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Hawker was one of the early ones. The auditorium hadn't been crowded when he sat down, but as ten o'clock approached the seats began filling up. Since nothing was happening up front, Hawker found himself constantly turning in his seat and craning his neck to look over the later arrivals. He was hoping there might be someone he recognized, someone to sit next to him and maybe talk with later about whatever this mysterious assignment was.
But the army was just too big, and he couldn't possibly know everyone, or even a significant fraction of the people. Whatever obscure qualifications the army had used to pick the men for this briefing, Hawker fit them and his other friends didn't. It was a bit of a letdown, and it made him nervous. He still didn't know what this was about, and their making him sign that secrecy oath before he could attend only made it seem that much more ominous. At a minute before ten there must have been close to a hundred men in the auditorium, although the room could have seated twice that number. The seats on either side of Hawker were still vacant. Then, at the last second, a sandy-haired young man made his way down the row and asked whether the seat on Hawker's right was taken. Hawker admitted it wasn't, and the fellow sat down.
They both rose to attention a few moments later as a captain entered the room and stood on the speaker's platform in the front. The captain asked them all to be seated again, and spent the next minute fidgeting through a sheaf of notes on the lectern before him. He was a thin man with a prissy Hitlerian mustache -- a desk jobber, Hawker surmised, who'd probably never been near a gun inhis life. By contrast, most of the audience looked to be front-liners -- none of whom were much impressed by officers who shuffled paper. Hawker could almost read the collective thoughts of the audience: What kind of shit do we have to sit through today?
The man next to Hawker leaned over and whispered, "Well, at least it won't be another VD lecture -- there's nothing secret about those."
Hawker nodded, and smiled in spite of his nervousness. He was wondering how he should reply when the captain began to speak.
"Is there anyone here who hasn't signed one of these?" The captain held up a form that looked like the secrecy oath Hawker had signed earlier. When there were no hands raised after a few seconds, the captain put the paper back on the bottom of his stack. "Good. Just remember what you signed. What I'm about to tell you is all classified 'Secret' at the moment. Whether you end up volunteering or not, you'll still be bound by that oath. Any man who doesn't think he can handle it had best leave now."
"When he says it that way," whispered the man on Hawker's right, "nobody dares leave."
The captain gazed out over the audience and, as Hawker's neighbor predicted, no one got up from his seat. After a discreet pause, the captain continued once more, "Very well. Let me introduce myself. I'm Captain Dukakis, and I'm going to describe to you a project that will probably sound farfetched, but it's one we've given serious consideration and the army wants to give it a try. I must emphasize again that this is entirely voluntary, and no one will be forced to sign up for the program. I'm just going to tell you about it and let you decide for yourselves.
"As you all know, both from having been there and from reading all the criticism in the papers, the United States was badly prepared for the African Wars. We got sucked into it so quickly that there was no way out, and we didn't have enough well-trained men available. Part of the reason for those initial heavy losses was that our troops were inexperienced, and made stupid mistakes that a combat veteran would never have made. We started out off balance, and spent most of the war just getting back on our feet.
"In analyzing the problem, the Pentagon decided that the peacetime gap between ground wars was a major factor. For several decades we'd been able to avoid any major ground conflicts. Our preferred method was to use air strikes to bomb the enemy into submission. It was a successful strategy for the most part, but it left us vulnerable in the crucial area of battlefield experience. Our soldiers were excellent in peacekeeper duties and skirmishes, but they couldn't handle all-out warfare. Frankly, we were rusty. When the multiple crises hit us in Africa and it was time to fight, our troops made the same mistakes all over again. They had to relearn the entire art of fighting in a hostile environment -- and the lessons were costly ones.
"The African Wars are over now, and we're once again at peace. But how long that peace will last is anybody's guess. It could be a month, it could be a hundred years."
"I'll put my money on the shorter end of that scale," whispered the soldier on Hawker's right.
The captain continued his lecture, oblivious of the interruption. "Each of you men was carefully selected. Each of you saw fighting in Africa, and each of you served with distinction. Each of you served your one year tour there and signed up for a second. This indicated to us a certain dedication to your duty and your country that we wanted for this program."
"All it indicates is we're too stupid to get the hell out while the getting's good," commented the soldier beside Hawker. He was careful, though, that his voice didn't carry to the captain.
Captain Dukakis was so engrossed in his notes that little short of an earthquake would have halted his progress. "We also had our computers search through thousands of personnel records, looking for people who exactly fit the profile we wanted. Each and every one of you in this room has already been thoroughly screened for the desirable characteristics."
The captain paused and looked up briefly from his notes. "How many of you are familiar with the word 'cryogenics'?"
The soldier next to Hawker put his hand up, along with a scattering of others. All told, there were perhaps a dozen. Hawker wasn't one of them.
Captain Dukakis was not happy with such a small show of hands, because it meant he would have to explain. He took a deep breath and buried his head in his notes once more. "Essentially, cryogenics is the science of supercold, of freezing objects down close to absolute zero. In this particular case, we're interested in freezing people."
Hawker was expecting another wisecrack from his neighbor, but saw to his surprise that the soldier was leaning forward in his seat, interested in hearing more about this.
"What we hope to do," Captain Dukakis went on, "is to reproduce artificially what some animals can do naturally. Bears, for instance, can hibernate during the winter and emerge in the spring all ready for action. We have found by experimentation that it's possible to freeze a person's body down to the point where he seems barely alive, and thaw him out again at a later date. In this suspended animation state, the subject does not age at all -- at least, not perceptibly -- and may be stored indefinitely; yet when he is quickened once more, he is as fresh as when he went in. His health is good, and there is no memory loss or brain damage. It's as though he went to sleep and just woke up the next morning."
The captain dimmed the lights at this point and showed a film. It was silent, choppy and badly exposed, but had not been intended as a commercial feature. Captain Dukakis narrated, explaining the experiments portrayed. The audience watched various animals -- mostly rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees -- being placed in casketlike containers hooked up to endless amounts of scientific equipment. The captain did not describe the freezing process in detail, but there were a few quick shots of the monkeys lying peacefully in their coffins. Then there were scenes of the monkeys being revived once more. The earliest experiments had been for a few days, then a few weeks; eventually the scientists gained such confidence that one chimp had been kept in hibernation for two full years and then revived without any ill effects.
"Of course," whispered the soldier on Hawker's right, "they're not showing us all the monkeys that died along the way."
Then the film went on to document the experiments done with human subjects, prison inmates who'd volunteered to undergo the hibernation treatment in return for lessened sentences. Tests had so far shown that men could be frozen for six months with no ill effects whatsoever. Men were shown after their experience, walking and talking normally, taking various verbal and physical tests. Interviews showed that the men felt as though they'd only been asleep overnight, and were quite stunned to learn that six months had passed.
And, Dukakis pointed out proudly, not a single human subject was harmed by the experiment. The army, he was sure, had the process down cold.
He was quite startled by the mild laughter that greeted his remark. He hadn't realized he was making a pun, and it took a moment for him to realized what he'd said.
The lights came on again as the film ended, and Dukakis returned to his lectern. "This, as you may have guessed, is the army's answer to the problem of how to keep enough trained soldiers on hand during peacetime, without letting their skills deteriorate. By freezing our best soldiers at the end of one war and reviving them to fight in the next, we maintain a sense of continuity that is otherwise impossible to achieve. A man in the state of suspended animation can be expected to age about one day during the course of a year, so that even a gap of a decade or more is no hardship.
"You men have been selected to participate in this experiment, if you choose to volunteer. You would be placed in suspended animation until you are needed, then revived and sent out for a tour of combat duty. You would each be put in charge of a squad, so that your experience could be used to train newer soldiers in the field."
He paused and cleared his throat. "Let me run through the risks one more time. We have a perfect record with freezing men for up to six months. We propose to freeze you for what might be a considerably longer period. We will, of course, be monitoring each individual for signs of trouble, and revive him instantly if anything goes wrong. Nevertheless, there might be some slight chance that something could go wrong and we wouldn't know about it until we wake you up.
"When you are revived, you go into combat like any other soldier, and you face the same risks of death that you always did -- except that you'll be more experienced than most of the people around you, which hopefully will give you an edge. After your tour of duty, you will be discharged with the army's gratitude for a job well done."
Captain Dukakis paused once more and looked out over the audience. "Are there any questions?"
"Yeah," said a soldier in the first row. "What's in it for us?"
"Oh, did I forget to mention it? There's a bonus of...." He shuffled through his papers to find the appropriate figure. "...of twenty-one thousand, seven hundred dollars. That includes the standard re-enlistment bonus plus a special hazard bonus. You get the money plus a three-week leave before reporting back to begin the experiments. We think that's eminently fair." The audience was buzzing as the men started talking among themselves. The thought of having close to twenty-two thousand dollars to go on a three-week spree was tempting -- and as for risks, they had certainly faced worse ones on the front lines in Africa.
After a moment's thought, the soldier next to Hawker raised his hand. Captain Dukakis waited until the noise in the room died down a bit, then nodded acknowledgment.
"What about our pay?" Hawker's neighbor asked. "Do we earn our regular salaries all during the time we're in suspended animation?"
Captain Dukakis looked uncomfortable. It was clear he'd hoped no one would think of that point. "It, uh, it's something that can be negotiated."
"It damn well better be. Sir."
There were quiet murmurs of agreement in the crowd as each soldier began computing how much he might possibly earn while he "slept." The financial rewards were looking better every minute. To try to take their minds off that, Dukakis hastily recognized another questioner.
"You say we'll be frozen until there's another war," one man said. "What if there isn't another one?"
The remark drew a general laugh and assorted catcalls, but the soldier persisted. "No, I'm serious. What if there's a sort of uneasy peace from now on and no real fighting breaks out? Do we just stay frozen forever?"
"There is a definite maximum term," Captain Dukakis replied. "We would revive you in no more than fifteen years, whether there's a war or not."
"They probably couldn't afford more than that," Hawker's neighbor whispered. "I'd have to check a table of compound interest for exact numbers, but even if they only kept us out for ten years, we'd each wake up with a small fortune -- and we'd still be young enough to enjoy it, if we survived that war too."
Another soldier stood up with a question. "We're just ordinary sluggos. Why aren't you putting the taus into this program?"
That brought the audience back to attention. It was a most logical question. The Tactical Assault Units were the elite fighting force. It would make sense to freeze the best, rather than just plain old line soldiers.
Captain Dukakis was aware that all eyes were on him, and he tried to frame his reply as delicately as possible. "The army has decided that Tactical Assault teams are versatile enough to be of immense value to us even during times of peace. There are always pinpoint missions where a little bit of force applied in the proper spot can achieve its goal quite well. The Tactical Assault Units are useful in peace as well as in war--"
"While we're only good for cannon fodder." This time, Hawker's neighbor spoke loudly enough to be heard throughout the room.
Dukakis stopped and glared at him. "I would not put it that way," the captain said slowly. "You men have all demonstrated a special aptitude for fighting in combat situations. You may have a variety of peacetime skills that would serve you well in civilian life, but there's never any shortage of those. What the army needs most from you are your fighting skills, both to help train new recruits and to provide an example on the front lines.
"I won't kid you. The chances are that when we revive you, it will be because there's a war going on, and you'll be in the thick of it. You've all been in combat, you know what hell it is. The army isn't Santa Claus -- you'll be expected to earn those bonuses we give you. But -- aside from the calculated risk of being frozen and revived -- you won't be asked to face anything you haven't faced before."
"All our knowledge will be out-of-date," one man spoke up. "The army's always coming up with new weapons. What if we wake up ten years from now and don't even know how to fire the guns?"
"We've conducted a few technological projections, to the conclusion that weapons probably will not change beyond recognition in the next fifteen years. There will be improvements, certainly -- lighter, better range, more accuracy, faster firing, perhaps laser beams instead of projectiles -- but basically you can expect a rifle will still feel and act like a rifle. You will each be put through a rigorous course in weapons of all sorts before being placed in suspended animation -- part of the same course, incidentally, given to members of the Special Forces teams -- in an attempt to so familiarize you with weapons of all description that no matter what you're handed you will quickly be able to use it proficiently. We can't predict breakthroughs in new superweapons, of course, but we can do our best to make you all as versatile as possible."
Captain Dukakis looked around the now-silent room, searching for further questioners. "Anyone else care to comment? No? Very well, then, let me just add a few final words. After I leave you, you may feel free to discuss the matter among yourselves, but only among yourselves. Remember the secrecy oath; no one who was not in this room during this discussion must be allowed to overhear any references to the project. If you don't know the rest of the people around you -- and the chances are you won't -- introduce yourselves and talk the matter over. It's a serious decision; we realize that. You don't have to make it today, either. You'll have the next two weeks to think it over. If you decide to volunteer, or if you have further questions, you can reach me in Administration B-224 during normal business hours. If there's anything urgent after hours, the guard at the front desk will know where to reach me. That will be all."
Captain Dukakis gathered up his notes and spent a few long seconds straightening the edges before putting the pages back into their folder. He then returned the folder neatly to his attaché case, clicked it smartly shut, turned and walked out of the room without so much as a backward glance at the men he'd been addressing.
The silence lingered for perhaps five seconds after the captain had gone, and then burst with the rumble of two dozen separate conversations. The young man who'd been sitting next to Hawker now turned to him and said, "Well, at least part of his advice made sense; it is best if we introduce ourselves. I'm David Green."
"Jewish?" The question slipped out before Hawker could stop it.
But if Green was offended, he didn't show it. The smile on his face remained broad as he replied, "Only on my parents' side."
"Listen, I didn't mean to sound bigoted or anything. I just haven't known too many Jews."
"Relax. If you play your cards right I'll become one of your best friends so that whenever you're accused of... oh hell, there I go being a smartass again. Don't mind me, I sometimes talk too much for my own good. Everyone says so. What's your name?"
"Jerry Hawker. My friends call me Hawk."
"Pleased to meet you, Hawk." Green stuck out his hand and the two men shook solemnly. "Honestly, what did you think of the captain's little pitch?"
Hawker shifted in his seat. "I really don't know. It all sounds so fantastic."
"Fantastic?" said a voice from behind them. "It's far fuckin' out, that's what it is."
Both soldiers turned to look at the man who spoke. He was seated directly behind them, a big man cut from the heroic mold -- dark hair, blue eyes, with a square-cut jaw and a ruddy complexion. "I assume you intend to take them up on the offer, then?" Green asked.
"Hell, yes. You have any idea what kind of tear you can rip up with twenty-one thousand, seven hundred dollars and a three-week leave?"
"To tell you the truth, I hadn't even begun to consider the possibilities. I don't believe I caught your name."
"Symington, Frank Symington. Everyone calls me Lucky."
"Glad to meet you. I'm David Green, and this is my old friend, Jerry Hawker."
Symington nodded at them and continued enthusiastically, "Yeah, I could really score with the broads. Come into a place waving a wad of bills, they'll do anything you want. After three weeks of getting drunk and chasing pussy, I'll feel like sleeping fifteen years."
"Now that's the part I was giving the most thought to," Green said.
"Listen, I once crawled through a mine field dragging two wounded officers behind me. This? Nothing to it!" Symington dismissed all worries with a casual wave of his hand. "You saw the films. Nobody got hurt. They wouldn't let us get hurt. They need us -- that's why they're freezing us in the first place, remember? They don't want us dead; just think how embarrassing that would be."
"Yeah, I'll be blushing all through the funeral."
"I mean for them. This thing is secret now, but nothing stays secret forever. If they let us die, their asses'll be in a sling when Congress finds out. They don't dare let anything happen to us -- and I'm not going to let that get in the way of my three-week leave and that bonus."
"Shit, man, you are a goof." A fourth person joined their discussion, a short, stocky black with a scowl engraved on his face and a chip permanently soldered to his shoulder. "You really believe that pudding they're dishing us about freezing and thawing? They're handing you fairy tales, man. You think the army's gonna give you some bonus just for sleeping? They're gonna take it out of your hide one way or another, you gotta know that."
"Actually, the program does make sense, in a way," Green spoke up hesitantly.
"Oh, yeah?" The black man turned to him. "What kind of sense?"
"I've read about similar programs. People have been freezing themselves for years now. Mostly it's people who are dying of some disease we don't know how to cure now; they have themselves put into suspended animation until doctors find a cure. I've often thought they were being awfully trusting; what if the people in the future don't want to revive them? But I don't suppose they have any other choice. We do."
"Nobody's putting my ass on ice," the black man said firmly.
Symington was not ready to concede his argument, though. "Look -- say, what is your name, anyway?"
The black looked at him distrustingly. "Thaddeus Connors."
"Well look, Connors, weren't you listening? Didn't you see the film? They know what they're doing."
Connors snorted. "I heard what the man said. That don't make it true. Fuck, if I believed everything a captain told me, I'd be buzzard shit by now. Ain't you learned yet, you don't volunteer for nothing?"
"Apparently none of us have learned that lesson," Green interrupted. "Dukakis said we all re-upped for a second tour of combat. I'd say that indicates terminal stupidity on all our parts."
Connors glared at him, his hands balling into fists. "Who you calling stupid, Jew-boy?"
Green self-consciously scratched the bridge of his nose. "Me," he said quietly. "And him. And him. And you. Everyone in this room seems to share a suicidal tendency. Can you blame the army for thinking we'd be foolish enough to sign up for this gig, too?"
"I'm telling you guys, it's no sweat," Symington insisted, taking some of the heat away from Green. "After you've run straight at a machine gun nest a couple of times, like I have, you stop worrying. What have you got waiting for you when you get out of the army? Me, my dad drove a rig, I always figured I'd end up the same. If I take this instead, I'm set for life. Even blowing the whole bonus on leave, we still get paid while we sleep. If we're out more than five years, that's a tidy sum. I could invest it, or go to college on some GI grant and get a real job." He looked pointedly at Connors. "Couldn't you use that kind of money?"
"Don't matter what kind of money a nigger's got," Connors said. "He's still a nigger."
"He doesn't have to carry it around on a big sign like you do," Green commented.
"I don't kiss no white ass."
"Nobody asked you to."
"Sure, you fuckers go ahead and fight if you want," Symington said. "Bash your brains out right here in this room, save the army the trouble. Me, I see the chance of a lifetime, and I'm damn well going to take it."
The discussion went on for another fifteen minutes. Hawker stayed silently in the background, saying not a word. None of the others asked for his opinion on the matter, yet all considered him a part of the group. Connors was constantly pushing both Symington and Green, as though hoping to start a fight, but neither man exactly obliged him. Eventually the black gave up in disgust and walked away, leaving the other three standing by their seats.
"Weird guy," Symington said, shaking his head as he watched Connors leave the room. "A loser from the word go. You can smell it on him."
"Not like you, eh?" Green said.
"Head on." Symington's smile would have dazzled a searchlight. "They don't call me 'Lucky' for nothing."
"And you really intend to go through with this?"
"Just put the paper in front of me and let me sign away. It can't be any worse than being pinned down in a swamp for three days, can it? We'll be rich by the time we get out. Come on, what do you say? Give me a couple of friendly faces to go into the tank with."
Green hesitated. "I wish I could say yes, but I've never been that impulsive. I need more time to think about it. How about you, Hawk?"
Hawker had settled into the comfortable position of observer, and Green's question unexpectedly dragged him into the conversation for the first time. "Uh, I don't know. I need time to think."
Symington winked at them. "You're both in, I can see it. You just have to convince yourselves. You don't need any more bullshitting from me." He slapped Green jovially on the back. "I'm gonna go get me a quick twenty-two thousand bucks. See you guys in the deep freeze."
Green watched him go, then turned to Hawker. "You know," he said, "he may be the first guy I've met, in the army or out of it, who is exactly what he appears to be. No pretensions, no frills. He knows what he wants, and he's not ashamed to admit it. He's a bit churlish, perhaps, but still refreshing after all the hypocrisy."
"Do you think he's right?" Hawker asked. "I mean, about us going in after all?"
"I don't know." Green chewed thoughtfully on his thumbnail. "There are certainly plenty of reasons not to, and I can't think of a single convincing argument in favor of volunteering. But logic may have nothing to do with it. Each of us is a lifetime's result of forces we can barely comprehend. If we're pushed too hard, we can end up doing the strangest things."
He sat down and stared silently out into space. Hawker stood by for several minutes, waiting for something further to happen, but Green seemed completely lost in thought. At last Hawker turned and, without saying good-bye, walked away. Green didn't even seem to notice that he'd gone.
Copyright © 1980 by Stephen Goldin