Read an Excerpt
Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds
By Joe Haldeman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Joe Haldeman
All rights reserved.
Life begins in a bloody mess and sometimes it ends the same way, and only odd people seek out blood between those times, maybe crazy people. I feel that way now. But the first half of my life ran with blood, most times animal blood, sometimes human. I was a certain kind of hunter's guide.
In those days I didn't have an office on any planet. Not in the sense of a physical place to meet clients. The character of the place where a client asked to meet, his home or otherwise, helped me decide whether to take him on. And the way he dressed, spoke, held himself. It's a special sense, a gestalt. If you took on every darf who had the money you'd wind up dead, and him too.
It almost always is a "he." There are more woman than men with money, but to want to hunt, you need that instinct to point at something and squirt it.
Raj Benhaden III had picked a good meeting place, a milk bar where the young serving women wore face veils but nothing substantial from collarbone to ankle, and where wine was available for infidels like me. But he didn't otherwise make a good first impression. He surged through the beaded door curtain, a large muscular man with a looking-for-trouble expression, scanned the room imperiously, nodded at a signal from one of the women, and then stomped over to my table with the chunky gracelessness of the overtrained athlete. His first two words:
"So was my mother."
He nodded at that revelation and sank into a chair. "You don't look like a hunting guide."
"You don't look like a prince."
"Really. What do I look like?"
Time enough for tact later, if I decided to take the job. "You look like a midclass man who was on the team in school. Say, fifteen, twenty years ago. Now you spend a lot of time in the gymnasium. Trying to turn the clock back."
He nodded again, staring. "Slow it down, anyhow."
A beautiful houri floated over with a glass of mint tea. He took it without appearing to notice her. "A cousin of mine from Earth engaged you last year. He recommended you, so I looked up your listing in Registrar Selva. You've worked a lot of places."
The only Earthie I'd guided in a year had almost been the end of me. Crazy man. "M'suya was your cousin?"
"M'suya." He smiled slightly. "Don't worry. The rest of the family is almost normal."
"I've never been hired by a normal person. Normal people don't seek out the company of dangerous animals."
"A point. Selva says your specialty is trailbreaking, taking hunters and collectors to new places."
"Which is why your cousin hired me." We'd gone to a planet called PZ1439, too new even to have a name. "But I prefer to know at least something about the place, the kind of creatures we'll be up against."
"This place is not completely unexplored. The creature has been observed a few times." He paused. "The planet Obelobel. I want the skin of a balaseli."
"I don't know the animal. Think the planet's closed, though."
"The animal is worth the trip. And I can take care of the quarantine. What do you say?"
It sounded okay. "I'll have to do a little research—"
"No. Decide now."
His eyes were actually glittering with excitement. "Sure. Leave soon as you put the fix through."
He stood up. "Tomorrow." I watched his large back sail away.
Rich people always leave you with the check. His mint tea was still steaming, untouched. I tasted it; too sweet. Sipped the wine slowly, appreciating the women, thinking it would be a while before I saw another. If only that had been correct. The next woman I met would turn out to be less pleasant to deal with.
As expected, two drinks' tariff would have bought a good meal on Selva; a banquet on Earth. Raj would pay it back a hundredfold.
I liked working from Qadar, though your daily expenses are the size of some countries' budget deficit. They pay you twice as much as elsewhere, with no argument. And they have a good library. I went back to the Hilton to punch it up; find out what was known about Obelobelians and the balaseli.
Obelobelians are weird, which is no distinction among alien races, and the balaseli is about a hundred kilograms of bloody murder that leaps out of the night. I began to have qualms.
It's a twelve-legged, eyeless (sonar-ranging) creature about twice the size of a human, which is to say about three times the size of an Obelobelian. The six legs on either side are joined with leathery membrane, like the wings of a Terran bat. On the inner surface of the wings are tens of thousands of stiff curved cilia: tiny hooks. It kills by enveloping the prey and ripping its skin off in one swift jerk.
It doesn't have a true mouth. While the prey is still twitching, a slit opens up along half the length of its thorax, ventrally, from the base of the tail to the middle of the chest, and its stomach everts, rippling up over the hooks (which all point outward) to enclose and seal off the dying, flayed animal. Strong acids and enzymes digest the meal in about fifteen minutes, during which time the balaseli is theoretically helpless. It leaves behind a compact husk of undigested hair, bones, and nails, and perhaps corroded jewelry.
You could think of worse ways to die, but it would be a short and disgusting list.
The Obelobelians have a rite of passage, which had been seen only once by humans at the time, that involves going into a cave and offering yourself as food. The balaseli evidently knows what eyes are; it only attacks from behind. You evidently have to sense its approach, turn quickly, and impale it. A test of the hunter's, or soldier's, sixth sense—which I hoped was highly developed in the ruling class of Qadar.
The caves where the beasts live typically form clusters of interconnected hemispheres, each the size of a large sports stadium. During the day, the balaselis cling to stalactites at the tops of the domes. They usually have to go outside to hunt, at night, since few large creatures are stupid enough to wander into their lairs. Their normal prey are young and old strays from the herds of saurian egg-producers that accompany the Obelobelians on their seemingly random migrations around the planet's one continent.
The Obelobelians use the rite as part of a ruthless simple form of population control, sensible on such a barren planet. No one goes through the rite of passage until someone has died. The next night, a young native goes into the cave; he or she comes out sexually mature, and immediately mates with a predetermined partner. A female mates only once in her life, but always has multiple births. The number of offspring she will have, they say, depends on how many die in the rite of passage before one makes it through.
The balaseli kill about half of the youngsters who go into the caves, but don't bother the natives otherwise, though they sleep unprotected, not having invented the roof. The balaseli haven't bothered the humans yet, either, a few dozen xenologists who perforce also sleep under the stars, though perhaps not as deeply as the Obelobelians.
The three-week trip was uneventful. Raj Benhaden III was unusually reticent for a Qadarem. Their planet doesn't have much commerce beyond the exchange of knowledge, and that exchange is normally quite vigorous. I spent a couple of months on Qadar once, helping set up a xoo there, and you couldn't say one plus one equals two without getting some discussion. A world full of theologians and philosophers.
But Raj was a throwback; he admitted as much in a rare spate of conversation. Most Qadarem are vegetarians, and hunting (as opposed to live collecting) is almost unheard of on the planet. He offered no explanation for his aberration. No, his father didn't hunt. No, he had no philosophical justification for it. No, given a choice in the matter, he didn't eat meat. Yes, he had killed men, in war.
(This we had in common: we had both spent a year of our youth playing at mercenary, on the planet Hell. He did not elaborate, but I got the impression that he hadn't enjoyed the experience much more than I had.)
I couldn't get him to argue about anything, so I pretty much retreated to my books, and he to his body. He had a training chair loaded with weights and springs and pulleys that he could use to isolate any particular muscle and torture it into prominence. A harmless enough compulsion under normal circumstances, but with an ominous aspect here: physical strength was probably going to be irrelevant, since the Obelobelians who went through the rite of passage were as weak as ten-year- old humans. With every bulging muscle, Raj was building up false self-confidence.
When I pointed this out to him, he just nodded amiably and went on sweating.
We came out of orbit to a cloudy spring day, indistinguishable from a cloudy summer-fall-winter day. The planet has a circular orbit and no axial tilt, so no seasons, and the sky is always a uniform thin mist, so no weather. Unless you count heavy dew every night as weather. A gray moldy planet in its large temperate zones, with a lot of caves and a breathable, but unpleasantly musty, atmosphere. The ground was a tangle of presumably inedible mushrooms. Our floater homed in on the silvery dome of the Confederación's research headquarters; slid through the force field and landed.
I hadn't expected trouble with the local bureaucracy, since the planet had no humans other than the xenologists. As luck would have it, the woman in charge recognized my name.
"'Gregorio Fuentes,'" she read off the first page of the grant. She dropped it on the small folding table and stood up. She looked like she wanted to pace, but the tent wasn't really big enough. So she contented herself with adjusting the heat under the teapot. With her back to us, she said one word: "Poacher."
"Come on, now," I said. "You can't poach where there's nothing to hunt."
"Oh, just in spirit." She turned and looked at us tiredly. "I assume you're interested in the balaselis."
I tapped the folder. "It's all in here."
"Marvelous creature," Raj said.
"Any xoo would pay a fortune for one," she said, her expression not changing. "But you can't have one."
"Nothing could be further from our minds."
"I'm sure." She poured three plastic cups of bitterroot and served us. "I mean you really, physically, can't. You're ten or twelve years too early. No individual can be culled until we have a population estimate. And there's no way in hell you can sneak one up to orbit; they're just too big."
Bitterroot is a special taste I have never acquired. I sipped the nasty stuff and tried to keep my voice pleasant. "The grant is quite clear on that. I'll be collecting some common smaller species that may eventually wind up on display. No balaselis."
"We merely wish to observe them in situ," Raj said quietly. She stared at him and then at me. "I see. Thrillseekers."
"Not at all." I picked up the folder and offered it to her. "Our credentials are in order."
She ignored it. "I'm sure they always are. There's never any shortage of hungry universities. Or bored rich people."
Raj smiled at her. "I have never been bored in my life."
"Then you've never been a scientist forced to push government papers around." She snatched the grant and riffled through it. "I'll go over this in detail tonight. If you've dotted all the t's and crossed all the i's, you can leave the dome in the morning. You understand the quarantine procedure?"
"We'll be watching you every moment. No human artifacts. You go out there completely naked. One wristwatch, one pencil, and I'll have you confined until the next Confederación inspection team arrives. That will be a long time. Understand?"
"Yeah. But why not cooperate with us?" I said. "The sooner we ... complete our research goals, the sooner we'll be a memory."
"Your research could be a disaster," she said, her voice starting to shake. "The Obelobelians are the most primitive alien culture we've ever encountered. Perhaps the most primitive that ever will be encountered. We have to proceed with extreme caution. Just the fact that we have to communicate with the Obelobelians contaminates the very data we seek. And we are highly trained, dedicated, and careful researchers. Anyone else who comes in contact with them is a wild card."
"We won't try to sell them any trinkets," I said.
"If they had any money, I suspect you would." She stood up. "I'll contact you in the morning."
I thought the quarantine restrictions were ridiculously tough and also hypocritical: the Confederación's presence was marked by a shimmering silver force dome over a hundred meters in diameter, with floaters almost daily dropping out of orbit and returning. The natives might notice.
Dr. Avedon was not happy with our knives, but couldn't confiscate them. They were both genuine Obelobelian artifacts, razor-keen chipped crystal, "on loan" from Selva's Museo Arqueológico. I needed mine to make cages. Raj needed his to make a spear.
I was going into the cave with him, but not as a combatant. The balaselis supposedly would ignore you if you kept your back to the wall, and that was exactly what I intended to do. Unless Raj got into trouble. Then I would help him—if it looked like it would do any good—but my fee would be quadrupled. Raj agreed to this with the easy confidence of a man who lacks the imagination to picture his own death, or who simply holds death in contempt. I never got to know him well enough to figure out which.
Even after we were allowed out of the dome, we had to spend a day in preparation. I had to weave the equivalent of rucksack and canteen out of local materials. A xenologist on Selva had showed me how—but it's one thing to duplicate a primitive craft under controlled conditions, with the help of an experienced tutor, and quite another to go outside and hack down the materials and try to do it from memory. The first half-dozen canteens I wove would have made decent colanders.
I gave up trying to work outdoors. The cold didn't bother Raj—Qadar is no tropical paradise—but it made my fingers numb and clumsy. Finally I pieced together two rucksacks and four liter-sized canteens. We rested and set out at first light.
The map I'd memorized didn't do much good. No compass and no sun, just uniform dull gray from horizon to horizon. Fortunately, it was easy to follow the trail the scientists had made, a conspicuous path of crushed fungi.
It was certainly the most depressing world I'd ever seen. The scenery was like the magnified surface of a diseased organ. The dominant form of fungus was a sort of mushroom with an inverted cap, like a bowl, always full of scummy evil-smelling water. Pasty white with streaks of brown and gray. The only green in the landscape was an occasional stand of bamboo-like grass, which had provided the material for my weaving and Raj's spear shaft. It was a sickly mottled chartreuse of a green.
Also slightly green was the fungus that began to grow on us after about an hour, a slick powdery fungus that crawled out of armpits and navels and the moist crease between scrotum and thigh. It looked bad enough on my olive skin, but on Raj, whose skin was so black as to be almost blue, it was spectacularly ugly.
(It's very strange for an alien life form to find humans amenable as hosts, or food. Because of divergent evolutionary patterns, we're usually incompatible at the level of DNA. We'd discussed the possibility that the balaselis would turn up their noses, if they had noses, at Raj. In that unhappy case, I would get a "no-kill fee," equal to one third of the standard guide's fee.)
I'd made my rucksack twice as large as Raj's; it was actually a double-compartmented cage with carrying straps. We both kept our eyes sharp for specimens, and we couldn't have missed much. Anything that twitched on that moldy mausoleum of a landscape would have stood out like a live bug in a plate of cold spaghetti. We went all day without seeing anything, though, which was boring but not surprising. Most of the loathsome creatures who crabbed or slithered through the toadstools were nocturnal. I was sure there would be plenty of them around when we were trying to sleep.
We didn't talk much during the trek. I tried to start conversation a few times but Raj damped it with monosyllables. So I was sort of relieved, looking for some human contact, when we came over a small rise and saw the archaeologists' encampment. It was a well-tramped circle a couple of hundred meters from an Obelobelian "village," which was just a scatter of belongings and shared fires. About a dozen of the skinny pale horse-sized dinosaurs that the Obelobelians followed around, the tytistu, grazed mushrooms or slept standing up. A thin man with a white beard walked up the path to meet us.
He didn't look happy. Before I could introduce us, he said, "You're the adventurers. Fuentes and Benhaden."
"You're in touch with Dr. Avedon?" I said.
He opened his mouth and pointed to a molar. "Radio. She says your accreditation is in order and we are not to hinder you. Nor cooperate, you might as well know."
"Which is stupid," I said, regretting it but forging on: "Your own project's funding can only benefit from our visit here. There will be publicity."
"Publicity to bring more thrill seekers. We're trying to do science here, Fuentes; it's not a freak show." He turned and walked away. That was the last word we heard from any scientist, until they came up the hill to help me with Raj.
We made our "camp"—putting down our rucksacks and kicking away enough of the disgusting undergrowth to make sitting space—just downstream from the scientists' and Obelobelians' camps. The river, wide and shallow, barely moved. The water was gray and smelled like stale cheese. We followed the xenologists' lead and gathered our water upstream from the Obelobelians. We weren't likely to catch any disease from alien pollution, but it did sometimes happen, usually with fatal results.
Excerpted from Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds by Joe Haldeman. Copyright © 1993 Joe Haldeman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.