Authors: Harry Harrison
Special thanks to Nat Sobel, Henry Morrison, Chris Miller, David Keller and John Betancourt
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any other form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
For John De Chancie
The poster on the wall of the galactic Bureau of Investigation reception office depicted a slavering seven-foot-tall lizardoid creature with a human arm protruding repulsively from its fanged jaws. The Chinger was a particularly obnoxious specimen of its breed, with razor-sharp scales gleaming with sadistic highlights, its claws like sharpened sickles. The hideous creature's eyes glowed with satanic evil, while saliva mixed with human blood trickled down its green body to its muscle-bulging legs and tail, wrapped modestly in chartreuse and lightning-silver Danskins. Fierce, hypnotic evil glimmered in the diamond-facet eyes. The thing looked like the revolting result of a misprinted copy of AC/DC sado-maso Comix, thought Sergeant Bill of Phigerinadon II. Bill much preferred Furville Comix.
KILL A CHINGER FOR KRISHNA! declared the paisley three-dimensional letters glowing and revolving like psychedelic barbershop posts.
Bill stared at the thing thoughtfully, while tooth-picking from around his fangs the repulsive remains of this morning's sludge-in-a-bowl the galley had squeezed out to him.
“Pretty impressive, huh?” said the man behind the desk. A flickering holoslab labeled him as HERVIL SKIMMILQUETOAST. “That's the new design from the Emperor's Own Office of Accurate and Efficient Information.” The guy was typical desk jockey meat, short, stupid and inefficient, with some sort of birth defect that made him look like a crocodile: green skin, bumps, pointy teeth and all. There were a lot of mutants in the galaxy, and as long as there was radiation, botched genetic gene-splicing and permits for Hollywoodworld producers to reproduce even more, there always would be. But that was okay, since you had to have people to run the Galactic Bureaucracy, and every other able-bodied son-of-a-bitch got shanghaied into the Troopers and paid the Emperor's credit debit. As long as they had a brain somewhere behind their alien eyes, could hunt and peck on their computer terminal and didn't short out communications wiring with their drool, they were prime paper-pusher material. “They say they used a real Chinger for photo-reference. Real arm, too. Bit of a scandal when it got et and they couldn't return it to the guy who loaned it — but that goes to show you. You can't trust a Chinger as far as you can blow them ... I mean snow them....” He took his clawed finger out of a cavernous nostril, examined it unhappily, then pushed it back for a good root around. “Hmmm. Just what do I mean?”
There was just one thing that seemed to be normal about this specimen from the Sears and Geekbuck catalog, observed Bill. And he leaned over the desk, giving his best Galactic-Trooper-makes-nice-nice grin. “Nice foot you got there, greeny,” said Bill.
“Huh?” The bureaucrat ceased his nostril drilling, leaned forward in his chair, and blinked hard.
“I said, nice foot. Or I guess it would be, if you didn't have it in that shoe. Mind if I have a look?”
“Uhm ... Mr. Trooper...”
“The name's Bill, buddy. Trooper Bill.” Bill had to stop himself from grabbing the man by the throat and throttling him in a friendly drill instructor/recruiter love grip. This wasn't boot camp, but — and it was Bill's favorite game — a strange, warped variation on “Footsie.”
“Trooper Bill. Did I hear you correctly? You want to look at my foot.”
“Yeah. I got this thing for feet. Call it a podiatry problem. Pedophilia, the shrink called it. And I got a little foot problem, too. It's irresistible — my little toe begins to itch — I can't control myself — arrgh!”
With no further ado, Bill lifted his leg up, plopped a naked foot upon the saurian bureaucrat's desk and scratched enthusiastically at his toe. And what a foot! It had twelve toes, gold toenails — and the skin was Royal Stuart tartan.
The guy's eyes bugged impressively, his jaw sagged — then snapped shut with an impressive clattering of fangs.
“Jumpin' Jupiter Juice! That's some foot. Might I be so presumptuous as to ask — what happened?”
“I'll tell you what happened. Completely by accident I shot the original one off on a planet called Veniola, that's what happened.” He sniffed in self-pitying memory. “That's not easy to do, you know.”
“But ... but ... if I may be so bold to ask —” the guy had an annoying whine to his voice, kind of like the sound a whoopee cushion makes on its last wheeze — “why?”
“Simple. It was the only way they'd let me off the planet. They had to ship me out because they were short of replacement feet. Eventually they just gave me a new foot and put me back on duty. But at least it was on a different planet.”
“That foot?” said Herv.
“Not this one, idiot, another one. I've had so many feet I should be a mile by now. I've had so many feet I feel like a podiatrist's lab. I've had so many feet —”
The guy got a weird, frightened look on his face. “Oh, I get it,” he simpered. “I've heard about you Troopers, locked up on those dreadnoughts for years without female companionship. Something has to snap — and often does, that's what I heard. So you've got this thing for feet.”
Bill leaned over the desk with a menacing scowl. “Watch it, bowb. You calling me a prevert?”
“No, no, Trooper Bill,” whinnied the clerk, recoiling, suddenly aware of those rolling trapezius, deltoid and triceps that bulged from Bill's frame like an inflated scuba suit. “Look, it's just not normal for me to, uh, show summoned agents my foot!” The guy made a conciliatory grin, but Bill was going to go for his throat anyway. He was interrupted by a squawk over the loudspeaker.
“Skimmilquetoast! Is that the Trooper I sent for who is bellowing out his brains out there?”
“Yes sir,” said Herv, looking with trepidation up at Bill.
“Just a peek, huh? I promise I won't touch it!”
“What are you two doing out there, playing 'Doctor'? Send the sphincter-muscle in!” The intercom clicked off with a burst of static.
“C'mon, be a pal,” said Bill. “I'll give you a cred-chit! I've got some Betelgeuse love beads with lots of juice. They're yours! How about a —”
“No. No, nothing. Here, if that's all you want, just look and then get the hell into the office before I lose my stupid job!” The clerk quickly took off his shoe and then his sock. He held up his pale green foot for Bill to see.
It was the most exquisite foot that Bill had ever seen.
From well-formed heels to perfect arches down to pedicured toenails painted pink, it looked like a Michelangelo sculpture or a Raphael painting of an angel. Albeit green. Bill's foot (on the other hand, or other foot) looked like garbage can modern.
“Nice foot,” said Bill pleasantly. “Thanks.”
“But what about your other one. Isn't that normal?”
Bill shook his head. “Flat. Broken toes. Corns on the cob. Usual Trooper's foot. You must be a very proud man. Cherish your foot, my friend.” He wiped back a tear. “Well, I'd better see what this bowbhead wants.”
Bill squared his shoulders and marched into the main office of J. Edgar Insufledor, deputy director of Anti-Chinger and Commupop Menace Operations of the GBI.
As soon as he marched in, he found himself directly in the sights of a Mark Thousand and Two Howitzer Laser Cannon. This piece of artillery sprouted from the Deputy Director's desk, which was made of riveted gray steel.
“Halt! Or be blown apart!”
Bill halted. He raised his hands in the time-honored signal for surrender, lack of weapons and requesting to go to the little boy's room. “It's just me. Trooper Bill. Loyal Trooper. Reporting as requested. Sir!”
“You sure you're not a Chinger spy!” growled the voice. Bill could see a grizzled crewcut grizzling up from behind the armorclad desk.
“No sir! Do I look green and seven feet tall, sir?” Bill knew full well from far too many personal experiences that far from being seven feet tall, Chingers were only seven inches tall. True, being from a high gravity world they were powerful little bug-eyed buggers, dangerous and crafty and killer poker-players. But he felt it best to play along with the Intergalactic propaganda crap, apparently even bought by its purveyors.
“Damned close! Could be a makeup job along with a tailectomy. True, you did make it in here through the cat-scan and failed the subliminal IQ exam. You're far too stupid to be a Chinger.”
“Thank you. Sir!” Bill said, going into the usual Trooper barking mantra denoting respect, honor and the traditional raw hatred for your superiors.
“Very well, Bill.” The laser cannon drooped noticeably and Bill felt a lot more comfortable. The man rose up from behind his armor shield, revealing features that looked like a cross between a warthog and a fire plug. A cigar the size of a starship escape pod stuck out from the side of his face. “Are you or have you ever been, in this life or a previous life, or have you ever even wanted to be or thought about being or might you ever be, in some future life in another dimension, a card-carrying member of the Commupop Party?”
Bill's thick eyebrows knitted. “Is this a trick question?”
The Commupop Party!
The Well-Read Menace!
There had been Commupops back on Phigerinadon II, Bill vaguely remembered, but they'd been wiped out by a Trooper raid when he was a little boy. He remembered that well because suddenly his Mom wouldn't give him cherry pop sickles any more, and because Mr. Leon Trotsky down the street was discovered hanging by his thumbs in the Town Square. This made Bill sad, because it was Mr. Trotsky who had given him the cherry pop sickles and had introduced him to Classix Comix Agitprop Bookskis and the whole idea of Comix, period. The real irony, said Mrs. Bill, was that Mr. Trotsky's real name was Fred Jones and he was just a fan of Russian history and literature, not a Commupop Party Member at all. But, as Bill would find out in his adult life, Galactic Troopers were trained in Boot Camp, not Book Camp, and they hung first and asked questions later. Bill's response was to ask his Mom if coprophilia had anything to do with loving policemen. Mom had muttered something about “damned intellectuals” and just let Bill go on reading his Comix after weeding out anything educational and threatening.
The Commupop Party, of course, was the abbreviation for the Community Popular Reading Party and had absolutely nothing to do with the Intergalactic Communist Party, or Saint Karl Marx. In fact, politically they were quite neutral and about as threatening to the Emperor's reign as, oh, his terminally backed-up toilet in his Rec Room on Wreckworld. However, the Emperor's rule being totalitarian and all, and the Communist Party being such a usual historical bugaboo, his Office of Paranoia and Disinformation fell upon the hapless Community Popular Reading Party like depleted uranium.
Thousands of hapless readers were sent to prison for reading the wrong books. A special committee was appointed to weed through the millions of books available to the general public and to ban the ones considered inappropriate to the general governmentally oppressed galactic citizen. To paraphrase the philosopher Santayana, those who do not know history are doomed to regurgitate it. The Emperor would have been better off just ignoring book readers. His persecution radicalized hundreds of thousands, who immediately became the revolutionaries the authorities feared they would be (albeit revolutionaries who, after a hard day of fire-bombing, went home to curl up with a nice thick book). Hence the creation of the Well-Read Menace, the Commupop Party.
“Trick question? Of course it's not a trick question, you idiot.” The cigar bobbed obscenely and the man leaped up and hopped around, the fat on his squat body jiggling like warm Jell-O beneath his starched white shirt and black tie with Day-Glo polka dots. “You think I'm wasting my breath?”
Bill did exactly what he usually did when he faced a bureaucratic conundrum. “Look, I'm not going anywhere. The colonel told me to report here promptly at eleven hundred hours today for a special duty assignment. I ain't no Commupop Party Member, I'm a healthy reader of Blue-Blooded Galactic Comix and horny-porny comix — when I can get them — and proud of it. So while you figure out what you want with me, I'll just sit here and have some of the medicine that the doctor ordered me to take every hour.”
He took out a medicine bottle that was really a flask of 100-proof rum (even Bill was smart enough not to take vodka into the GBI office), unscrewed the cap and tippled a good half of its contents, leaving his mouth open and making lots of noise.
Bill well knew that if he'd done such a thing in a Trooper office, he would have promptly been keelhauled from the nearest deepspace freighter. However, this wasn't military business, it was GBI stuff and he was on loan.
Instead of being unhappy, however, the Director was sniffing the air ecstatically. “I can't believe it! You're just the man I need!”
“What? You want a hit too?” Bill offered the flask, already feeling the comforting kick of alcohol flattening his senses.
“Uhm.... No, thank you, Trooper Bill. And now that my memory is refreshed and I reexamined my files, I remember why you're here. Sorry about the grilling. Knee-jerk reaction. If it's not the Chingers I must worry about, it's the damned Commupops. Bill, I got a very special assignment for you. The fate of the universe rests upon those considerable shoulders! Or something like that. Sit down, Bill, and let me turn off this damned machine here. Don't want to fry our most promising Special Agent, now, do we?”
Bill sat down, took another gurgle of drink, then tucked the flask back into his front pocket. It would have been a good idea for him to have put the top back on and to tuck it into his pocket bottom first, since he managed to spill about four ounces of primo rum onto his lap, staining his crotch and running chills down the hairy sides of his legs.