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Ken Jacklin is a soldier who has died many times. Rossa Corman has a communications talent that depends on pain. Together they must make an excruciating journey via makeshift matter transmitter and persuade a distrustful, war-torn planetary colony to halt research into Anomalous Physics -- the maverick science whose side effects include continent-busting nullbombs, exploding suns, and a mysterious final weapon called the Devourer. Gradually Jacklin and...
Ken Jacklin is a soldier who has died many times. Rossa Corman has a communications talent that depends on pain. Together they must make an excruciating journey via makeshift matter transmitter and persuade a distrustful, war-torn planetary colony to halt research into Anomalous Physics -- the maverick science whose side effects include continent-busting nullbombs, exploding suns, and a mysterious final weapon called the Devourer. Gradually Jacklin and Corman realize that what Earth has told them about their own mission is a labyrinth of bluff and lies....
A high-tension hard SF thriller.
A mantrap bit my foot off; I dropped between two rocks because I had to, and took stock of the damage. Five years back I'd have fainted dead away as a million volts of pain came searing up the nerves: now it was just an irritation, a distraction. Uncomfortable, like the knobby rocks I'd landed on in the instinctive dive for cover. I fixed the tourniquet with my left hand and teeth -- you never let the gun slip out of your right hand when in action, even if it's only the training ground. If you're right-handed, that is... I was ready to stick my head up for a quick look at the objective, but just then there was a popping and crackling as the ir laser drew a quick line of bright sparks through the air. Superheated rockdust burst out in clouds where the line struck; one fragment scored my forehead and filled my eyes with blood. The years of battle training helped soak up the new pain, but I wasted more seconds tying a kerchief over the gash with one hand only.
An electric-discharge laser would need seconds to recharge. I hoped it wasn't a gasdynamic or chemical job -- and stuck up my head. Nothing hit me during the quick look I allowed myself then, so I tossed a grenade and a smokebomb as far as I could toward the laser bunker and started hopping, slightly off the direct line of approach the IR flash had drawn in the air. The guess about the laser was wrong, though, because straight away another dotted line of ionization sparks came probing through the smoke, shattering rock in a continuous explosion. A good shot now could smash the directing mirror and put the damn laser out for the duration, but even a Forceman doesn't aim too well one-legged and I didn'tcare to drop again just yet. Instead I unclipped more smokebombs from my belt and threw them way to the right of the first cloud while I moved in from the left. Standard maneuver now was to shove a grenade right through their firing slit.
They saw me, though, and the crackling line came tracking over toward me, and I put on speed -- Hopalong Jacklin rides again. Under the beam and skidding full-length through dust and gravel to the base of the pillbox, the one place where the beam couldn't aim -- or that was what I was hoping. I smelled it then. Before my eyes went cloudy gray and useless I saw the little vents in that concrete right by my face, and realized that not only were the bastards using a chemical laser, but they were pumping the deadly hydrogen fluoride exhaust out right here, especially for goddamn idiots like me. Then the HF gas was stripping the skin off my face, scarring my windpipe and filling my lungs with bloody froth. There was nothing to do but take it and wait for the end. And after a little while I died, again.
The thing about the training ground is that you can't win. It carries on and carries on until you're dead. This probably sounds a bit grim and off-putting if like most of the people out there you're a virgin where death's concerned: but for us seasoned Forcemen death is just part of our lives. The logic is pretty simple, after all. When you want a meal cooked up, and on hand you've got a trained cook and a guy who's never tried cooking, which one do you choose? Right. So when you want someone to go out and probably get himself killed defending you or filling your enemies with holes... that's the core of Force training. Anyone loaded down with gut-fear -- hormone squirts from glands with a case of the squitters -- is going to be thinking about himself instead of the fighting; someone like that just can't do a clean, efficient kill. Poker players learn to keep emotion out of their faces, they say in the Force, and we learn to keep ours out of our glands.
So I lay there in the tank and craned my neck to see how the foot was growing. The regenerator fluid is thick, yellowish, and murky, but I could see I'd already sprouted a neat bunch of tarsal bones, coated with a misty jelly where the flesh was starting to creep back over them. The fluid filled my mouth and nostrils and lungs, which no doubt were healing at a good rate. The only real quarrel I've got with this death-and-regeneration business is that it's boring: even for fiddling little injuries the process can take hours. Once I was cut not so neatly in half by a riot-gun and spent five whole days growing a new me, from the belly down, like some stupid flatworm. Learning to die and live again is a necessary thing, though. Like they told us on the induction course, deep down in all our genes we've got this locked-in program that shrieks survival when death's about, and shrieks it so loud that you can't hear your other thoughts. Only way to stop that and get efficient is to get used to dying... and then, maybe, you can start thinking about promotion.
That one had been my forty-sixth death. I reckoned I was used to it.
They let me out of the sickbay in the end, after all the usual unpleasantness (lying there in the tank is dreamy and nice if you can turn off your brain awhile, but being disconnected isn't so good). I marched off on my own two tender feet -- the treatment leaves you uncalloused, like a baby -- feeling ready to rush that laser again and this time smear the crew good and proper. I'd been in some of those bunkers myself, of course. Sooner or later the crew always get smeared.
Next day we'd be starting a fresh course, Guerrilla II, on how to improvise your own nukes -- the trick, I'd heard, is to get your charge of plute-oxide fuel shaped and imploded before the Pu poisoning catches up with you. Some of these courses are makework, I think, to soak up our spare energy, but they're all good fun. No need to catch up on studies that night, so I wandered into the bar for a juice and sat down by Raggett, a new guy with only half a dozen deaths. He still wore the death-pips on his arm: I gave up those decorations when they reached double figures, myself.
"Chess?" I said to be sociable. "Or we could grab a room for a bit of wargaming, if that doesn't sound too much like work."
"I thought... I thought I'd go into town," said Raggett. He is a ratty little fellow, and he looked really furtive when he said this. Men from the Force can go into town any time they don't have classes or training -- it's supposed to be a compliment, the brass trust us. But somehow there's a kind of feeling in the air, not even strong enough to call an unwritten rule, that the real pros don't waste time outside the complex. So I gave Raggett a twitch of my eyebrow, and he said, "I could use a woman."
At that I remembered my last woman, maybe only three or four deaths into training, and at the same time I remembered Mack, the long-server who'd taken me into town back then out of sheer kindness (it had been his first time in years -- like me now, he'd slipped out of the habit) and warned me where I'd likely be rolled, or poxed, or both. Mack, poor guy: he was wasted in one of the Continental raids. No pickup for recycling -- you know what they say: it was France and meat's short there.
"How about the two of us going?" I said. "Town's not healthy when there's just one of you, and I think I know a couple of places."
"Well... thanks, Jacklin! Hoped you'd say that. Can I get you another?"
I let him buy me a juice I didn't really want, and he told me that the latest stats had been posted, which I knew already only I was feeling friendly. Seventy-two percent of the new intake had dropped out on their first combat trial. Psych discharge: some people just can't take dying, you know, and most of that seventy-two percent wouldn't be much use for anything afterward. They sometimes said... well, never mind that. It made me feel closer to Raggett, even with all those Ds of seniority.
" -- great stuff," he was saying. "The vocal synth is really out of this world. You heard it?"
I blinked. "Heard what?... Oh, a new tape. Sorry, friend, but music doesn't do anything for me. I used to follow the charts a long time ago, but I never get the chance these days."
There's always something new out of Africa in the music line, even if you don't hear much of the homegrown stuff these days.
"I was wondering about that," Raggett said. "I've noticed you seniors mostly stay away from the audio room, and I mean, you know, is this some goddamn unwritten rule I don't know about?"
I told him the truth, which was that I didn't know much about it either. "After I'd been in the Force awhile, the things I did before didn't seem too important. You get this feeling of being really in touch here, on the ball, keeping ahead of classes and scoring high in combat trials. Especially those. I mean, it feels a whole lot better inside than music and such."
Raggett's eyebrows crawled together, halfway to a frown, and I wondered if he was planning to give up all his piddling hobbies right away. I started wondering a couple of other things too, but they swam down out of reach inside my head before I could net them.
"Let's go into town, then," I said.
The streets were much the same, the lights were different. More of the shielded power lines get cut up every year -- maintenance isn't worth the effort outside the enclaves. The back streets were still choked with the hulks of old cars; the route through them came back to me bit by bit as we went along, and I managed to keep the plan in my head a turning or so in front of our feet. Sooner than was comfortable, we were going through zones where the lighting was just about nonexistent. London's been a mess since long before the Force took over. I remember thinking that this part of town had gone even further downhill since my last time. Some places, back alleys especially, we were picking our way just by the nova lights in the sky. And then, as our footsteps sounded grittily in one quiet and smelly spot, there was a scraping of feet and three punks jumped us. Leftovers from a smashed Freedom gang, maybe. It turns out the Force technique of going all out and not caring about getting dead or injured works fine in unarmed combat too -- I was a wide-open target as my fingers went in a V into the first guy's eyes and my right boot into the second's groin, while whatever Raggett did to the third left him a screaming lump until I kicked him to sleep.
It was hard to see in that thin mucky light, as we stood breathing hard over the bodies, but it seemed they were pretty young. Should've joined the Force if they wanted action -- or maybe they'd tried and weren't up to it. As fighters they hadn't been much: I came out of it with just a dislocated finger which, thanks to the training, didn't bother me too much as I reset it.
"Hope they're not maimed for life," Raggett said as we went on, still scanning in front, behind, on both sides, the automatic way you learn. I guessed two of them might be and the third wouldn't be walking straight for something like a week (no tanks for slummies, you bet). So what? They put themselves up as targets and we cooperated nicely by knocking them down. Good practice, too.
Then we were at the House, a place looking like any dingy terrace house in these slums if you didn't happen to know. I pushed the squeaky doorcom button and said, "Two guys here looking for company." There was a pause while, I guessed, a bootleg black-light camera checked us over; then the door buzzed and clicked open. Inside it was like the foyer of some small, dingy club -- or hotel if there were any of those left. The oil lamps leaked a yellow, smelly light. An ugly-looking receptionist who probably knew something about unarmed combat himself asked us what specs we wanted. A whiff of the death-happy feeling as I looked him over: he was tough, sure, but I guessed I could take him, no sweat...
"Blonde," Raggett said eagerly. "Not over thirty -- no, twenty-five."
I remembered a name from that visit all those deaths ago. "Cathy," I said. We slapped down the oversized wads of Force scrip he asked for, took the keys, and headed up the stairs.
What the hell am I doing here? I thought outside the door. The key rattled in the lock; I tapped a warning as I turned the handle, and as the door swung in, a choking blast of stale perfume came out. It took me straight back to the bunker and the HF exhaust for a second... Inside, it wasn't the Cathy I remembered, but she was just as efficient, coming to me with a real-looking smile asking if she could help me get my clothes off. I like efficiency: she was an expert in her trade just the way I was in mine. In no time at all we were lying side by side on the huge bed while I looked closely at her gray eyes and pale yellow hair, and decided she was quite a good looker, really.
We chatted a while, lying there. She said professionally nice things about how I was big and strong and so on, and I told her she looked great, and I was a Forceman who hadn't been into town for a few years. She gave me an odd sort of sidelong look then.
"You know, we don't see very many old-timers here," she said.
"Hell, I won't be thirty for a while," I said, grinning.
"Mmm... yes, quite babyfaced. But you know what they say about the Forcemen who've been under training a long while."
I didn't know what they said about them, and asked. She twisted her face into a funny little frown, and said, "You maybe paid to talk all night? Can't you do that in your very own cell or whatever they keep you in?"
"OK, let's get on with it." I wrapped my arm around her, and her hands started doing things up and down me and it was all very friendly, soft, and warm. She stroked me for maybe a quarter of an hour and I stroked her back, with a little of my mind away, thinking about improvised nukes and next day's course, and by and by she stopped. She just lay there with her head on my chest and sniffled. I felt a damp spot over my ribs then, and lifted up her head carefully. She was crying.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
"Something wrong with you. You... you Forcemen! You're not men, you're not. For Christ's sake, don't you ever get it up?"
It came back to me then that that was part of it all, and I thought this was funny since I'd had a bit of a hard-on only that morning when I was rushing the laser bunker. But now I'd hurt her professional pride or something, so I told her I was tired and would try harder, and she stroked me and sucked me and tickled me without anything special happening. In the end I got out of there and waited in the foyer until Raggett came down with a big smile.
I thought about it all on the way back through all the rust and the concrete gone to sand, and it came to me that maybe when you get used to dying and everything, then you've got up above all the little weaknesses. I felt, you know, I'd really matured. The next day I put in for promotion.
Copyright © 1982 by David Langford