“Listen up.” Major General Horowitz, a grey-haired, tanned, sturdy man in his mid-fifties, slurped down the remainder of his mug of coffee as he turned to face the head of the shuttle gangway, to observe over a hundred greenhorn Lupines clinging to their seatbelts with white knuckles.
“Ah, that’s what I call coffee. Nicaraguan can’t be beat. All right, you horrible lot, seeing as we’re T-minus, and the next time you get to hear my dulcets will be in orbit around Scimitar, now’s the time to tell you about a delightful little thing called Celiba-C. Okay, you’ve all heard of it before. Whoopee for you. But as you’re no doubt aware by now, girls and boys fighting side by side pose a very real and very dangerous practical problem. A biological phenomenon of the utmost import. A profound physiological conundrum. Namely, the hard-on.”
Desperate laughter shook the aging, discoloured metal cabin. Godiva and Dash resisted making eye contact.
“All right, all right. Simmer down. We’ll be administering Celiba-C shortly, in the shape of these.” He shook a plastic medicine bottle full of half-inch capsules. “Take two now and one just before we land, and then one each morning all the while you’re on Scimitar. Don’t fuck with us on this. Sex is the biggest killer in warfare. You’ve got the hots for someone, or you’re secretly a bit of a Don Quixote, your first priority will invariably be to that person’s welfare ahead of the mission. I tell you, I’ve lost more troops to hurdy-gurdy in the loins than any other human factor. I’m dead serious. Celiba-C neutralizes all sexual or gender-oriented urges while you’re in the field. No more hard-ons, no more getting wet. Same for any same-sex scenarios. You won’t see men and women out there. You’ll see comrades who’ll follow fucking orders to whatever end! Trust me, it’s the only way this works. Four years and counting…and the upturn in performance has been amazing. Basically, you all end up androgynous for the duration. But that’s it. No side effects, no long-term deterioration. You can fuck each other senseless when you’re on leave, but for now it’s monks and nuns and you’re married to God and the fucking corps. Any questions?”
“Yeah, where are all the stewardesses before I take that shit?”
Horowitz smiled and nodded at the clown near the front. “Still trying to figure out why you’re not in the cargo hold with the rest of the fucking tools.”
Scattered applause accompanied a deafening cheer.
“Why take two now if we’re taking one when we get there?” asked Godiva, immediately embarrassed by her serious question.
“Aha, a sensible one,” replied Horowitz. “What’s your name, Sergeant?”
A male voice from the back added, “Lady Godiva’s asking about hard-ons? Tell her to get her tits out and we’ll demonstrate.”
Dash replied right away, “That guy can skip his pills. He was born dick-less.” This retort even prompted a chuckle from the Major General, but Dash himself wished the words had been fists instead. He caught Godiva blushing, and he hated that Horowitz had been made privy to her sex object status.
“All right, that’s enough,” Horowitz insisted, noticing how red Godiva’s cheeks had become. “Save it for the return trip. In answer to your very sensible question, Sergeant Randall, the body has to acclimate to Celiba-C, and during the time you’re unconscious, about two days, those first two capsules will be doing their work. After that, it’s one per day. And don’t any of you think about skipping a dose. Your C.O. will always have a spare supply, so if you happen to mislay your quotient, it’s your duty to let him know. And remember, he can test you for Celiba-C at any time. The punishment for not taking it is a mandatory court-martial, so like I said, don’t fuck with us on this.”
A male junior officer with red hair and freckles wheeled a trolley filled with hundreds of Celiba-C bottles up the gangway. The wheels clattered across the gridiron. Every member of Twelfth Lupine swallowed the two capsules, some having to use water from conical containers retrieved from inside the armrests. There was no discernible effect right away, and Godiva tried not to think about the imminent banishment of Dash Collingwood from her thoughts. Or could the drug really neutralise those instincts? The sexual kind, yes, but what about close friendship, a bond not governed by the loins? What would he be to her in the grip of Celiba-C? A stranger? A brother? Déjà vu? She winced. How would he treat her? As a comrade? A sister? A piece of equipment?
She bowed her head and felt bitterly alone. When the drug kicked in, he wouldn’t go out of his way to protect her any more, and she would no longer care. But there was a downside to Celiba-C that only someone in love could perceive. It wasn’t a question of sex, it was a question of love. How does one isolate and suppress love? And how much of a person is lost when that passion is denied? Would it not filter into the camaraderie of the corps? Godiva realised she wanted a man to look out for her, she wanted to look out for him, and without that protective instinct, Lupine Corps would be a well-trained unit without a heart.
Maybe it was better that way. Maybe.
A loose gridiron hatch rattled like a supermarket trolley across cobblestone as the engines heaved the shuttle upward, and after a long, teeth-chattering ascent, punched it beyond the earth’s magnetic pull.
“That had better be the worst of it,” whispered Dash, pale as guano. “I never did like roller-coasters.”
Godiva leapt on the opportunity. “Are you kidding me? That was nothing. Just wait until we ride the bullet into deep space. Now that’s a roller-coaster.”
He closed his eyes, shook his head, and mouthed a few expletives. Pleased with herself, Godiva patted his shoulder, whispering, “And that’s something they don’t have a pill for. Best to think of it as therapy: what doesn’t kill you…makes you even more shit-scared of dying.”
“Thanks, Di,” he replied sarcastically. “I guess Celiba-C works after all.”
The quip dove straight to the ringing part of her brain. She knew what she ought to be feeling—mild regret at having treated his suffering with contempt, however playful—but the impulses were incomplete. They lingered off-key., Vague xylophonic notes that meant nothing, but which she knew had dampened that part of her compassion. What else did Celiba-C have in store? She swallowed, conscious of the stubborn phlegm clinging to her throat.
“Only kidding,” she said, not quite recognising her own voice. “Light speed is a piece of cake. And hey, I’m not going anywhere.”
He looked at her strangely, and she knew why. What a thing to say to a death-defying paratrooper! What next, holding hands!? This was going to be a long trip, and a lonely one.
By the time the shuttle had fully charged its photonic cells inside the giant, elliptical wormhole gateway, the soldiers of Twelfth Lupine were fully indifferent to one another. And in the split second between drifting through space and being yanked into an interstellar corkscrew, every man and woman lost consciousness. The only sound on board was the hatch rattling over the stairwell to the upper deck. Merely overlooked, it was of no consequence. But even so, it had not been designed for that.