Chapter Seventeen

The danger that the U. S. Army and planet Earth were in preyed on Sgt. Armstrong’s mind in the days following the kidnapping, and he tried repeatedly to talk to people about it. No one would listen, and with each rebuff his emotional balance became less sturdy. Major Harris had suggested that he take a leave, and had told him to rest up, to pull himself back together. He had tried to talk to Col. Church, but the Colonel would admit nothing of what they had witnessed together, and told him to forget the entire incident. He had contacted an old friend of his from early Army days; he was an officer with some rank now, and might be able to help. The friend had gently suggested psychiatric care. It was, he had pointed out helpfully, very easy to get, in the military. Nothing to be ashamed of, and free.

Pull himself together! Forget the whole incident! Go to a psychiatrist! This was all that his friends and superiors could say to him? Didn’t they know? Couldn’t they see? There was an interplanetary war about to break loose, and no one would listen.

Armstrong had formed a loyalty to the Army that was as strong as any family tie; the organization had been parent and brother to him through the years; he had found his place in its service. And now it was he alone who could defend it. Defend the uniform! That was it. Do not disgrace the uniform!

He’d gotten the detective’s report from Miami over the telephone. Thirty minutes, long distance. That was going to cost! The detective fees would probably wipe him out financially. And the report. The mystical room and the candles. And the body on the table. And no one to understand it all but him, the only one.

He poured himself another drink, and looked at his hand. Steady as a rock, even after half a bottle. That was the only way. Tough, hard, fighting trim. And clean. Precise. Defend the uniform! He was at a motel close to the Padeyevsky farm. A day and a half had passed since Starr’s return from Miami. His watches had been long. He had seen much. Now was the time for action.

He was ready. It was dark now, and he went out to his car and removed a duffel bag and a garment bag from its trunk. His best green uniform. Defend the uniform! Careful inspection of the combat boots. Not one fleck to mar their round-toed shine. He fitted his steel helmet over its helmet liner, careful not to scratch it. He looked with pride on his old unit insignia, which was painted in its warm colors on the left side of the helmet. A place in this world. A place where there was order to things. Black stripes on the front of the helmet, because he was a Sergeant First Class. That was who he was. Sergeant First Class John Armstrong. His name. His whole name! Defend the uniform! He carefully put the decorations above the left breast pocket, and snapped the combat infantry badge above them, his blood tingling in his veins. His uniform!

He hung the coat where it wouldn’t wrinkle and opened the duffel bag. His

U. S. Army carbine had been bought and paid for; he wasn’t one to appropriate U. S. Army material. But it had been an M-1 when he got it; it was now an M-2. He’d made the conversion himself, using parts that an ordnance sergeant friend of his had slipped him. A fully automatic weapon! A man was only as good as his weapon. He had 15-round magazines for the carbine; he cursed himself for not having obtained 30-round magazines long ago. The moment was coming! He was ready! The time was near!

What are my orders? He put the short bayonet into position at the muzzle of his carbine. It seemed a ridiculous appendage to such a short weapon, but he was dealing with aliens. They might withstand bullets. But the bayonet? He was fit and ready. He could tear them limb from limb! He carefully set the selector to full automatic. One bullet might not stop the alien, but fifteen would!

He knotted his tie, looking into the mirror. Oh! Was there a smudge from the bayonet’s scabbard on his finger? A disgrace to the uniform! He rubbed until the bit of oil was off. Cleanliness! Precision! Order! What are my orders, sir? There was a spring device to stiffen the collar of his shirt; he inserted it. The helmet’s rim was two finger’s width from the bridge of his nose. Just so. Regulations, soldier. That’s the Army way! His keen eyes spotted a speck of dust on one of his boots. He bent stiff legged and wiped it off. The coat went on. The webbed belt that held his .45 went on. The full canteen balanced the weight of the pistol. The poncho went in back. No, wait! It was a night mission. Ponchos at night? Leave the poncho. Full uniform without the poncho. The folded ponchos spoiled the looks of the uniform.

He picked up the carbine, slung it across his right shoulder, and assumed the position of attention in front of the mirror. There was something. What? He saluted. The image saluted back, the shiny image. But the ribbons! That was proof! The ribbons were on the wrong side! That was what the aliens would do! What are my orders?

He knew his orders. Words were inappropriate. He did a precisely correct about-face, walked out to the car, unslung his carbine and put it across the back seat, got in, and started down the highway towards Padeyevsky’s farm.

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