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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 10


  Being a sergeant, Cat didn’t have her own billet; she slept in a wing with the other women in her platoon. But one night she showed up at my door on the verge of tears, with a mysterious problem we’d both been dealing with: sometimes the new arm just doesn’t feel like it belongs. It obeys your commands, but it’s like a separate creature, grafted on, and the feeling of its separateness can take over everything. I let her cry on my shoulder, the good one, and then we shared my narrow bed for the night. We didn’t do anything that we hadn’t done many times in the shower, but it wasn’t playful. I lay awake thinking, long after she fell asleep with her cheek on my breast.

  I still loved William, but barring a miracle I would never see him again. What I felt for Cat was more than just friendship, and by her standards and everyone else’s there was nothing odd about it. And there was no way I could have had a future with Sid or any of the other men.

  When I was young there’d been a sarcastic song that went something like “If I can’t be with the one I love, I’ll love the one I’m with.” I guess that sort of sums it up.

  I went to Elise Durack, the Strike Force psychologist, and he helped me through some twists and turns. Then Cat and I went together to Octavia Poll, the female sex counselor, which wound up being a strange and funny four-way consultation with Dante Norelius, the male counselor. That resulted in a mechanical contrivance that we giggled about but occasionally used, which made it more like sex with a man. Cat sympathized with my need to hold on to my past, and said she didn’t mind that I was remembering William when I was with her. She thought it was romantic, if perverse.

  I started to bring the subject up with the major, and she brushed it off with a laugh. Everyone who cared aboard ship knew about it, and it was a good thing; it made me seem less strange to them. If I had been in Cat’s platoon, above her in the direct chain of command, she would be routinely assigned to another platoon, which had been done several times.

  (The logic of that is clear, but it made me wonder about Garcia herself. If she became in love with another woman, there wouldn’t be any way to put that woman someplace outside of her command. But as far as I knew, she didn’t have anybody.)

  Cat more or less moved in with me. If some people in her platoon resented it, more were just as glad not to have their sergeant watching over them every hour of the day. She usually stayed with them until first lights-out, and then walked down the corridor to my billet—often passing other people on similar missions. Hard to keep secrets of that sort in a spaceship, and not many tried.

  There was an element of desperation in our relationship, doomed souls sharing a last few months, but that was true of everybody’s love unless they were absolutely myopic one-day-at-a-timers. If the numbers held, only 34 percent of us had any future beyond Elephant, which is what everybody called Aleph-10 by the time we angled in for our second collapsar jump.

  William had tried in a resigned way to explain the physics of it all, the first time we did a jump, but math had defeated me in college long before calculus kicked me permanently into majoring in English. It has to do with acceleration. If you just fell toward a collapsar, the way normal matter does, you would be doomed. For some reason you and the people around you would seem to be falling forever, but to the outside world, you would be snuffed out instantly.

  Well, sure. Obviously nobody ever did the experiment.

  Anyhow, you accelerate toward the collapsar’s “event horizon,” which is what it has instead of a surface, at a precalculated speed and angle, and you pop out of another collapsar umpty light-years away—maybe five, maybe five million. You better get the angle right, because you can’t always just reverse things and come back.

  (Which we hoped was all that happened to the first Elephant Strike Force. They might be on the other side of the galaxy, colonizing some nice quiet world. Every cruiser did carry a set of wombs and a crèche, against that possibility, though the major rolled her eyes when she described it. Purely a morale device, she said; they probably didn’t work. I wondered whether, in that case, people might be able to grit their teeth and try to make babies the old-fashioned way.)

  Since we were leaving from Heaven, we were required to make at least two collapsar jumps before “acquiring” Elephant. That soaked up two centuries of objective time, if such a thing exists. To us it was eleven fairly stressful months. Besides the training with the old-fashioned weapons, the troops had to drill with their fighting suits and whatever specialized weapon system they were assigned to, in case the stasis field didn’t work or had been rendered useless by some enemy development.

  Meanwhile, I did my Executive Officer work. It was partly bookkeeping, which is almost trivial aboard ship, since nothing comes in and nothing goes out. The larger part was a vague standing assignment to keep up the troops’ morale.

  I was not well qualified for that; perhaps less qualified than anybody else aboard. Their music didn’t sound like music to me. Their games seemed pointless, even after they’d been relentlessly explained. The movies were interesting, at least as anthropology, and the pleasures of food and drink hadn’t changed much, but their sex lives were still pretty mysterious to me, in spite of my affection for Cat and the orgasms we exchanged. If a man and a woman walked by, I was still more interested in the man. So I did love a woman, but as an actual lesbian I was not a great success.

  Sometimes that gave me comfort, a connection to William and my past. More often it made me feel estranged, helpless.

  I did have eight part-time volunteers, and one full-time subordinate, Sergeant Cody Waite. He was not an asset. I think the draft laws on Earth, the Elite Conscription Act, were ignored on Heaven. In fact, I would go even further (to make a reference that nobody on the ship would understand) and claim that there was a Miltonian aspect to his arrival. He had been expelled from Heaven, for overweening pride. But he had nothing to be proud of, except his face and muscles. He had the intelligence of a hamster. He did look like a Greek god, but for me what that meant was that every time I needed him to do something, he was down in the gym working out on the machines. Or off getting his rectum reamed by some adoring guy who didn’t have to talk with him. He could read and write, though, so eventually I found I could keep him out of the way by having him elaborate on my weekly reports. He could take “This week was the same as last week,” and turn it into an epic of relentless tedium.

  I was glad to be out of the chain of command. You train people intensively for combat and then put them into a box for eleven months of what? More training for combat. Nobody’s happy and some people snap.

  The men are usually worse than the women—or, at least, when the women lose control it tends to be a shouting match rather than fists and feet. Cat had a pair who were an exception, though, and it escalated to attempted murder in the mess hall.

  This was ten days before the last collapsar jump—everybody on the ragged edge—between Lain Mayfair and “Tiny” Keimo, who was big enough to take on most of the men. Lain tried to cut her throat, from behind, and Tiny broke her arm at the elbow while everybody else was diving for cover, and was seriously strangling her—trying to kill her before she herself bled to death—when the cook J.J. ran over and brained the big woman with a frying pan.

  While they were still in the infirmary there was a summary court-martial. With the consistent testimony of forty witnesses, Major Garcia didn’t have any choice: she sentenced Lain Mayfair to death for attempted murder. She administered the lethal injection herself.

  I was required to be a witness, and more, and it was not the high point of my day. Mayfair was bedridden and, I think, slightly sedated. Garcia explained the reason for the verdict and asked Mayfair whether she would prefer the dignity of taking the poison herself. She didn’t say anything, just cried and shook her head. Two privates held her down by the shoulders while Garcia took her arm and administered the popper. Mayfair turned pale and her eyes rolled up. She shook convulsively for a few seconds and was dead.

  Garcia d
idn’t show any emotion during the ordeal. She whispered to me that she would be in her quarters if anybody really needed her, and left quickly.

  I had to supervise the disposal of the body. I had two medics wrap her tightly in a sheet and put her on a gurney. We had to roll it down the main corridor, everybody watching. I helped the two of them carry her into the airlock. She was starting to stiffen, but her body wasn’t even cold.

  I had a friend read a prayer in Mayfair’s language, and asked the engineer for maximum pressure in the airlock, and then popped it. Her body spun out into its lonely, infinite grave.

  I went back to the infirmary and found Tiny inconsolable. She and Mayfair had been lovers back on Stargate. Everything had gone wrong, nothing made sense, why why why why? My answer was to have Sharn give her a tranquilizer. I took one myself.

  7

  We came tearing out of the Elephant’s collapsar about one minute after the defense phalanx, the ten high-speed intelligent drones that had multiple warheads, programmed to take out the portal planet’s nova-bomb minefield.

  The first surprise was that the minefield wasn’t there. The second surprise was that the Taurans weren’t, either. Their base seemed intact but long deserted, cold.

  We would destroy it with a nova bomb, but first send a platoon down to investigate it. Garcia asked that I go along with them. It was Cat’s platoon. It would be an interesting experience to share, so long as a booby trap didn’t blow us off the planet. The deserted base could be bait.

  We would have a nova bomb with us. Either Morales or I could detonate it if we got into a situation that looked hopeless. Or Garcia could do it from orbit. I was sure Garcia could do it. Not so sure about me or Aurelio.

  But while we were down in the prep bay getting into our fighting suits, there came the third surprise, the big one. I later saw the recording. The main cube in the control room lit up with a two-dimensional picture of a young man in an ancient uniform. He popped in and out of three dimensions while he spoke: “Hello, Earth ship. Do you still use this frequency? Do you still use this language?”

  He smiled placidly. “Of course you won’t respond at first; neither would I. This could be a trap. Feel free to investigate at long range. I am calling from a different portal planet. I’m currently 12.23 million kilometers from you, on the plane of the ecliptic, on an angle of 0.54 radians with respect to the collapsar. As you probably know by now.

  “I am a descendant of the first Strike Force, nearly half a millennium ago. I await your questions.” He sat back in his chair, in a featureless room. He crossed his legs and picked up a notebook and began flipping through it.

  We immediately got a high-resolution image of the portal planet. It was small, as they usually are; cold and airless except for the base. It was actually more like a town than a base, and it was as obvious as a beacon. It wasn’t enclosed; air was evidently held in by some sort of force field. It was lit up by an artificial sun that floated a few kilometers above the surface.

  There was an ancient cruiser in orbit, its dramatic sweeping streamlined grace putting our functional clunkiness to shame. There were also two Tauran vessels. None of them was obviously damaged.

  All of us 5-and-above officers were on the bridge when we contacted the planet. Commodore Sidorenko sat up front with Garcia; he technically outranked her in this room, but it was her show, since the actual business was planetside.

  I felt a little self-conscious, having come straight from the prep bay. Everyone else was in uniform; I was just wearing the contact net for the fighting suit. Like a layer of silver paint.

  Garcia addressed the man in the chair. “Do you have a name and a rank?”

  It took about forty seconds for the message to get to him, and another forty for his response: “My name is Man. We don’t have ranks; I’m here because I can speak Old Standard. English.”

  You could play a slow chess game during this conversation, and not miss anything. “But your ancestors defeated the Taurans, somehow.”

  “No. The Taurans took them prisoner and set them up here. Then there was another battle, generations ago. We never heard from them again.”

  “But we lost that battle. Our cruiser was destroyed with all hands aboard.”

  “I don’t know anything about that. Their planet was on the other side of the collapsar when the battle happened. The people here saw a lot of light, distorted by gravitational lensing. We always assumed it was some robotic assault, since we didn’t hear anything from either side, afterwards. I’m sorry so many people died.”

  “What about the Taurans who were with you? Are there Taurans there now?”

  “No; there weren’t any then, and there aren’t any now. Before the battle they showed up now and then.”

  “But there are—” she began.

  “Oh, you mean the Tauran ships in orbit. They’ve been there for hundreds of years. So has our cruiser. We have no way to get to them. This place is self-sufficient, but a prison.”

  “I’ll contact you again after I’ve spoken to my officers.” The cube went dark.

  Garcia swiveled around, and so did Sidorenko, who spoke for the first time: “I don’t like it. He could be a simulation.”

  Garcia nodded. “That assumes a lot, though. And it would mean they know a hell of a lot more about us than we do about them.”

  “That’s demonstrable. Four hundred years ago, they were supposedly able to build a place for the captives to stay. I don’t believe we would have any trouble simulating a Tauran, given a couple of hundred captives and that much time for research.”

  “I suppose. Potter,” she said to me, “go down and tell the fourth platoon there’s a slight change of plans, but we’re still going in ready for anything. I think the best thing we can do is get over there and make physical contact as soon as possible.”

  “Right,” Sidorenko said. “We don’t have the element of surprise anymore, but there’s no percentage in sitting here and feeding them data, giving them time to revise their strategy. If there are Taurans there.”

  “Have your people prepped for five gees,” Garcia said to me. “Get you there in a few hours.”

  “Eight,” Sidorenko said. “We’ll be about ten hours behind you.”

  “Wait in orbit?” I said, knowing the answer.

  “You wish. Let’s go down to the bay.”

  We had a holo of the base projected down there and worked out a simple strategy. Twenty-two of us in fighting suits, armed to the teeth, carrying a nova bomb and a stasis field, surround the place and politely knock on the door. Depending on the response, we either walk in for tea or level the place.

  Getting there would not be so bad. Nobody could endure four hours of five-gee acceleration, then flip for four hours of deceleration, unprotected. So we’d be clamshelled in the fighting suits, knocked out and superhydrated. Eight hours of deep sleep and then maybe an hour to shake it off and go be a soldier. Or a guest for tea.

  Cat and I made the rounds in the cramped fighter, seeing that everybody was in place, suit fittings and readouts in order. Then we shared a minute of private embrace and took our own places.

  I jacked the fluid exchange into my hip fitting, and all of the fear went away. My body sagged with sweet lassitude, and I let the soft nozzle clasp my face. I was still aware enough to know that it was sucking all the air out of my lungs and then blowing in a dense replacement fluid, but all I felt was a long, low-key orgasm. I knew that this was the last thing a lot of people felt, the fighter blown to bits moments or hours later. But the war offered us many worse ways to die. I was sound asleep before the acceleration blasted us into space. Dreaming of being a fish in a warm and heavy sea.

  8

  The chemicals won’t let you remember coming out of it, which is probably good. My diaphragm and esophagus were sore and tired from getting rid of all the fluid. Cat looked like hell and I stayed away from mirrors, while we toweled off and put on the contact nets and got back into the fighting suits for the lan
ding.

  Our strategy, such as it was, seemed even less appealing, this close to the portal planet. The two Tauran cruisers were old models, but they were a hundred times the size of our fighter, and since they were in synchronous orbit over the base, there was no way to avoid coming into range. But they did let us slide under them without blowing us out of the sky, which made Man’s story more believable.

  It was pretty obvious, though, that our primary job was to be a target, for those ships and the base. If we were annihilated, the Bolívar would modify its strategy.

  When Morales said we were going to just go straight in and land on the strip beside the base, I muttered, “Might as well be hung for a sheep as a goat,” and Cat, who was on my line, asked why anyone would hang a sheep. I told her it was hard to explain. In fact, it was just something my father used to say, and if he’d ever explained it, I’d forgotten.

  The landing was loud but feather-light. We unclamped our fighting suits from their transport positions and practiced walking in the one-third gee of the small planet. “They should’ve sent Goy,” Cat said, which is what we called Chance Nguyen, the Martian. “He’d be right at home.”

  We moved out fast, people sprinting to their attack positions. Cat went off to the other side of the base. I was going with Morales, to knock on the door. Rank and its privileges. The first to die, or be offered tea.

  The buildings on the base looked like they’d been designed by a careful child. Windowless blocks laid out on a grid. All but one were sand-colored. We walked to the silver cube of headquarters. At least it had “HQ” in big letters over the airlock.