Forever Freeby Joe W. Haldeman, Joe W. Haldeman
A veteran of The Forever War, William Mandella has since settled on a planet set aside for his kind. Married with two children, he makes his living on the snow-covered world ice fishing and teaching physics. But Mandella, his family, and his way of life have become obsolete. The denizens of Earth have evolved into a group consciousness known simply as Man, and they… See more details below
A veteran of The Forever War, William Mandella has since settled on a planet set aside for his kind. Married with two children, he makes his living on the snow-covered world ice fishing and teaching physics. But Mandella, his family, and his way of life have become obsolete. The denizens of Earth have evolved into a group consciousness known simply as Man, and they have taken control of Mandella's new home. Humans are considered dangerous because of their independent natures, though they are kept safe for the sake of their diverse gene pool." "That's now how Mandella and his fellow soldiers want to exist. In a desperate gamble, he rallies the humans to hijack the spaceship Time Warp and take to the stars to begin humanity anew. Then something goes wrong. The crew is forced to abandon ship and return home in suspended animation twenty-five years later. But the planet has aged centuries during their interstellar voyage - and the crew wonders what new world awaits them upon arrival...
Science Fiction Age
Science Fiction Chronicle
Asimov's Science Fiction
Fantasy & Science Fiction
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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- 1 ED
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- 6.32(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.97(d)
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Winter is a long time coming on this god-forsaken planet, and it stays too long, too. I watched a sudden gust blow a line of cold foam across the grey lake and thought about Earth, not for the first time that day. The two warm winters in San Diego when I was a boy. Even the bad winters in Nebraska. They were at least short.
Maybe we were too quick to say no, when the magnanimous zombies offered to share Earth with us, after the war. We didn't really get rid of them, coming here.
Cold radiated from the windowpane. Marygay cleared her throat behind me. "What is it?" she said.
"Looks like weather. I ought to check the trotlines."
"Kids will be home in an hour."
"Better I do it now, dry, than all of us stand out in the rain," I said. "Snow, whatever."
"Probably snow." She hesitated, and didn't offer to help. After twenty years she torrid tell when I didn't want company. I pulled on wool sweater and cap and left the rain slicker on its peg.
I stepped out into the damp hard wind. It didn't smell like snow coming. I asked my watch and it said 90 percent rain, but a cold front in the evening would bring freezing rain and snow. That would make for a fun meeting. We had to walk a couple of klicks, there and back. Otherwise the zombies could look through transportation records and see that all of us paranoids had converged on one house.
We had eight trotlines that stretched out ten meters from the end of the dock to posts I'd sunk in the chest-deep water.Two more had been knocked down in a storm; I'd replace them come spring. Two years from now, in real years.
It was more like harvesting than fishing. The blackfish are so dumb they'll bite anything, and when they're hooked and thrash around, it attracts other blackfish: "Wonder what's wrong with that guyoh, look! Somebody's head on a nice shiny hook!"
When I got out on the dock I could see thunderheads building in the east, so I worked pretty fast. Each trotline's a pulley that supports a dozen hooked leaders dangling in the water, held to one-meter depth with plastic floaters. It looked like half the floaters were down, maybe fifty fish. I did a mental calculation and realized I'd probably just finish the last one when Bill got home from school. But the storm was definitely coming.
I took work gloves and apron off a hook by the sink and hauled the end of the first line up to the eye-level pulley wheel. I opened the built-in freezerthe stasis field inside reflected the angry sky like a pool of mercuryand wheeled in the first fish. Worked it off the hook, chopped off the head and tail with a cleaver, threw the fish into the freezer, and then rebaited the hook with its head. Then rolled in the next client.
Three of the fish were the useless mutant strain we've been getting for more than a year. They're streaked with pink and have a noxious hydrogen-sulfide taste. The blackfish won't take them for bait and I can't even use them for fertilizer; you might as well scatter your soil with salt.
Maybe an hour a dayhalf that, with the kids helpingand we supplied about a third of the fish for the village. I didn't eat much of it myself. We also bartered corn, beans, and asparagus, in their seasons.
Bill got off the bus while I was working on the last line. I waved him inside; no need for both of us to get all covered with fish guts and blood. Then lightning struck on the other side of the lake and I put the line back in anyhow. Hung up the stiff gloves and apron and turned off the stasis field for a second to check the catch level.
Just beat the rain. I stood on the porch for a minute and watched the squall line hiss its way across the lake.
Warm inside; Marygay had started a small fire in the kitchen fireplace. Bill was sitting there with a glass of wine. That was still a novelty to him. "So how are we doing?" His accent always sounded strange when he first got back from school. He didn't speak English in class or, I suspected, with many of his friends.
"Over the sixty percent mark," I said, scrubbing my hands and face at the work sink. "Any better luck and we'll have to eat the damned things ourselves."
"Think I'll poach a big bunch for dinner," Marygay said, deadpan. That gave them the flavor and consistency of cotton.
"Come on, Mom," Bill said. "Let's just have them raw." He liked them even less than I did. Chopping off their heads was the high point of his day.
I went to the trio of casks at the other end of the room and tapped a glass of dry red wine, then sat with Bill on the bench by the fire. I poked at it with a stick, a social gesture probably older than this young planet.
"You were going to have the art zombie today?"
"The art history Man," he said. "She's from Centrus. Haven't seen her in a year. We didn't draw or anything; just looked at pictures and statues."
"Tauran art is weird." That was a charitable assessment. It was also ugly and incomprehensible.
"She said we have to come to it gradually. We looked at some architecture."
Their architecture, I knew something about. I'd destroyed acres of it, centuries ago. Felt like yesterday sometimes.
"I remember the first time I came across one of their barracks," I said. "All the little individual cells. Like a beehive."
He made a noncommital noise that I took as a warning. "So where's your sister?" She was still in high school but had the same bus. "I can't keep her schedule straight."
"She's at the library," Marygay said. "She'll call if she's going to be late."
I checked my watch. "Can't wait dinner too long." The meeting was at eight and a half:
"I know." She stepped over the bench and sat down between us, and handed me a plate of breadsticks. "From Snell, came by this morning."
They were salty and hard; broke between the jaws with an interesting concussion. "I'll think him tonight."
"Old folks party?" Bill asked.
"Sixday," I said. "We're walking, if you want the floater."
"`But don't drink too much wine,'" he anticipated, and held up his glass. "This is it. Volleyball down at the gym."
"Win one for the Gipper."
"Something my mother used to say. I don't know what a gipper is."
"Sounds like a position," he said. "Server, spiker, gipper." As if he cared a lot about the game qua game. They played in the nude, mixed, and it was as much a mating ritual as a sport.
A sudden blast of sleet rattled against the window. "You don't want to walk through that," he said. "You could drop me off at the gym."
"Well, you could drop us off," Marygay said. The route of the floater wasn't registered; just the parking location, supposedly for call forwarding. "Charlie and Diana's place. They won't care if we're early."
"Thanks. I might score." He didn't mean volleyball. When he used our ancient slang I never knew whether it was affection or derision. I guess when I was twenty-one I could do both at the same time, with my parents.
A bus stopped outside. I heard Sara running up the boardwalk through the weather. The front door opened and shut fast, and she ran upstairs to change.
"Dinner in ten minutes," Marygay called up the stairs. She made an impatient noise back.
"Starting to bleed tomorrow," Bill said.
"Since when do brothers keep track of that," Marygay said. "Or husbands?"
He looked at the floor. "She said something this morning."
I broke the silence. "If there are any Men there tonight ..."
"They never come. But I won't tell them you're off plotting."
"It's not plotting," Marygay said. "Planning. We'll tell them eventually. But it's a human thing." We hadn't discussed it with him or Sara, but we hadn't tried to keep them from overhearing.
"I could come someday."
"Someday," I said. Probably not. So far it was all first-generation; all vets, plus their spouses. Only a few of them, spouses, were born on this thing Man had called a "garden planet," when they gave us a choice of places to relocate after the war.
We usually called "our" planet MF. Most of the people who lived here were dozens of generations away from appreciating what we'd meant by "middle finger." Even if they did know, they probably didn't connect the acronym with the primal Oedipal act.
After living through an entire winter, though, they probably called the planet their cultures' versions of "motherfucker."
MF had been presented to us as a haven and a refugeand a place of reunion. We could carve out an existence here as plain humans, without interference from Man, and if you had friends or lovers lost in the relativistic maze of the Forever War, you could wait for them on the Time Warp, a converted battlewagon that shuttled back and forth between Mizar and Alcor fast enough to almost halt aging.
Of course it turned out that Man did want to keep an eye on us, since we comprised a sort of genetic insurance policy. They could use us as a baseline if, after X generations, something bad cropped up in their carbon-copy genetic pattern. (I once used that term with Bill, and started to explain, but he did know what carbon copies were. Like he knew what cave paintings were.)
But they weren't passive observers. They were zookeepers. And MF did resemble a zoo: an artificial simplified environment. But the zookeepers didn't build it. They just stumbled onto it.
Middle Finger, like all the Vega-class planets we'd found, was an anomaly and a cartoon. It defied normal models of planetary formation and evolution.
A too-young bright blue star with a single planet, Earth-sized with oxygen-water chemistry. The planet orbits at a distance where life can be sustained, if only just.
(Planet people tell us that there's no way to have an Earthtype planet unless you also have a Jupiter-type giant in the system. But then stars like Vega and Mizar shouldn't have Earths anyhow.)
Middle Finger has seasons, but they're provided not by inclination toward the sun, but by the long oval of its orbit. We have six seasons spread over three Earth years: spring, summer, fall, first winter, deep winter, and thaw. Of course the planet moves slower, the farther it is from its sun, so the cold seasons are long, and the warm ones, short.
Most of the planet is arctic waste or dry tundra. Here at the equator, lakes and streams ice over in deep winter. Toward the poles, lakes are solid permanent ice from the surface down, with sterile puddles forming on warm summer days. Two-thirds of the planet's surface is lifeless except for airborne spores and micro-organisms.
The ecology is curiously simple, toofewer than a hundred native varieties of plants; about the same number of insects and things that resemble arthropods. No native mammals, but a couple of dozen species and large small things that are roughly reptiles or amphibians. Only seven kinds of fish, and four aquatic mollusks.
Nothing has evolved from anything else. There are no fossils, because there hasn't been enough timecarbon dating says nothing on or near the surface is more than ten thousand years old. But core samples from less than fifty meters down reveal a planet as old as Earth.
It's as if somebody had hauled a planet here and parked it, seeded with simple life. But where did they haul it from, and who are they, and who paid the shipping bill? All of the energy expended by the humans and the Taurans during the Forever War wouldn't have moved this planet far.
It's a mystery to them, too; the Taurans, which I find reassuring.
There are other mysteries that are not reassuring. Chief among them is that this corner of the universe had been inhabited before, up to about five thousand years ago.
The nearest Tauran planet, Tsogot, had been discovered and colonized during the Forever War. They found the ruins of a huge city there, larger than New York or London, buried in drifting dunes. The husks of dozens of alien spaceships drifted in orbit, one of them an interstellar vessel.
Of the creatures who had built this powerful civilization, not a clue. They left behind no statues or pictures, which may be explainable in terms of culture. Neither did they leave any bodies, not even a single bone, which is harder to explain.
The Tauran name for them is Boloor, "the lost."
* * *
I usually cooked on Sixday, since I didn't teach then, but the Greytons had brought by a couple of rabbits, and that was Marygay's specialty, hassenpfeffer. The kids liked it better than most Earth food. They mostly preferred the bland native stuff, which is all they got at school. Marygay says it's a natural survival trait; even on Earth, children stuck to bland, familiar food. I hadn't, but then my parents were strange, hippies. We ate fiery Indian food. I never tasted meat until I was twelve, when California law made them send me to school.
Dinner was amusing, Bill and Sara trading gossip about their friends' dating and mating. Sara's finally gotten over Taylor, who had been her steady for a year, and Bill had welcome news about a social disaster the boy had caused. It had stung her when he declared himself home, but after a few months' fling he turned het again, and asked her to take him back. She told him to stick to boys. Now it turns out he did have a boyfriend over in Hardy, very secret, who got mad at him and came over to the college to make a loud public scene. It involved sexual details that we didn't used to discuss at the dinner table. But times change, and fun is fun.
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