Authors: Harry Harrison
a true fan of aliens everywhere, especially those slimy ones.
In space, no one can hear you dream
Bill kicked the bucket. Then he kicked a chair, reducing it to splinters. It wasn't that he was angry — though he had good reason to be teed-off and touchy. Stuck here on this puny supply station in the middle of nowhere. He, a Galactic Hero, now reduced to the most menial of menial labor. He sniveled self-pityingly at the faded memories of past glories, for he had been reduced to driving a forklift, loading giant boxes of multipurpose paper onto outgoing spacers. It was sandpaper on one side, toilet paper on the other, and woe befall he who did not read the instructions on the box. No, crappy as this job was, his real concern was a physical problem of a most personal nature. His right foot was turning to stone, and he was losing control over it. He sniveled again, stamped with sudden, bitter anger, then pulled his foot out of the hole in the floor.
It had started out as a real nice foot. Bill even got used to all the extra toes, but this turning-to-stone business was getting out of hand. Or rather out of foot. It currently weighed in at thirty-five pounds and was gaining weight fast. Bill felt like he was dragging a cinder block around with him, and once he got it moving it was hard to stop, short of crashing it into something. The crew aboard the supply station gave him plenty of room, and repair robots followed him around like mechanical puppy dogs.
Bill realized that he had a bad habit of losing body parts. The thought depressed him greatly, and he flicked a tear from one moist eye. He had lost what used to be his left arm through no fault of his own while becoming a Galactic Hero. That's what war is all about. That it had been replaced with a right arm, a nice black one that had belonged to a friend of his — it gave Bill something to remember him by — was something he had grown quite used to, even fond of. He was attached to his new arm, and was always inventing new fun things to do with it.
The foot, however, was another matter. Bill had blown his original foot away himself in a flash of self-preservation designed to keep all of his body parts from being even more disastrously blown away in a hopeless battle against the dreaded Chingers.
The official military line was that the crazed Chingers were the cause of almost every horrible thing that had ever happened in the universe. Reptilian in nature and bad to the bone, it was said they stood seven feet tall and ate human babies for breakfast. With Tabasco.
Bill knew better.
Seven inches was more like their physical size, and before the Space Troopers had started blasting them away, the Chingers hadn't even had a word for violence. Although they were peace-loving and friendly, they were not stupid. They were also quick learners. And hated Tabasco. So the Emperor had an intergalactic war to keep his troops busy, and Bill had two right arms, a cinder block for a foot, and an enlistment contract with an automatic extension clause.
This was not the first foot transplant Bill had ever had. All of them had been disastrous. Though maybe not the first one, a giant chicken foot. He had become attached to that foot, and vice versa of course. But while it was handy for scratching in the sand for bugs, it wouldn't fit in his boot and hurt all the time. The fact that his new foot was turning into solid rock probably wasn't anyone's fault. Sometimes bad things just seemed to happen.
Bill kicked open Doctor Hackenslash's door and followed his careening foot into the office.
“You could have knocked, Trooper,” squealed the doctor from underneath the desk. “I thought we were under attack.”
“No Chinger in its right mind would give this bowby little post a second glance,” said Bill, skidding his foot along the floor to stop its momentum. “I've got a more serious problem.”
“Possibly your nose this time?” said the doctor hopefully, crawling out from under the desk and brushing chunks of the splintered door off his chair. “Nose problems are my speciality.”
Perhaps this was because the good doctor possessed a hooter like an anteater, a great flaring, projecting nose with cavernous nostrils, gloomy hair-filled canyons. He pointed this impressive proboscis at Bill and sniffed.
“You want your nose examined?”
“Only if you have to get to my foot that way. Look at it, doc! It's getting heavier.”
“Feet are so boring,” sniffed Hackenslash, tapping his own nose with his finger so that it flapped in a most interesting manner. “All those little pink toes wiggling all the time. Give me a nose any day. Deviated septums! Sinus cavities! Postnasal drip! Nobody knows the nose better than those who know the nose know.”
“My toes aren't pink anymore, and they sure aren't wiggling. They're more like granite. We got to do something.”
“How about we wait?” said the doctor, breaking into a sneezing fit on account of all the door dust floating around the room. Bill was knocked back three feet by the force of this nasal blast.
“Wait?” yelled Bill. “I'm dragging a boulder around, and you want to wait?”
“Think of it as a scientific experiment — be brave,” said Hackenslash, grabbing a handful of tissue from one of the five boxes on his desk and blowing his nose. Bill cowered under the white blast of shredded Kleenex. “Maybe if we wait it'll spread. Next your knee could turn to stone. Then your whole leg. Maybe even your you-know-what — interesting possibilities there! Perhaps even those two right arms you're so proud of. It might even spread to your nose. As a scientist I would be remiss to pass up this opportunity to study such an unusual occurrence.”
Bill watched the doctor double over with a seemingly endless attack of the sneezes, and as the physician gobbled up a bunch of antihistamines Bill decided enough was enough. He'd take the hard line.
“As a Trooper with a stone foot I am unfit for battle,” said Bill, choking on the word “battle.” “As the base doctor it is your sworn and solemn duty to make every soldier in this command shipshape, sturdy, and ready for”— gulp —“warfare. How can I jump into action dragging this boulder around?”
“I like your tusks,” said Dr. Hackenslash. “Some elephants have tusks, you know. And nothing beats an elephant when it comes to noses.”
The end run from scientific curiosity to flattery didn't work, although Bill was quite fond of his three-inch-long tusks, which he had inherited from the sadistic Deathwish Drang. He felt they gave him a fearsome appearance when he snarled.
“I want a new foot,” Bill snarled. “I want to be ready to leap into battle,” he lied.
Impressed by the gnashing fangs, the doctor nodded reluctantly.
“As you yourself pointed out, this isn't exactly a sizzling war zone.” Dr. Hackenslash pulled out a giant-economy, coffin-sized box of tissue. “Consequently, we have a regrettable lack of replacement parts. In my last assignment we had arms and legs all over the place, boxes of pippicks, bales of ears. But not here. And noses! You should have seen my collection; all kinds, shapes, sizes. I even had one —”
“Wait!” Bill whipped up an especially ferocious snarl. “Does this mean I'm stuck with this rock?”
“Don't do that!” shouted the doctor. “You're making me awfully nervous, and I might botch the surgery. It is quite a delicate procedure. Took years of training.”
“So I do get a new foot?”
“In a manner of speaking. Medical supply made a clerical error and sent me eighty-three cases of regenerative foot-buds. I've got thousands of the little suckers, so I suppose I can spare you one. Though I really would like to see if your nose turns to stone.”
“Let's get with it,” growled Bill, tired of dragging the albatross of a stone foot around with him. “Which way's the operating room? Will I have to be prepped? What kind of anesthetic are you going to use? Will it hurt?”
The doctor put a box on the floor and pressed a red button marked WARM UP.
“When the green light comes on, put your foot in the hole on top. I'll give you a hand.”
“It's a foot I want!” screamed Bill as the light flashed green and Hackenslash grappled up his foot and dropped it down the hole.
“Just a little professional joke,” chuckled the doctor. “We physicians do have a sense of humor beneath our always coolly confident and skillful exteriors.”
With exasperating illogic Bill was already getting ready to miss his old foot. The extra toes had been nice. And after it had turned to stone, it had been real handy for propping doors open and kicking things out of his way.
“When will you start the operation?” asked Bill, gritting his teeth in anticipation of the long and involved and certain-to-be-excruciatingly-painful procedure.
“All finished,” said Hackenslash proudly. “Take a look.”
Bill pulled his foot out of the hole. The first thing he noticed was that he was missing a foot entirely.
“You moron medico!” screamed Bill, waving his stump in the air. “My foot's gone!”
“That's what you wanted, isn't it?”
“But I wanted a replacement, too. What I got now is nothing,” he sobbed.
“What you've got is a military grade Mark-1 regenerative foot-bud, Trooper. Take a close look.”
Sure enough, there at the end of Bill's stump was a tiny pink bud about the size and shape of a baked bean.
“I did a good job, didn't I — why don't you admit that?” The doctor stood up, bloated with pride, red nose wavering in the air like a giant tomato. “Can I keep your old foot? It'll make a nice paperweight.”
Bill was staring at the tiny bud. It still looked like a baked bean.
“Of course, you'll have to stay off that bud until the foot grows out,” said Hackenslash, handing him a pair of crutches. “I'm sorry I couldn't make you battle-ready in a jiffy. You'll just have to wait until it grows.”
“How long will that take?” smirked Bill gleefully, taking the crutches, which were dented and about twelve sizes too short.
“Quite a long time, I'm afraid. You can't rush mother nature.”
“That's really too bad,” Bill smarmed insincerely, with visions of weeks of no duty, months of lolling around, years of recuperation. “It pains me not to be able to get back into the fight right away. I guess I'll have to go on permanent sick call.”
“That will be up to Commander Cook,” said the doctor. “Take this note to him and don't forget to mention that I need a new door.”
Bill left Hackenslash's office feeling about thirty-five pounds lighter, and he was halfway to Commander Cook's quarters before his back started killing him from bending over the too-small crutches.
The commander was staring out the window with his hands clasped behind his back when Bill arrived and tried to salute, managing to get all tangled up in his crutches so that he tumbled to the floor and rolled on his back like a beetle.
The commander bulged his eyes at this repulsive sight, then decided to ignore it. “At ease, Trooper,” he ordered. As always, he was wearing his full-dress uniform, complete with saber, shotgun, sashes, ribbons, bullwhip, and medals that were really contraceptive holders, all this topped with an ornate gold-braid-covered tricornered hat. Reluctantly, he turned from the struggling Trooper and sighed.
“It's lonely at the top,” he implied. “Just look out that window, Trooper. What do you see?”
“Stars, sir,” said Bill. “That's about all anyone can see from this miserable place.”
“Stars, son? Well, I guess some short-sighted un-imaginative son of a bowb like you would only see stars, but I see glory. Yes, glory — and conflict! Warfare that pits man against Chinger. Great battles just filled to overflowing with heroic acts and doomed, selfless sacrifices. Facing death on a daily basis, doing what a man has to do, tests a man's mettle, wouldn't you agree?”
“If you say so, sir,” said Bill, who fervently thought no such thing.
“Makes men out of boys, women out of girls, heroes out of cowards, dogs out of cats. Nothing like death to make a person feel alive. Of course, some of us, besieged by circumstance, must stand back and serve. Without us supplying them, the frontline troops wouldn't stand a chance against the enemy. Take toilet paper. Have you ever considered the strategic ramifications of toilet paper, Trooper?”
“Can't say as I have, sir,” said Bill, who was beginning to wonder, and not for the first time, if the commander was playing with a full deck.
“Too much toilet paper and they'll have to jettison ammunition or fuel to make room to store it. Too little and they'll spend all their time looking for substitutes when they should be fighting. We could lose the war because of toilet paper. Sink the entire operation because they had to make room — make room! Just think about that, son.”
Bill did, and decided on the spot that the commander's elevator didn't go all the way to the top floor.
“Making command decisions about toilet paper is a terrible burden. With one forged requisition slip the Chingers could destroy our entire armed forces.”
Bill nodded, firmly convinced now that the commander was one brick shy of a load.
“Consider the mighty decimal point. With one slip of a decimal point.... Say, what happened to your foot? Aren't you the bowb who's been trashing my installation?”
“Doctor Hackenslash needs a new door,” said Bill hastily. “And he said for me to give you this.”
Commander Cook took the note and shook his head as he read it, his lips moving reluctantly as he spelled out the harder words.
“I guess I ought to go on sick leave,” Bill said quickly. “Some extended bunk time would be best, just until my foot grows back, which — unfortunately — will take a long time.”
The commander frowned. “I can't use a partial soldier at this station. You might get all worried about your foot-bud and load too much toilet paper for our troops fighting bravely on the front line and cause us to lose the whole ball of wax to those despicable Chingers.”
“Bunk time sounds fine to me,” Bill smarmed hopefully. “It'll be a sacrifice not to be involved with the war effort, but I'll just screw myself to the sticking place, grit my teeth, and endure it.”
“I'm not sure that I like this screwed sticking place, bowb. Sounds subversive. So suggest an alternative,” said the commander. “Something that would be right up the alley for an ambitious cretin like you.”