burly and scarred military men of low rank and lower IQ crowded into the smoke-filled plastic Quonset hut and leaned forward blinking, as Bill threw off the fourth and final fold of bandage.
You'd think, of course, that Bill would be the one to have the first glimpse of his new foot, since it was his, after all. You would be mistaken, however, for Bill superstitiously looked elsewhere as he cast the bandage away. He had been having some strange feelings in that foot over the last day.
He looked at the watching faces around him, their eyes glued on his foot.
The crowd made a sort of tittering sound. That was odd, not at all what Bill had expected. And then they started laughing. Not polite, appreciative laughter, such as you might expect at the unveiling of a foot bud, but loud, heavy, guffaw-guffaw type laughter of the joke's-on-you variety.
Bill glanced down. Then he glanced away. Then he glanced down again, winced, considered glancing away again, pulled himself together, looked.
“You know, Bill,” Kowalski said, “I thought this foot unveiling of yours was going to be a rip-off. I mean, what could there be under that bandage; you plant a foot bud, you get a foot, right? Wrong. Bill, I want to thank you. That is the funniest thing I've seen since the CO got fragged.”
Bill stretched his clawed toes experimentally. “Seems to work OK,” he said.
It should have worked OK. But it would have worked better on an alligator, since it was a fine, green, scaly, abundantly clawed alligator's foot that was now growing on the end of Bill's ankle.
What had those doctors done? Were they experimenting, trying to turn him into a reptile? He didn't put it past them. Since he had recently had a giant mutated chicken's foot for a foot he knew that anything was possible. Probable — in the Troopers. And the foot after that had been nice, maybe too many toes but that wasn't bad, and he had really enjoyed it until it withered and dropped off.
It was a small green foot, but it was workable. And it would probably grow into a much larger foot. The envy of any passing alligator he thought, gloomily. Bill did not stop to consider the miracle that man's ability to do this represented. By any standard it was an act of genius. A little useless, perhaps, but genius all the same. But this was lost on Bill who, like many before him, was mad as hell.
Bill stumped down the corridor, listing slightly to the left to favor his clawed and knobbly left foot. His new alligator foot had not grown out to full size yet, so there was little more than an inch difference between his left and right feet. The foot itself was perfectly sound and able to bear his weight, though the claws scratched the floor when he walked.
His immediate destination was the small cubicle on level twelve of the main concourse of the base. He got there slightly out of breath, since walking on a taloned alligator's foot takes practice before you can do it smoothly.
The cubicle was ten feet to a side. It was divided into two parts, one a reception and waiting room, the other the place of the computer. The military base on Shyster was run by this Quintiform computer, not the latest model, but one believed to be just as good, almost.
Bill went in and took his seat in the waiting room. He was the only person there. That was unusual, since the computer usually had a line of people waiting to consult it.
No sooner had he sat down than a metallic voice with plenty of vibrato said to him: “Hello, I am the Quintiform computer; please step inside and show me your dogtags.”
Bill did as he was told. The inner room of the computer station was painted computer beige. There were banks of switches and dials on the four walls. There were speakers set into the wall up high. One of these was broadcasting a program of sambas.
Bill presented his dogtags and the Quintiform computer hissed and clicked its approval. “Yes, Bill,” it said, “what seems to be the trouble?”
“The foot doctors on Aesclepius, the medical satellite, gave me a foot bud implant,” Bill explained. “Look what it grew into!”
The Quintiform exuded a metallic pseudopod with a blinking glass eye at the end of it and inspected Bill's foot.
“Wow!” the computer said. It began to chuckle.
“It's no laughing matter,” Bill said. “And anyhow, robots aren't supposed to laugh.”
“Sorry about that,” the computer said. “Just trying to put you at your ease. Now then, I suppose you want the doctors to fix your other foot so it will match the clawed one?”
“No! I want two normal human feet, like I started with.”
“Ah, of course,” the computer said. It hummed and buzzed for a while, presumably going through its memory banks looking for the correct solution to Bill's problem. After a while it said; “Go to Room 1223-B on level Verdigris, Section Vector-Vector 2, and they'll fix you up.”
Finding your way around the base was no easy matter, since the main structure was the size of a middle-sized city and contained over three thousand rooms, torture halls, meeting places, contraceptive dispensers, intravenous feeding cafeterias, storage facilities, and the like, spread over ten different levels. Troopers had been known to wander through it for days at a time. Almost any time you went through you could see troopers sleeping in heaps of camouflage clothing at the intersections. It was notorious that you should take along provisions and a full canteen of water when you were going anywhere in the base. As Bill set out, a vehicle the size of an electrified golf cart pulled up beside him.
“Hello, Bill,” the golf cart's voice box said. “I have been sent by the computer to take you to your destination. Care for a drink? Nothing too good for our boys in uniform.”
Bill thought the golf cart sounded entirely too affable. But he got in. It was a lot better than walking the interminable miles he'd have to cover to reach Room 1223-B.
They whisked along down the olive, drab corridors, the golf cart humming a cheery little tune to itself. They passed through Maintenance and Communications to a section called Planning.
“This doesn't look like a medical section,” Bill said.
“Don't worry about it,” the golf cart said. “I know where I'm going.”
It swept up a ramp, doubled down a corridor, and made for a door at the end. Bill winced, because the golf cart had gathered speed and the door was closed. He cowered back in his seat as the golf cart hurtled itself at the door. Bill closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands. When he looked up again, they were on the other side of the door, which had opened by an electric eye arrangement and was now closing again.
He was in some sort of officers' lounge, which had been gotten up to look like an old Earth-style saloon. There were Tiffany lamps and dark furniture made of genuine plastic. There was a long bar with white-shirted bartenders working behind it. There was a jukebox playing vintage rock on fake original ancient instruments like synthesizers and electric guitars, some of them looking several hundreds of years old, though they had probably been made last week. There were about a dozen uniformed officers of either sex present. They all had drinks in their hands. They cheered when the golf cart speeded into the room, made a neat circle in the middle, and came to a stop.
“Excuse me,” Bill said. “Is this the Medical section?”
That brought a good round of hearty laughter. Men crowded around and congratulated Bill on his wit. One woman, a majorette, no less, with fluffy blonde hair and a pert nose and giant boobs, sat in Bill's lap and kissed him soundly. Somebody else asked him what he'd like to drink. Bill was so rattled he just said yes. So they brought him a stirrup cup filled with a mixture of that day's alcoholic beverages. The taste of rum was most prominent, as well as a tang of horse from the stirrup, and Bill drained it gratefully, having learned never to look a gift drink in the goblet.
The lady major who had kissed him got out of his lap and into his face. With her nose no more than millimeters from his, she looked long and deep into Bill's eyes. Then she said in a thrilling contralto voice with a faint whiskey burr to it, “You're just like I imagined you'd be.”
“Well,” Bill said, “I try.”
“What a clever remark,” one colonel murmured to another.
“He's obviously a clever chap,” said a white-haired colonel, who appeared to be the ranking officer. “Get him a cigar, somebody. And no more of that rotgut; pour him some of the good cognac we liberated at the sack of the Main Base after the attack.”
A cigar in one hand, a glass of cognac in the other, and a smirking grin on his face, Bill wasn't prepared for the next question.
“Tell me, Bill,” a foxy-faced major with the crossed question-mark flashings of Intelligence Directorate 2 on his shoulders, “what do you think about the Tsurisian situation?”
“Does it have anything to do with the medical services here?” Bill asked. “If so, I have a complaint.”
“My dear fellow,” the foxy-faced major said. “Haven't you been briefed yet on the planet Tsuris?”
“I've only been here three days, sir,” Bill said, gurgling deeply of the drink to drown his suspicions of all this officerial kindness. Deep down he knew it wasn't natural. Even deeper down he wanted to get blind drunk on the good booze.
“And what have you been doing in your time here?”
“Growing a new foot, mostly,” Bill said. “That's what I want to ask —”
“Time for that later,” the major said. “Tsuris is a planet not too far from here. It is sometimes referred to as the Mystery Planet.”
“Oh, sure, I've heard of it,” Bill said dimly through the growing alcoholic fog. “That's the place which broadcasts the weird radio messages, isn't it?”
The major explained that the military base on Shyster had been given the job of clearing out Tsuris, a nearby planet of considerable mystery. Literally nothing was known about this planet. No decent photographs had ever been taken through the heavy cloud layer. There were breaks in the clouds, and the planet seemed to get plenty of sunshine, but when the military snoop ships maneuvered to take pictures through an opening, it always closed before they could get lined up.
“That's weird,” Bill said. “Almost like someone is directing it, huh?”
“Exactly. Have another drink,” the major said. “As you've mentioned, radio messages seem to emanate from Tsuris, but they never make sense. But the worst of it is, ships even traveling in the vicinity of Tsuris have been known to vanish, only to appear again millions of miles away with no explanation as to how they got there.”
“Sounds like a good place to steer clear of,” Bill said with alcoholic sincerity, nodding and drinking at the same time. Which didn't work too well.
“Ah, if only we could,” the major said. “But we can't, of course. We are the military. We go where we please.”