Authors: Harry Harrison
Special thanks to Nat Sobel, Henry Morrison, Dainis Bisenieks, and Chris Miller
For Jenny Mershon, Bettina Harris, and Shelley Rochester.
Better late than never.
Special thanks to Kate Myslinski.
Feet. Feet of all sorts and shapes and sizes. A whole foot locker full of feet. There were feet that looked like standard issue Trooper's boots and there were feet that looked like running shoes and there were feet that looked like stainless steel wing-tips. There were even feet that looked like they came from all sorts of repulsive animals, like bowb-beavers and regurgibirds. There was even one that looked like that of a rusty robomule, just for sentiment's sake. Why there were even feet that looked like sports cars, and space ships, and the feet of some of Bill's favorite holo-cartoon characters. The foot locker was really a feetlocker, for it held every kind of foot you could think of, and some you couldn't, everything but real feet. They were all artificial feet. Bill's feet.
Feet had been a problem for a long time for Bill — ever since he'd been stuck on Veniola, the death planet, and had to shoot off his foot to get off that planet. In this man's war there was always a shortage of replacement feet. In the fullness of time he'd wound up with an elephant foot, a satyr foot, a mood foot — more feet than he could remember. Now he had even more feet than that, and all at once. He had finally given up even trying to get a real human foot for a replacement: a shiny socket now sprang from his truncated ankle.
Snap. He glared at the black lacquered one with the red and gold pagoda? No, not for tonight. He needed something a lot snazzier if he was going to get anywhere near a woman on this pass. Snap. Bill rummaged through the trunk for a foot with more sex appeal. Maybe the pink plush number with the bright red curly plastic toenails? Snap. No. Not macho enough. Snap. Yes, here's the one! Snap. Bill stepped back to admire his choice in the small mirror at the foot of his bunk.
This was a foot to reckon with, a foot that said “here strides a man of parts,” even if he hadn't been born with all the same parts he had now. It was big and hairy and wild, just like Bill imagined he was, and very ape-like — really like Bill. This was the mother, if not the father, of all feet.
It was early evening at Camp Buboe, and Bill had, through a delicate combination of bribery, extortion, and shaking the company clerk by the throat, acquired a pass from this same clerk. Considering that the town outside the base to which this pass entitled him to go was distinguishable from the base principally because it was on the other side of a fence, this might not be such a big deal. But there were rumored to be women there, women who did not wear the olive drab of the Imperial Troopers, women who sat in bars where alcoholic beverages were served in quantities, women who might be spoken to and touched and — Bill began panting and had to restrain his fevered imagination.
Off in the distance, a commotion was stirring. Bill turned his combat-trained senses to the front of the barracks, and heard the cry, “Officer coming!” His combat-honed reflexes had him instantly heading for the back door and safety.
Too late. He stormed out the back door into a brick wall.
No, not exactly a brick wall. He was sure he would have remembered a wall just outside the door, and even at Camp Buboe the walls didn't wear uniforms. But Sergeant Brickwall was even bigger than Bill, and he knew a fleeing Trooper when he saw one.
Bill stopped cold, then bared his treasured fangs at the sergeant and growled deep in his throat.
Brickwall bared his own implanted, sharpened incisors and growled back, like a murderous vampire bunny.
Bill roared, and shook drool from his fangs into the sergeant's face.
Brickwall roared back, and shook Bill's own drool back at him, with some of his own for interest.
Bill roared again, and pounded his chest.
Brickwall did the same, and flashed his fangs again.
Clearly, subtlety was getting Bill nowhere.
“Move your fat bowby body,” he bellowed.
Brickwall laughed in a most insulting manner.
“Your mother wears combat boots!” Bill sneered sneeringly.
Brickwall blinked. “Of course!” he foamed indignantly. “She's a Trooper. What else should she wear?”
“Your teeth look stupid!” Bill screamed in desperation. “Rabbits are full of bowb — and who's afraid of rodent vegetarians?”
Brickwall gnashed the offenders at Bill.
Diplomacy wasn't working either.
“Ehhhh, what's up, Bill?”
“Be a buddy, Buddy,” Bill burbled. In a sudden spasm of desperation he flung himself to the ground and grappled his arms around the sergeant's knees. “Please don't make me go back in there. There's an officer in the barracks. Something awful is sure to happen.” But even this pathetic appeal didn't help.
“Sorry, Bill, but you know the rules: cover your ass. If I let anyone out I have to go in myself. You can't forget the Trooper's code.”
Indeed Bill could not. It was ingrained in them all, from the rawest recruit to the most senior non-com: hypnotically drilled into their brains.
Every week is bowb-your-buddy week.
“It's been nice knowing you, Bill. Can I have your fangs when you get killed?”
Bill was too depressed even to answer this routine request. He hauled himself to his feet, made a quick feint to see if he could get past the sergeant, bounced back well crunched, then plodded gloomily back into the barracks. This was a depressing place at the best of times, carefully designed by the emperor's sister-in-law in colors guaranteed to keep morale at a steady low level and the stomach at the point of regurgitation. Now not even Bill's collection of feet could cheer him up.
And it only got worse. The officer who had come in was a short, scrawny man, flanked by six tall, extraordinary-proportioned female bodyguards. This could be none other than Captain Kadaffi, hero of the Emperor's Own Household Commandos. He had survived dozens of battles, scores of raids behind enemy lines, and countless assassination attempts by his own Troopers. He was known and admired, only by other officers of course, for his willingness to stay in a battle to the very end, until the last enlisted men had been killed.
The enlisted men didn't admire that part so much, but their opinions didn't count. They were the ones who had tried to assassinate him, after all. They even tried to take him out when he was lecturing them, the motto being “a frag in class may save your ass.”
The bodyguards formed up in a semicircle around Kadaffi, flaunting guns and blasters at the ready. The captain struck a pose that was only slightly less macho than that of the women. “I need volunteers!” he squeaked with officerial authority.
Bill and the other Troopers shuffled their feet and tried to back away. The bodyguards' blasters twitched and there were a few warning shots fired into the barracks ceiling.
“I need twenty red-blooded heroes! Now is there anyone here who doesn't have red blood?” The Troopers tried to come up with a good answer to that one, but Kadaffi didn't give them time. “Right — you all volunteer.”
The officer wheeled and disappeared behind the bodyguards. The biggest of them, a redhead of terrifying voluptuousness, stepped forward and covered the men. “Grab your gear and fall in. Now!” She punctuated the order by flirtatiously firing a few rounds into the floor at Bill's feet.
“Hey,” he protested, “that's one of my best feet!”
“You won't need it where you're going. You won't need it at all after tonight. Too bad, too. That's a kinda' sexy foot, buster.”
“Not Buster, Bill. With two l's, just like an officer.” But the redhead had already lost interest.
The feet locker lay open like a treasure chest, but its temptations meant nothing to Bill now. He reached down to the bottom and pulled out the foot he hated, the one he never wanted to wear — the Swiss Army Foot.
This was a masterpiece of the foot-designer's art. It was the top of the line in high-tech feet, with special attachments and hidden weapons and secret compartments. There was a poisoned knife that shot out of the toe, a mini-laser that could be used for welding or for shooting people, a dart gun, an ammunition box, a toolkit, a condom dispenser, a small bottle of hot sauce, a length of super-strong monofilament line, a compass, a flare gun, a collapsible mess kit, a saw, a corkscrew, a magnifying glass, and a bunch of other things, some of which he had to read the manual to find out about because he had forgotten. The manual had more words than pictures, and was about the same size as the foot as well, so Bill had never read it very much. It didn't much matter, since the only one of all those tools and attachments Bill had used so far was the bottle of hot sauce. Though unhappily the hot sauce had eaten a large hole through the instant imitation field-combat food-type product, improving it immensely. The packaging, that is. The food was still inedible.
The combat foot was also very large. It was a good thing it was lightened by all the compartments, or it would have been too heavy to walk with.
With the combat foot snapped securely onto his ankle socket, Bill looked around desperately for something else to take with him into combat, and maybe, of course, into the Great Beyond. It was taken for granted that everything he had ever owned that was of sentimental value, every reminder of his home on Phigerinadon II, had long ago been lost. Even the holo-snapshot of his robomule was gone. Wiping away a small tear with his left-right hand — that was his only memento of his old shipmate the Voodoo minister and Fusetender Sixth Class Reverend Tembo (as opposed to his other right hand, which was original equipment) — Bill jammed his Imperial-issue hat on top of his Imperial-issue head and prepared to meet his Imperial-issue doom.
As they exited, a squad of heavily armed Troopers fell in around the volunteers to make absolutely sure none of them escaped, then escorted them to the armory. Armored combat jump suits awaited them; they had no choice but to climb in.
Actually, these suits had a lot in common with Bill's foot. They were made by the same company (The Emperor's Second Cousin's Own Defense Company, Inc.) with the same care and attention to detail. They both had lots of fancy features and attachments that worked really well sometimes, and hardly at all most of the time. They had the same scuffed, chipped, imitation pseudo-chrome finish.
And they were all about the same size.
Bill realized pretty quickly that the foot wasn't going to go inside the suit. He made a big show of trying to get it in, making sure that Captain Kadaffi and his bodyguards saw him.
He pushed and twisted and made funny noises.
“Unk!” he unked.
“Krskq!” he krskqed.
It was an elaborate and impressive performance. He jumped and spun and pirouetted and did a credible imitation of a man diving off a tower into a fish tank. Throwing out the top and bottom scores, the other volunteers gave him a 9 out of 15. Captain Kadaffi was not impressed. He ordered the big redhead over to see what was going on.
“What games you playing at, bowbhead?” she sighed.
“My foot won't go into the suit.” She bent down to look at the problem, and Bill caught an intoxicating whiff of something — gun oil? His pulse raced and his loins throbbed. “I guess I can't go with you after all. Not if I can't get into the suit, right?”
“Wrong. I'm going to shoot that foot off.”
“You can't! This is my combat foot,” Bill shouted in panic. “Top of the line.” He thought about it for a second. “On the other hand,” he said smarmily, “if you'd like to let me go back to my bunk, I might be able to pick out a replacement in just a few hours.” He inhaled her scent again. “Maybe afterwards we could go someplace private and get familiar with each other's feet.”
“No way, big boy.” She shook her head. “Not that it isn't tempting, but you're a commando now. You know the slogan — The Few, The Proud, The Dead. Doesn't pay for me to get involved with commandos.”
The redhead bent over the suit again. “Here's the problem.” She pulled out a laser cutter and sliced off the suit boot. “That ought to do it. Your foot's not too bad a match, and now you can use it in combat, and, what the hell, you will be dead soon anyway. Everyone's happy, right?”
Bill clicked his foot off, jammed his leg down into the suit, then clamped his combat foot back on. The bodyguard taped the suit leg to the foot with some duct tape and slapped him on the back. “Congratulations, old buddy, you're going to die a glorious death in the service of the Emperor. I'd like to be with you, but I have to stay with Captain Kadaffi in the rear. Better well fed than long dead.”
Bill shrugged his understanding and started checking out his weapons. Laser cannon, fully charged. Grenade rack and launcher, loaded and ready. Armor, chipped and pitted, but not too leaky. Machine pistols, loaded. He swung up one of the guns to fire off a couple of test rounds in the general direction of Kadaffi's left ventricle.
Click. Click. Nothing happened.
Except the captain squealed with delight. “Excellent!”
He swaggered over to Bill, who was now surrounded by lethal feminine pulchritude and quivering in anticipation of an extremely messy and sudden demise.
“What happened?” Bill asked.
“This happened,” Kadaffi said with a flourish, pulling out a small device that looked like a holovision remote control. "My remote control, that's what. You don't think I'd be crazy enough to stay in a room full of armed Troopers, do you? None of your weapons will work until I say so.
“But you, my boy,” he said, grinning obnoxiously up at Bill, "you have showed initiative.
“You shall have the honor of leading the attack.”
Bill contemplated his new honor with growing horror.
“Oh, bowb,” he muttered, still clicking the unfunctioning trigger.
It was dark inside the belly of the attack transport. The constant vibration of the engines kept the troopers' stomachs churning noisily at a level just above full heartburn and a little below outright upchucking. Which at least distracted them from the deadly attack to come. A low moaning came from the rear.