Come on, you apes! You wanta live forever?
— Unknown platoon sergeant, 1918
I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate.
I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.
At D-minus-thirty, after we had mustered in the drop room of the Rodger Young, our platoon leader inspected us. He wasn’t our regular platoon leader, because Lieutenant Rasczak had bought it on our last drop; he was really the platoon sergeant, Career Ship’s Sergeant Jelal. Jelly was a Finno-Turk from Iskander around Proxima — a swarthy little man who looked like a clerk, but I’ve seen him tackle two berserk privates so big he had to reach up to grab them, crack their heads together like coconuts, step back out of the way while they fell.
Off duty he wasn’t bad — for a sergeant. You could even call him “Jelly” to his face. Not recruits, of course, but anybody who had made at least one combat drop.
But right now he was on duty. We had all each inspected our combat equipment (look, it’s your own neck — see?), the acting platoon sergeant had gone over us carefully after he mustered us, and now Jelly went over us again, his face mean, his eyes missing nothing. He stopped by the man in front of me, pressed the button on his belt that gave readings on his physicals. “Fall out!”
“But, Sarge, it’s just a cold. The Surgeon said — ”
Jelly interrupted. “‘But Sarge!’“ he snapped. “The Surgeon ain’t making no drop — and neither are you, with a degree and a half of fever. You think I got time to chat with you, just before a drop? Fall out!”
Jenkins left us, looking sad and mad — and I felt bad, too. Because of the Lieutenant buying it, last drop, and people moving up, I was assistant section leader, second section, this drop, and now I was going to have a hole in my section and no way to fill it. That’s not good; it means a man can run into something sticky, call for help and have nobody to help him.
Jelly didn’t downcheck anybody else. Presently he stepped out in front of us, looked us over and shook his head sadly. “What a gang of apes!” he growled. “Maybe if you’d all buy it this drop, they could start over and build the kind of outfit the Lieutenant expected you to be. But probably not — with the sort of recruits we get these days.” He suddenly straightened up, shouted, “I just want to remind you apes that each and every one of you has cost the gov’ment, counting weapons, armor, ammo, instrumentation, and training, everything, including the way you overeat — has cost, on the hoof, better’n half a million. Add in the thirty cents you are actually worth and that runs to quite a sum.” He glared at us. “So bring it back! We can spare you, but we can’t spare that fancy suit you’re wearing. I don’t want any heroes in this outfit; the Lieutenant wouldn’t like it. You got a job to do, you go down, you do it, you keep your ears open for recall, you show up for retrieval on the bounce and by the numbers. Get me?”
He glared again. “You’re supposed to know the plan. But some of you ain’t got any minds to hypnotize so I’ll sketch it out. You’ll be dropped in two skirmish lines, calculated two-thousand-yard intervals. Get your bearing on me as soon as you hit, get your bearing and distance on your squad mates, both sides, while you take cover. You’ve wasted ten seconds already, so you smash-and-destroy whatever’s at hand until the flankers hit dirt.” (He was talking about me — as assistant section leader I was going to be left flanker, with nobody at my elbow. I began to tremble.)