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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 8


  I found the sex shows more interesting than William did, but he was repelled by the men together. It didn’t seem to me that what they did was all that different from what we did—and not nearly as alien as tripping for sex, plugging into a machine that delivered to you the image of an ideal mate and cleaned up afterwards.

  He did go to a lesbian show with me, and made love with unusual energy that night. I thought there was something there besides titillation; that he was trying to prove something. We kidded each other about it—“Me Tarzan, you Jane,” “Me Tarzan, you Heathcliff.” Who on this world would know what we were laughing about?

  Prostitution had a new wrinkle, with empathy drugs that joined the servicer and customer in a deep emotional bond that was real while it lasted, I suppose to keep in competition with the electronic fantasy. We told each other we weren’t inclined to try it, though I was curious, and probably would have done it if I’d been alone. I don’t think William would have, since the drugs don’t work between men and women, or so one of them told us, giggling with wide-eyed embarrassment. The very idea.

  We had six months of quiet communion and wild, desperate fun, and still had plenty of money left when it suddenly ended. We were having lunch in an elegant restaurant in Skye, watching the sun sparkle on the calm ocean a klick below, when a nervous private came up, saluted, and gave us our sealed orders.

  They were for different places. William was going to Sade-138, a collapsar out in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. I was going to Aleph-10, in the Orion group.

  He was a major, the Yod-4 Strike Force commander, and I was a captain, the executive officer for Aleph-10.

  It was unbelievable, surreal; monumentally stupid and unfair. We’d been together since Basic—five years or half a millennium—and neither of us was leadership material. Neither of us was even a good private! The army had abundant evidence of that. Yet he was leaving in a week, for Stargate, to become a leader of men and women. My Strike Force was mustering in orbit around Heaven, in two days. Where I would somehow become a leader myself.

  We flew back to Threshold, half the world away, and got there just as the administrative offices were opening. William fought and bought his way to the top, trying at the very least to have me reassigned as his XO. What difference could it make? Most of the people he’d muster with at Stargate hadn’t even been born yet.

  Of course it was not a matter of logic; it was a matter of protocol. And no army in history had ever been so locked in the ice of protocol. The person who had signed those orders for the yet unborn was probably dead by now.

  The day and night we had left together was not good. Naturally, we thought of running; we knew the planet well and had some resources left. But the planet belonged to the army. We wouldn’t be safe in any city, and would be thoroughly conspicuous in the wild, since we wouldn’t be able to survive without the pressor fields, easily detected.

  Desertion would be punished by death, of course, and we discussed the possibility of dying together that way, in a final gesture of defiance. But that would have been passive, simply giving our lives to the army. Better to offer them one more time to the Taurans.

  Finally, exhausted by talk and anger and grief, we just lay in each other’s arms for the last night and early morning. I wish I could say we gave each other strength.

  When he walked me to the isolation chamber three hours before launch, we were almost deferential with one another, perhaps the way you act in the presence of beloved dead. No poet who ever equated parting with death had ever had a door slam shut like that. Even if we had both been headed for Earth, a few days apart, the time-space geometry of the collapsar jump would guarantee that we arrived decades or even centuries apart from one another.

  And this wasn’t Earth. There were 150,000 light-years between Sade-138 and Aleph-10. Absolute distance means nothing in collapsar geometry, they say. But if William were to die in a nova bomb attack, the tiny spark of his passing would take fifteen hundred centuries to crawl to Orion, or Earth. Time and distance beyond imagination.

  The spaceport was on the equator, of course, on an island they called Pærw’l; Farewell. There was a high cliff, actually a flattened-off pinnacle, overlooking the bay to the east, where William and I had spent silent days fasting and meditating. He said he was going there to watch the launch. I hoped to get a window so that I could see the island, and I did push my way to one when we filed into the shuttle. But I couldn’t see the pinnacle from sea level, and when the engines screamed and the invisible force pushed me back into the cushions, I looked but was blinded by tears, and couldn’t raise a hand to wipe them away.

  2

  Fortunately, I had six hours’ slack time after we docked at the space station Athene, before I had to report for ALSC training. Time to pull myself together, with the help of a couple of slowballs. I went to my small quarters and unpacked and took the pills, and lay on the bunk for a while. Then I found my way to the lounge and watched the planet spin below, green and white and blue. There were eleven ships in orbit a few klicks away, one a large cruiser, presumably the Bolívar, which was going to take us to Aleph-10.

  The lounge was huge and almost empty. Two other women in unfamiliar beige uniforms, I supposed Athene staff. They were talking in the strange fast Angel language, and I was listening with a rather slow brain.

  While I was getting coffee, a man walked in wearing tan-and-green camouflage fatigues like mine. We weren’t actually camouflaged as well as the ones in beige, in this room of comforting wood and earth tones.

  He came over and got a cup. “You’re Captain Potter, Marygay Potter.”

  “That’s right,” I said. “You’re in Beta?”

  “No, I’m stationed here, but I’m army.” He offered his hand. “Michael Dobei, Mike. Colonel. I’m your Temporal Orientation Officer.”

  We carried our coffee to a table. “You’re supposed to catch me up on this future, this present?”

  He nodded. “Prepare you for dealing with the men and women under you. And the other officers.”

  “What I’m trying to deal with is this ‘under you’ part. I’m no soldier, Colonel.”

  “Mike. You’re actually a better soldier than you know. I’ve seen your profile. You’ve been through a lot of combat, and it hasn’t broken you. Not even the terrible experience on Earth.”

  William and I had been staying on my parents’ farm when we were attacked by a band of looters; Mother and Dad were killed. “That’s in my profile? I wasn’t a soldier then. We’d quit.”

  “There’s a lot of stuff in there.” He raised his coffee and looked at me over the rim of the cup. “Want to know what your high-school advisor thought of you?”

  “You’re a shrink.”

  “That used to be the word. Now we’re ‘skinks.’”

  I laughed. “That used to be a lizard.”

  “Still is.” He pulled a reader out of his pocket. “You were last on Earth in 2007. You liked it so little that you reenlisted.”

  “Has it gotten better?”

  “Better, then worse, then better. As ever. When I left, in 2318, things were at least peaceful.”

  “Drafted?”

  “Not in the sense you were. I knew from age ten what I was going to be. Everybody does.”

  “What? You knew you were going to be a Temporal Orientation Officer?”

  “Uh-huh.” He smiled. “I didn’t know quite what that meant, but I sure as hell resented it. I had to go to a special school, to learn this language—SoldierSpeak—but I had to take four years of it, instead of the two that most soldiers do.

  “I suppose we’re more regimented on Earth now; crèche to grave control, but also security. The crime and anarchy that characterized your Earth are ancient history. Most people live happy, fulfilling lives.”

  “Homosexual. No families.”

  “Oh, we have families, parents, but not random ones. To keep the population stable, one person is quickened whenever one dies. The new one goes to a c
ouple that has grown up together in the knowledge that they have a talent for parenting; they’ll be given, at most, four children to raise.”

  “‘Quickened’—test-tube babies?”

  “Incubators. No birth trauma. No real uncertainty about the future. You’ll find your troops a pretty sane bunch of people.”

  “And what will they find me? They won’t resent taking orders from a heterosexual throwback? A dinosaur?”

  “They know history; they won’t blame you for being what you are. If you tried to initiate sex with one of the men, there might be trouble.”

  I shook my head. “That won’t happen. The only man I love is gone, forever.”

  He looked down at the floor and cleared his throat. Can you embarrass a professional skink? “William Mandella. I wish they hadn’t done that. It seems…unnecessarily cruel.”

  “We tried to get me reassigned as his XO.”

  “That wouldn’t have worked. That’s the paradox.” He moved the cup in circles on the table, watching the reflections dance. “You both have so much time in rank, objective and subjective, that they had to give you commissions. But they couldn’t put you under William. The heterosex issue aside, he would be more concerned about your safety than about the mission. The troops would see that and resent it.”

  “What, it never happens in your brave new world? You never have a commander falling in love with someone in his or her command?”

  “Of course it happens; het or home, love happens. But they’re separated and sometimes punished, or at least reprimanded.” He waved that away. “In theory. If it’s not blatant, who cares? But with you and William, it would be a constant irritant to the people underneath you.”

  “Most of them have never seen heterosexuals, I suppose.”

  “None of them. It’s detected early and easy to cure.”

  “Wonderful. Maybe they can cure me.”

  “No. I’m afraid it has to be done before puberty.” He laughed. “Sorry. You were kidding me.”

  “You don’t think my being het is going to hurt my ability to command?”

  “No, like I say, they know how people used to be—besides, privates aren’t supposed to empathize with their officers; they’re supposed to follow their orders. And they know about ALSC training; they’ll know how well prepared you are.”

  “I’ll be out of the chain of command, anyhow, as Executive Officer.”

  “Unless everybody over you dies. It’s happened.”

  “Then the army will find out what a mistake it made. A little too late.”

  “You might surprise yourself, after the ALSC training.” He checked his watch. “Which is coming up in a couple of hours.”

  “Would you like to get together for lunch before that?”

  “Um, no. I don’t think you want to eat. They sort of clean you out beforehand. From both ends.”

  “Sounds…dramatic.”

  “Oh, it is, all of it. Some people enjoy it.”

  “You don’t think I will.”

  He paused. “Let’s talk about it afterward.”

  3

  The purging wasn’t bad, since by that time I was limp and goofy with drugs. They shaved me clean as a baby, even my arms and cheeks, and were in the process of covering me with feedback sensors when I dozed off.

  I woke up naked and running. A bunch of other naked people were running after me and my friends, throwing rocks at us. A heavy rock stung me under the shoulderblade, knocking my breath away and making me stumble. A chunky Neanderthal tackled me and whacked me on the head twice with something.

  I knew this was a simulation, a dream, and here I was passing out in a dream. When I woke up a moment later, he had forced my legs apart and was about to rape me. I clawed at his eyes and rolled away. He came after me, intention still apparent, and my hand fell on his club. I swung it with both hands and cracked his head, spraying blood and brains. He ejaculated in shuddering spurts as he died, feet drumming the ground. God, it was supposed to be realistic, but couldn’t they spare me a few details?

  Then I was standing in a phalanx with a shield and a long spear. There were men in front of our line, crouching, with shorter spears. All of the weapons were braced at the same angle, presenting a wall of points to the horses that were charging toward us. This is not the hard part. You just stand firm, and live or not. I studied the light armor of the Persian enemy as they approached. There were three who might be in my area if we unhorsed them, or if their horses stopped.

  The horse on my left crashed through. The one on the right reared up and tried to turn. The one charging straight at us took both spears in the breast, breaking the shaft of mine as it skidded, sprawling, spraying blood and screaming with an unearthly high whine, pinning the man in front of me. The unhorsed Persian crashed into my shield and knocked me down as I was drawing my short sword; the hilt of it dug in under my ribs, and I almost slashed myself getting it free of the scabbard while I scrambled back to my feet.

  The horseman had lost his little round shield, but his sword was coming around in a flat arc. I just caught it on the edge of my shield and as I had been taught chopped down toward his unprotected forearm and wrist—he twisted away, but I nicked him under the elbow, lucky shot that hit a tendon or something. He dropped his sword and as he reached for it with his other hand, I slashed at his face and opened a terrible wound across eye, cheek, and mouth. As he screamed a flap of skin fell away, exposing bloody bone and teeth, and I shifted my weight for a backhand, aiming for the unprotected throat, and then something slammed into my back and the bloody point of a spear broke the skin above my right nipple; I fell to my knees dying and realized I didn’t have breasts; I was a man, a young boy.

  It was dark and cold and the trench smelled of shit and rotting flesh. “Two minutes, boys,” a sergeant said in a stage whisper. I heard a canteen gurgle twice and took it when it was passed to me—warm gin. I managed not to cough and passed it on down. I checked in the darkness and still didn’t have breasts and touched between my legs and that was strange. I started to shake and heard the man next to me peeing, and I suddenly had to go, too. I fumbled with the buttons left-handed, holding on to my rifle, and barely managed to get the thing out in time, peeing hotly onto my hand. “Fix bayonets,” the sergeant whispered while I was still going and instinct took over and I felt the locking port under the muzzle of my Enfield and held it with my left hand while my right went back and slid the bayonet from its sheath and clicked it into place.

  “I shall see you in Hell, Sergeant Simmons,” the man next to me said conversationally.

  “Soon enough, Rez. Thirty seconds.” There was a German machine-gun position about eighty yards ahead and to the right. They also had at least one very good sniper and, presumably, an artillery observer. We were hoping for some artillery support at 1:17, which would signal the beginning of our charge. If the artillery didn’t come, which was likely, we were to charge anyhow, riflemen in two short squads in front of grenadiers. A suicide mission, perhaps, but certain death if your courage flags.

  I wiped my hand on the greasy filthy fatigues and thumbed the safety off the rifle. There was already a round chambered. I put my left foot on the improvised step and got a handhold with my left. My knees were water, and my anus didn’t want to stay closed. I felt tears, and my throat went dry and metallic. This is not real. “Now,” the sergeant said quietly, and I heaved myself up over the lip of the trench and fired one-handed in the general direction of the enemy, and started to run toward them, working the bolt, vaguely proud of not soiling myself. I flopped on the ground and took an aimed shot at the noise of the machine gun, no muzzle flash, and then held fire while squad two rushed by us. A grenadier skidded next to me, and said, “Go!” It became “Oh!” when a bullet smacked into him, but I was up and running, another round chambered, four left. A bullet shattered my foot and I took one painful step and fell.

  I pulled myself forward, trying to keep the muzzle out of the mud, and rolled into a shallow c
rater half filled with water and parts of a swollen decaying body. I could hear another machine gun starting, but I couldn’t breathe. I pushed up with both arms to gasp some air above the crater’s miasma and a bullet crashed into my teeth.

  It wasn’t chronological. I went from there to the mist of Breed’s Hill, on the British side of what the Americans would call the Battle of Bunker Hill. The deck of a ship, warding off pirates while sails burned; then another ship, deafened by cannon fire while I tried to keep cool lead on the kamikaze Zero soaring into us.

  I flew cloth-winged biplanes and supersonic fighters, used lasers and a bow and arrow and leveled a city with the push of a button. I killed with bullets and bolos and binary-coded decimals. Every second, I was aware that it was a training exercise; I felt terror and sorrow and pain, but only for minutes or hours. And I slept at least as many hours as I was awake, but there was no rest—somehow while sleeping, my brain was filled with procedures, history, regulations.

  When they unplugged me after three weeks I was literally catatonic. That was normal, though, and they had drugs that pulled you back into the world. They worked for more than 90 percent of the new officers. The others were allowed to drift away.

  4

  We had two weeks of rest and rehabilitation—in orbit, unfortunately, not on Heaven—after the ALSC experience. While we were sweating it out in the officers’ gym, I met the other line officers, who were as shaken and weak as I was, after three weeks’ immersion in oxygenated fluorocarbon, mayhem, and book learning.

  We were also one mass of wrinkles from head to toe, the first day, when our exercises consisted of raising our arms above our heads and trying to stand up and sit down without help. The wrinkles started to fade in the sauna, as we conversed in tired monosyllables. We looked like big muscular pink babies; they must have shaved or depilated us during the three weeks.

  Three of us were male, which was interesting. I’ve seen lots of naked men, but never a hairless one. I guess we all looked kind of exposed and diagrammatic. Okayawa had an erection, and Morales kidded him about it, but to my relief it didn’t go any further than that. It was a socially difficult situation anyhow.