Authors: Joe Haldeman
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction
Copyright © Joe Haldeman 1997
1998 Hugo Award Winner
1999 Nebula Award Winner
This novel is for two editors: John W. Campbell, who rejected a story because he thought it was absurd to write about American women who fight and die in combat, and Ben Bova, who didn't.
Caveat lector: This book is not a continuation of my 1975 novel The Forever War. From the author's point of view it is a kind of sequel, though, examining some of that novel's problems from an angle that didn't exist twenty years ago.
IT WAS NOT QUITE completely dark, thin blue moonlight threading down through the canopy of leaves. And it was never completely quiet.
A thick twig popped, the noise muffled under a heavy mass. A male howler monkey came out of his drowse and looked down. Something moved down there, black on black. He filled his lungs to challenge it.
There was a sound like a piece of newspaper being torn. The monkey's midsection disappeared in a dark spray of blood and shredded organs. The body fell heavily through the branches in two halves.
Would you lay off the goddamn monkeys? Shut up! This place is an ecological preserve. My watch, shut up. Target practice.
Black on black it paused, then slipped through the jungle like a heavy silent reptile. A man could be standing two yards away and not see it. In infrared it wasn't there. Radar would slither off its skin.
It smelled human flesh and stopped. The prey maybe thirty meters upwind, a male, rank with old sweat, garlic on his breath. Smell of gun oil and smokeless powder residue. It tested the direction of the wind and backtracked, circled around. The man would be watching the path. So come in from the woods.
It grabbed the man's neck from behind and pulled his head off like an old blossom. The body shuddered and gurgled and crapped. It eased the body down to the ground and set the head between its legs.
Nice touch. Thanks.
It picked up the man's rifle and bent the barrel into a right angle. It lay the weapon down quietly and stood silent for several minutes.
Then three other shadows came from the woods, and they all converged on a small wooden hut. The walls were beaten-down aluminum cans nailed to planks; the roof was cheap glued plastic.
It pulled the door off and an irrelevant alarm sounded as it switched on a headlight brighter than the sun. Six people on cots, recoiling.
"—Do not resist," it boomed in Spanish. "—You are prisoners of war and will be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention."
"Mierda." A man scooped up a shaped charge and threw it at the light. The tearing-paper sound was softer than the sound of the man's body bursting. A split second later, it swatted the bomb like an insect and the explosion blew down the front wall of the building and flattened all the occupants with concussion.
The black figure considered its left hand. Only the thumb and first finger worked, and the wrist made a noise when it rotated.
Good reflexes. Oh, shut up.
The other three shapes turned on sunlights and pulled off the building's roof and knocked down the remaining walls.
The people inside looked dead, bloody and still. The machines began to check them, though, and a young woman suddenly rolled over and raised the laser rifle she'd been concealing. She aimed it at the one with the broken hand and did manage to raise a puff of smoke from its chest before she was shredded.
The one checking the bodies hadn't even looked up. "No good," it said. "All dead. No tunnels. No exotic weapons I can find."
"Well, we got some stuff for Unit Eight." They turned off their lights and sped off simultaneously, in four different directions.
The one with the bad hand moved about a quarter-mile and stopped to inspect the damage with a dim infrared light. It beat the hand against its side a few times. Still, only the two digits worked.
Wonderful. We'll have to bring it in.
So what would you have done?
Who's complaining? I'll spend part of my ten in base camp.
The four of them took four different routes to the top of a treeless hill. They stood in a row for a few seconds, arms upraised, and a cargo helicopter came in at treetop level and snatched them away.
Who got the second kill there? thought the one with the broken hand.
A voice appeared in all four heads. "Berryman initiated the response. But Hogarth commenced firing before the victim was unambiguously dead. So by the rules, they share the kill."
The helicopter with the four soldierboys dangling slipped down the hill and screamed through the night at treetop level, in total darkness, east toward friendly Panama.
I DIDN'T LIKE SCOVILLE having the soldierboy before me. You have to monitor the previous mechanic for twenty-four hours before you take it over, to warm up and become sensitive to how the soldierboy might have changed since your last shift. Like losing the use of three fingers.
When you're in the warm-up seat you're just watching; you're not jacked into the rest of the platoon, which would be hopelessly confusing. We go in strict rotation, so the other nine soldierboys in the platoon also have replacements breathing over their mechanics' shoulders.
You hear about emergencies, where the replacement has to suddenly take over from the mechanic. It's easy to believe, The last day would be the worst even without the added stress of being watched. If you're going to crack or have a heart attack or stroke, it's usually on the tenth day.
Mechanics aren't in any physical danger, deep inside the Operations bunker in Portobello. But our death and disability rate is higher than the regular infantry. It's not bullets that get us, though; it's our own brains and veins.
It would be rough for me or any of my mechanics to replace people in Scoville's platoon, though. They're a hunter-killer group, and we're "harassment and interdiction," H & I; sometimes loaned to Psychops. We don't often kill. We aren't selected for that aptitude.
All ten of our soldierboys came into the garage within a couple of minutes. The mechanics jacked out and the exoskeleton shells eased open. Scoville's people climbed out like little old men and women, even though their bodies had been exercised constantly and adjusted for fatigue poisons. You still couldn't help feeling as if you'd been sitting in the same place for nine days.
I jacked out. My connection with Scoville was a light one, not at all like the near-telepathy that links the ten mechanics in the platoon. Still, it was disorienting to have my own brain to myself.
We were in a large white room with ten of the mechanic shells and ten warm-up seats, like fancy barber chairs. Behind them, the wall was a huge backlit map of Costa Rica, showing with lights of various colors where soldierboy and flyboy units were working. The other walls were covered with monitors and digital readouts with jargon labels. People in white fatigues walked around checking the numbers.
Scoville stretched and yawned and walked over to me.
"Sorry you thought that last bit of violence was unnecessary. I felt the situation called for direct action." God, Scoville and his academic airs. Doctorate in Leisure Arts.
"You usually do. If you'd warned them from outside, they would've had time to assess the situation. Surrender."
"Yes indeed. As they did in Ascension."
"That was one time." We'd lost ten soldierboys and a flyboy to a nuclear booby trap.
"Well, the second time won't be on my watch. Six fewer pedros in the world." He shrugged. "I'll go light a candle."
"Ten minutes to calibration," a loudspeaker said. Hardly enough time for the shell to cool down. I followed Scoville into the locker room. He went to one end to get into his civvies; I went to the other end to join my platoon.
Sara was already mostly undressed. "Julian. You want to do me?"
Yes, like most of our males and one female, I did, as she well knew, but that's not what she meant. She took off her wig and handed me the razor. She had three weeks' worth of fine blond stubble. I gently shaved off the area surrounding the input at the base of her skull.
"That last one was pretty brutal," she said. "Scoville needed the body count, I guess."
"It occurred to him. He's eleven short of making E-8. Good thing they didn't come across an orphanage."
"He'd be bucking for captain," she said.
I finished her and she checked mine, rubbing her thumb around the jack. "Smooth," she said. I keep my head shaved off duty, though it's unfashionable for black men on campus. I don't mind long bushy hair, but I don't like it well enough to run around all day wearing a hot wig.
Louis came over. "Hi, Julian. Give me a buzz, Sara." She reached up—he was six feet four and Sara was small—and he winced when she turned on the razor.
"Let me see that," I said. His skin was slightly inflamed on one side of the implant. "Lou, that's going to be trouble. You should've shaved before the warm-up."
"Maybe. You gotta choose." Once you were in the cage you were there for nine days. Mechanics with fast-growing hair and sensitive skin, like Sara and Lou, usually shaved once, between warm-up and the shift. "It's not the first time," he said. "I'll get some cream from the medics."
Bravo platoon got along pretty well. That was partly a matter of chance, since we were selected out of the pool of appropriate draftees by body size and shape, to fit the platoon's cages and the aptitude profile for H & I. Five of us were survivors of the original draft pick: Candi and Mel as well as Lou, Sara, and me. We've been doing this for four years, working ten days on and twenty off. It seems like a lot longer.
Candi is a grief counselor in real life; the rest of us are academics of some stripe. Lou and I are science, Sara is American politics, and Mel is a cook. "Food science," so called, but a hell of a cook. We get together a few times a year for a banquet at his place in St. Louis.
We went together back to the cage area. "Okay, listen up," the loudspeaker said. "We have damage on Units One and Seven, so we won't calibrate the left hand and right leg at this time."
"So we need the cocksuckers?" Lou asked.
"No, the drains will not be installed. If you can hold it for forty-five minutes."
"I'll certainly try, sir."
"We'll do the partial calibration and then you're free for ninety minutes, maybe two hours, while we set up the new hand and leg modules for Julian and Candi's machines. Then we'll finish the calibration and hook up the orthotics, and you're off to the staging area."
"Be still my heart," Sara murmured.
We lay down in the cages, working arms and legs into stiff sleeves, and the techs jacked us in. For the calibration we were tuned down to about ten percent of a combat jack, so I didn't hear actual words from anybody but Lou - a "hello there" that was like a faint shout from a mile away. I focused my mind and shouted back.
The calibration was almost automatic for those of us who'd been doing it for years, but we did have to stop and back up twice for Ralph, a neo who'd joined us two cycles ago when Richard stroked out. It was just a matter of all ten of us squeezing one muscle group at a time, until the red thermometer matched the blue thermometer on the heads-up. But until you're used to it, you tend to squeeze too hard and overshoot.
After an hour they opened the cage and unjacked us. We could kill ninety minutes in the lounge. It was hardly worth wasting time getting dressed, but we did. It was a gesture. We were about to live in each other's bodies for nine days, and enough was enough.
Familiarity breeds, as they say. Some mechanics become lovers, and sometimes it works. I tried it with Carolyn, who died three years ago, but we could never bridge the gap between being combat-jacked and being civilians. We tried to work it out with a relator, but the relator had never been jacked, so we might as well have been talking Sanskrit.
I don't know that it would be "love" with Sara, but it's academic. She's not really attracted to me, and of course can't hide her feelings, or lack of same. In a physical way we're closer than any civilian pair could be, since in full combat jack we are this one creature with twenty arms and legs, with ten brains, with five vaginas and five penises.
Some people call the feeling godlike, and I think there have been gods who were constructed along similar lines. The one I grew up with was an old white-bearded Caucasian gent without even one vagina.
We'd already studied the order of battle, of course, and our specific orders for the nine days. We were going to continue in Scoville's area, but doing H & I, making things difficult in the cloud forest of Costa Rica. It was not a particularly dangerous assignment, but it was distasteful, like bullying, since the rebels didn't have anything remotely like soldierboys.
Ralph expressed his discomfort. We had sat down at the dining table with tea and coffee.
"This overkill gets to me," he said. "That pair in the tree last time."
"Ugly," Sara said.
"Ah, the bastards killed themselves," Mel said. He sipped the coffee and scowled at it. "We probably wouldn't have noticed them if they hadn't opened up on us."