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Men stop war to make gods sometimes. Peace gods, who would make Earth a haven. A place for men to think and love and play. No war to cloud their minds and hearts. Stop, somehow, men from being men.
Gods make war to stop men from becoming gods. Without the beat of drums to stop our ears, what heaven we could make of Earth! The anchor that is war left behind? Somehow free to stop war?
Gods make men to be somewhat like them. So men express their godliness in war. To take life: this is what gods do. Not the womanly urge to make life. Nor the simple sense to stop.
War-men make gods. To stop those gods from raging, we have to find the heart and head to make new gods, who don't take men in human sacrifice. New gods, who find disgust in war.
Gods stop, to make men war for their amusement. We can stop their fun. We can make new gods in human guise. No need to call to heaven. Just take plain men and show to them the heaven they could make!
To stop God's wars! Men make their own destiny. We don't need war to prove to anyone that we are men. But even that is not enough. To stop war, we have to become more. To stop war, we have to become gods. To stop war, make men gods.
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 could 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 guy—oh, 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 freezer—the stasis field inside reflected the angry sky like a pool of mercury—and 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 day—half that, with the kids helping—and 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 noncommittal 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 thank 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 refuge—and 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 Earth-type 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 microorganisms.
The ecology is curiously simple, too—fewer 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 of large and 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 time—carbon 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 homo, but after a few months' fling he turned her 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.
The thing we were plotting actually grew out of an innocent bantering argument I'd had with Charlie and Diana some months before. Diana had been my medical officer during the Sade-138 campaign, our last, out in the Greater Magellanic Cloud; Charlie had served as my XO. Diana had delivered both Bill and Sara. They were our best friends.
Most of the community had taken Sixday off to get together at the Larsons' for a barn-raising. Teresa was an old vet, two campaigns, but her wife Ami was third-generation Paxton. She was our age, biologically, and they had two fusion-clone teenaged daughters. One was off at university, but the other, Sooz, greeted us warmly and was in charge of the coffee and tea.
The hot drinks were welcome; it was unseasonably cold for late spring. It was also muddy. Middle Finger had weather control that was usually reliable—or used to be—but we'd had too much rain the previous couple of weeks, and moving clouds around didn't seem to help. The rain gods were angry. Or happy, or careless; never could tell about gods.
The first couple to arrive, as usual, were Cat and Aldo Verdeur-Sims. And as usual, Cat and Marygay embraced warmly, but only for an instant, out of consideration for their husbands.
On her last mission Marygay, like me, was a het throwback in a world otherwise 100 percent homo. Unlike me, she overcame her background and managed to fall in love with a woman, Cat. They were together for a few months, but during their last battle, Cat was severely wounded and went straight to the hospital planet Heaven.
Marygay assumed that was it; the physics of relativity and collapsar jump would separate them by years or centuries. So she came here to wait for me—not for Cat—on the Time Warp. She told me all about Cat soon after we got together, and I didn't think it was a big deal; a reasonable adjustment under the circumstances. I'd always been easier with female homosex than male, anyhow.
So right after Sara was born, who should appear but Cat. She'd met Aldo on Heaven and heard about Middle Finger, and the two of them switched to het—something Man could easily do for you and, at that time, was required if you were going to Middle Finger. She knew Marygay was here, from Stargate records, and the space-time geometry worked out all right. She showed up about ten Earth years younger than Marygay and I were. And beautiful.
We got along well—Aldo and I played chess and go together—but you'd have to be blind not to see the occasional wistfulness that passed between Cat and Marygay.
We sometimes kidded one another about it, but there was an edge to the joking. Aldo was more nervous about it than me, I think.
Sara came along with us, and Bill would come with Charlie and Diana after church let out. We unbelievers got to pay for our intellectual freedom by donning work boots and slogging through the mud, pounding in the reference stakes for the pressor field generator.
We borrowed the generator from the township, and along with it got the only Man involved in the barn-raising. She would have come anyway, as building inspector, after we had the thing up.
The generator was worth its weight in bureaucrats, though. It couldn't lift the metal girders; that took a lot of human muscle working together. But once they were in position, it kept them in place and perfectly aligned. Like a petty little god that was annoyed by things that weren't at right angles.
I had gods on the brain. Charlie and Diana had joined this new church, Spiritual Rationalism, and had dragged Bill into it. Actually, they didn't have gods in the old sense, and it all seemed reasonable enough, people trying to put some poetry and numinism into their everyday lives. I think Marygay would have gone along with it, if it weren't for my automatic resistance to religion.
Lar Po had surveying tools, including an ancient laser collimator that wasn't much different from the one I'd used in graduate school. We still had to slog through the mud and pound stakes, but at least we knew the stakes were going where they belonged.
The township also supplied a heavy truck full of fiber mastic, more reliable than cement in this climate, and easier to handle. It stayed liquid until it was exposed to an ultrasonic tone that was two specific frequencies in a silent chord. Then it froze permanently solid. You wanted to make sure you didn't have any on your hands or clothes when they turned on the chime.
The piles of girders and fasteners were a kit that had come in a big floater from Centrus. Paxton was allotted such things on the basis of a mysterious formula involving population and productivity and the phases of the moons. We actually could have had two barns this spring, but only the Larsons wanted one.
By the time we had it staked out, about thirty people had showed up. Teresa had a clipboard with job assignments and a timeline for putting the thing up. People took their assignments good-naturedly from "Sergeant Larson, sir." Actually, she'd been a major, like me.
Charlie and I worked together on the refrigeration unit. We'd learned the hard way the first years on this planet, that any permanent building bigger than a shed had to sit on ice year-round. If you carve down to the permafrost and lay a regular foundation, the long bitter winters crack it. So we just give in to the climate and build on ice, or frozen mud.
It was easy work, but sloppy. Another team nailed together a rectangular frame around what would be the footprint of the building, plus a few centimeters every way. Max Weston, one of the few guys big enough to wrestle with it, used an air hammer to pound alloy rods well below the frost line, every meter or so along the perimeter. These would anchor the barn against the hurricane-force winds that made farming such an interesting gamble here. (The weather-control satellites couldn't muster enough power to deflect them.)
Charlie and I slopped around in the mud, connecting long plastic tubes in a winding snake back and forth in what would be the building's sub-foundation. It was just align-glue-drop; align-glue-drop, until we were both half drunk from the glue fumes. Meanwhile, the crew that had nailed up the frame hosed water into the mud, so it would be nice and deep and soupy when we froze it.
We finished and hooked the loose ends up to a compressor and turned it on. Everybody took a break while we watched the mud turn to slush and harden.
It was warmer inside, but Charlie and I were too bespattered to feel comfortable in anyone's kitchen, so we just sat on a stack of foamsteel girders and let Sooz bring us tea.
I waved at the rectangle of mud. "Pretty complex behavior for a bunch of lab rats."
Charlie was still a little dull from the glue. "We have rats?"
"A breeding herd of lab rats."
Then he nodded and sipped some tea. "You're too pessimistic. We'll outlast them. That's one thing I have faith in."
"Yeah, faith can move mountains. Planets." Charlie didn't deny the obvious: that we were animals in a zoo, or a lab. We were allowed to breed freely on Middle Finger in case something went wrong with the grand experiment that was Man: billions of genetically identical non-individuals sharing a single consciousness. Or billions of test-tube twins sharing a mutual data base, if you wanted to be accurate.
We could clone like them, no law against it, if we wanted a son or daughter identical to us, or fusion-clone like Teresa and Ami, if some biological technicality made normal childbirth impossible.
But the main idea was to keep churning out offspring with a wild mix of genes. Just in case something went wrong with perfection. We were their insurance policy.
People had started coming to Middle Finger as soon as the Forever War was over. Vet immigration, spread out over centuries because of relativity, finally totaled a couple of thousand people, maybe ten percent of the present population. We tended to stick together, in small towns like Paxton. We were used to dealing with each other.
Charlie lit up a stick and offered me one; I declined. "I think we could outlast them," I said, "if they let us survive."
"They need us. Us lab rats."
"No, they just need our gametes. Which they can freeze indefinitely in liquid helium."
"Yeah, I can see that. They line us up for sperm and egg samples and then kill us off. They aren't cruel, William, or stupid, no matter what you think of them."
The Man came out to get the manual for her machine, and took it back to the kitchen. They all looked alike, of course, but with considerable variation as they got older. Handsome, tall, swarthy, black-haired, broad of chin and forehead. This one had lost the little finger of her left hand, and for some reason hadn't had it grown back. Probably not worth the time and pain, come to think of it. A lot of us vets remembered the torture of regrowing limbs and members.
When she was out of earshot, I continued. "They wouldn't kill us off, but they wouldn't have to. Once they had sufficient genetic material, they could round us up and sterilize us. Let the experiment run down, one natural death at a time."
"You're cheerful today."
"I'm just blowin' smoke."
Charlie nodded slowly. We didn't have the same set of idioms, born six hundred years apart. "But it could happen, if they saw us as a political threat. They get along fine with the Taurans now, but we're the wild card. No group mind to commune with."
"So what would you do, fight them? We're not summer chickens anymore."
"That's 'spring' chickens."
"I know, William. We're not even summer chickens."
I clicked my cup against his. "Your point. But we're still young enough to fight."
"With what? Your fishing lines and my tomato stakes?"
"They're not heavily armed, either." But as I said that, I felt a sudden chill. As Charlie enumerated the weapons we did know them to have, it occurred to me that we were in a critical historical period, the last time in human history that there would be a significant number of Forever War veterans still young enough to fight.
The group mind of Man had surely made the same observation.
Sooz brought us more tea and went back to tell the others that our little mud lake had frozen solid. So there was no more time for paranoia. But the seed had been planted.
We unrolled two crossed layers of insulation sheet, and then went about the odd business of actually raising the barn.
The floor was the easy part: slabs of foamsteel rectangles that weighed about eighty kilograms apiece. Two big people or four average ones could move one with ease. They were numbered 1-40; we just picked them up and put them down, aligned with the stakes we agnostics had pounded in.
This part was a little chaotic, since all thirty people wanted to work at once. But we did eventually get them down in proper order.
Then we all sat and watched while the mastic was poured in. The boards that had served as forms for the frozen mud did the same for the mastic. Po and Eloi Casi used long, broom-like things to push the grey mastic around as it oozed out of the truck. It would have settled down into a level surface eventually, but we knew from experience that you could save an hour or so by helping the process along. When it was about a handspan deep, and level, Man flipped a switch and it turned into something like marble.
That's when the hard work started. It would have been easy with a crane and a front-end loader, but Man was proud of having designed these kits so they could be put up by hand, as a community project. So no big machines came along with them, unless it was an emergency.
(In fact, this was the opposite of an emergency: the Larsons wouldn't have much to put into the barn this year, their grapes almost destroyed by too much rain.)
Every fourth slab had square boxes on either end, to accept vertical girders. So you fasten three girders together, ceiling and wall supports, put a lot of glue into the square boxes, and haul them into an upright position. With the pressor field on, when they get within a degree or so of being upright, they snap into place.
After the first one was set, the rest were a little easier, since you could throw three or four ropes over the rigid uprights and pull the next threesome up.
Then came the part of the job that called for agile young people with no fear of heights. Our Bill and Sara, along with Matt Anderson and Carey Talos, clambered up the girders—not hard, with the integrated hand—and toeholds—and stood on board scaffolds while hauling up the triangular roof trusses. They slapped glue down and jiggled the trusses until the pressor field snapped them into place. When that was done, they had the easier job of gluing and stapling down the roof sheets. Meanwhile, the rest of us glued and stapled the outer walls, and then unrolled thick insulation, and forced it into place with the inner walls. The window modules were a little tricky, but Marygay and Cat figured them out, working in tandem, one inside and one outside.
We "finished" the interior in no time, since it was all modular, with holes in the walls, floor, and roof girders that would snap-fit with pre-measured parts. Tables, storage bins and racks, shelves—I was actually a little jealous; our utility building was a jerry-built shack.
Eloi Casi, who loves working with wood, brought a wine rack that would hold a hundred bottles, so the Larsons could put some away each good year. Most of us brought something for the party; I had thirty fish thawed and cleaned. They weren't too bad, grilled with a spicy sauce, and the Bertrams had towed over their outdoor grill, with several armloads of split wood. They fired it up when we started working on the inside, and by the time we were done it was good glowing coals. Besides our fish, there was chicken and rabbit and the large native mushrooms. I was too tired and dirty to feel much like partying, but there was warm water to scrub with, and Ami produced a few liters of skag she'd distilled, which had been sitting for months with berries, to soften the flavor. It was still fiery, and revived me.
The usual people had brought musical instruments, and they actually sounded pretty good in the big empty barn. People with some energy left danced on the new marble floor. I tended the fish and mushrooms and broiled onions, and drank almost enough skag to start dancing myself.
Man declined our food, politely, and made a few stress measurements, and declared the barn safe. Then she went home to do whatever it is they do.
Charlie and Diana joined me at the grill, setting out chicken pieces as I removed fish.
"So you'd fight them?" she said quietly. Charlie'd been talking to her. "To what end? If you killed every one of them, what would it accomplish?"
"Oh, I don't want to kill even one of them. They're people, whatever else they claim to be. But I'm working on something. I'll bring it up at a meeting when we have the bugs ironed out."
"We? You and Marygay?"
"Sure." Actually, I hadn't discussed it with her, since the thought had only occurred to me between the mastic and the girders. "One for one and all for all."
"You had some strange sayings in the old days."
"We were strange people." I carefully loosened the grilled fish and slipped them onto a warm platter. "But we got things done."
Marygay and I talked long into the night and early morning. She was almost as fed up as I was, with Man and our one-sided arrangement, breeding stock staked out on this dead-end arctic planet. It was survival, but only that. We should do more, while we were still young enough.
She was wildly enthusiastic about my scheme at first, but then had reservations because of the children. I was pretty sure I could talk them into going along with the plan. At least Sara, I thought privately.
She agreed that we ought to work out some details before we brought the thing to meeting. Not present it to the kids until after we'd talked it over with the other vets.
I didn't sleep until almost dawn, blood singing with revolution. For several weeks we tried to act normal, stealing an hour here and there to take a notebook out of hiding and jot down thoughts, work on the numbers.
In retrospect, I think we should have trusted Bill and Sara to be in on it from the first. Our judgment may have been clouded by the thrill of shared secrecy, and the anticipated pleasure of dropping a bombshell.
By sundown the rain had gone through sleet to soft sifting snow, so we let Bill go straight to his volleyball game, and walked over to Charlie's. Selena, the larger moon, was full, and gave the clouds a pleasant and handy opalescence. We didn't need the flashlight.
Their place was about a klick from the lake, in a copse of evergreens that looked disconcertingly like palm trees on Earth. Palm trees heavy with snow sort of summed up Middle Finger.
We'd called to say we were coming early. I helped Diana set up the samovars and tea stuff while Marygay helped Charlie in the kitchen.
(Diana and I had a secret sexual history that not even she knew about. Conventionally lesbian before she came here, during Sade-138 she had gotten drunk and made a pass at me, just to give it a try the old-fashioned way. But she passed out before either of us could do anything about it, and didn't remember it in the morning.)
I lifted the iron kettle of boiling water and poured it over the leaves in two pots. Tea was one thing that adapted well to this planet. The coffee was no better than army soya. There was no place on the planet warm enough for it to grow naturally.
I put the heavy kettle back down. "So your arm's better," Diana observed. She'd given me an elastic thing and some pills, after I pulled a muscle working on the roof.
"Haven't lifted anything heavier than a piece of chalk."
She punched a timer for the tea. "You use chalk?"
"When I don't need holo. The kids are kind of fascinated by it."
"Any geniuses this term?" I taught senior physics at the high school and Introduction to Mathematical Physics at the college.
"One in college, Matthew Anderson. Leona's boy. Of course I didn't have him in high school." Gifted science students had classes taught by Man. Like my son. "Most of them, I just try to keep awake."
Charlie and Marygay brought in trays of cheese and fruit, and Charlie went out to get another couple of logs for the fire.
Their place was better suited than ours, or most others', for this sort of thing. Downstairs was one large round room, the kitchen in a separate alcove. The building was a metal dome that had been half of a Tauran warship's fuel tank, doors and windows cut in, its industrial origin camouflaged inside with wooden paneling and drapes. A circular staircase led to the bedrooms and library upstairs. Diana had a small office and examination room up there, but she did most of her work in town, at the hospital and the university clinic.
The fireplace was a raised circle of brick, halfway between the center and wall, with a conical hood. So the fire was sort of like a primitive campfire, a nice locus for a meeting of a council of elders.
Which is what this was, though the ages of the participants ranged from over a thousand to barely a hundred, depending on when they were drafted into the Forever War. Their physical age went from late thirties to early fifties, in Earth years. The years here were three times as long. I guess people would eventually become used to the idea of starting school at 2, puberty before 4, majority at 6. But not my generation.
I had been physically 32 when I got here, although if you counted from birth date, ignoring time dilation and collapsar jumps, I was 1,168 in Earth years. So I was 50 now—or "32 plus 6," as some vets said, trying to reconcile the two systems.
The vets began to arrive, by ones, twos, and fours. Usually about fifty showed up, about a third of those within walking distance. One was an observer, with a holo recorder, who came from the capital city, Centrus. Our veterans' group had no name, and no real central organization, but it did keep records of these informal meetings in an archive the size of a marble.
One copy was in a safe place and the other was in the pocket of the woman with the recorder. Either one would scramble itself if touched by Man or Tauran; a film on the outside of the marble sensed DNA.
It wasn't that a lot of secret or subversive discussion went on here; Man knew how most of the vets felt, and didn't care. What could we do?
For the same reason, only a minority of the vets ever came to the meetings, and many of them just came to see friends. What was the use of griping? You couldn't change anything. Not everyone even believed things needed changing.
They didn't mind being part of a "eugenic baseline." What I called a human zoo. When one Man died, another was quickened, by cloning. Their genetic makeup never changed—why mess with perfection? Our function was to go ahead and make babies the old-fashioned way, random mutation and evolution. I suppose if we came up with something better than Man, they'd start using our genetic material instead. Or perhaps see us as dangerous rivals and kill us off.
But meanwhile we were "free." Man had helped us start up a civilization on this planet, and kept us in touch with the other inhabited ones, including Earth. You could even have gone to Earth, when you mustered out, if you were willing to pay the price—be sterilized and become one of them.
A lot of vets had done it, but Earth didn't sound at all inviting to me. One big city, full of Man and Taurans. I could live with these long winters, for the sake of the company.
Most of the people were reasonably content here. I was hoping to change that tonight. Marygay and I had been hatching a plan, and I was going to throw it out for discussion.
After about a half-hour, forty people had shown up, clustered around the fire, and I supposed weather was keeping the rest away. Diana tapped on a glass for attention, and introduced the woman from Centrus.
Her name was Lori. Her English had the flat Man accent of most Centrans. (All of us vets spoke English, which had been the default language during the Forever War, for people born centuries and continents—or even planets—apart. Some of us only spoke it at get-togethers like this, and the strain showed.)
She was small and slender and had an interesting tattoo that peeked out from under her singlet, a snake with an apple in its mouth. "There's not much to report that hasn't been in the news," she said. "A number of Taurans landed and stayed for one day of meetings, evidently some sort of delegation. But they never appeared in public."
"Good thing," Max Weston said. "I don't care if I never see one of those bastards again."
"Don't come to Centrus, then. I see one or two a day, in their bubbles."
"That's gutsy," he admitted. "Sooner or later somebody'll take a shot at them."
"That may be their purpose," I said. "Decoys, sacrificial lambs. Find out who has the weapons and the anger."
"Could well be," Lori said. "They don't seem to do much but walk around."
"Tourists," Mohammed Morabitu said. "Even Taurans might be tourists."
"Three are permanent," Cat said. "A friend of mine installed a heat pump in their apartment in the Office for Interplanetary Communications."
"Anyhow," Lori said, "these Taurans came in for a day, were put on a blacked-out floater from the Law Building, spent four hours there, and returned to the shuttle and left. A couple of cargo handlers saw them; otherwise they could have been in and out without being noticed by humans."
"I wonder why bother with secrecy," I said. "There've been delegations before."
"I don't know. And the shortness of the visit was odd, as well as the number four. Why should a group mind send more than one representative?"
"Redundancy," Charlie said. "Max might have run into them and killed three with his bare hands."
As far as we could tell, the Tauran "group mind" was no more mysterious than Man's. No telepathy or anything; individuals regularly uploaded and downloaded experiences into a common memory. If an individual dies before tapping into the Memory Tree, new information is lost.
It did seem uncanny, since they were all physically twins. But we could do the same thing, if we were willing to have holes drilled into our skulls and plugs installed. Thanks, no. I have enough on my mind.
"Otherwise," Lori continued, "not much is happening in Centrus. The force field bunch got voted down again, so we'll be shoveling snow another year."
Some of us laughed at that—with only ten thousand people, Centrus wasn't big enough to warrant the energy expenditure to maintain a winter-long force field. But it was the planetary capital, and some citizens wanted the field as a status symbol as much as a convenience. Having the only spaceport, and alien visitors, didn't make them special enough.
To my knowledge, no Taurans had ever been here to Paxton. It might be unsafe; with our large vet population, a lot of people were like Max, unforgiving. I didn't bear them any animus myself. The Forever War had been a colossal misunderstanding, and perhaps we were more at fault than they.
They were still ugly and smelled weird and had killed a lot of my friends. But it wasn't Taurans who had sentenced us to life imprisonment on this iceberg. That was Man's idea. And Man might be a few billion twins, but they were still biologically human.
A lot of what went on in these meetings was just a more splenetic version of complaints that had already been sent through channels. The power grid was unreliable and had to be fixed before deep winter, or people would die, and the only response from Centrus was a schedule of municipal engineering priorities, where we kept getting shoved back in favor of towns that were closer to the capital. (We were the farthest away—a sort of Alaska or Siberia, to use examples that would be meaningless to almost everyone.)
Of course, the main reason for these secret meetings was that Centrus did not really reflect our concerns or serve our needs. The government was human, elected representatives whose numbers were based on population and profession. But in actual administration, Man had oversight that amounted to veto power.
And Man's priorities were not the same as ours. It was more than just a city/country thing, even though it sometimes took that appearance. I called it "deliberate speciation." About half the population of Men on the planet lived in Centrus, and most of the ones sent out to places like Paxton usually only stayed one long Year before going back. So whatever benefited Centrus benefited Man. And weakened us, out in the provinces, however indirectly.
I'd worked with Man teachers, of course, and a few times dealt with administrators. I'd long gotten over the uncanniness of them all looking and, superficially, acting the same. Always calm and reasonable, serious and gentle. With just a grain of pity for us.
We talked about the grid problem, the school problems, the phosphate mine that they wanted to build too close to Paxton (which would also bring a freight monorail that we needed), and smaller problems. Then I dropped my bombshell.
"I have a modest proposal." Marygay looked at me and smiled. "Marygay and I think we all should help Man and our Tauran brothers out with their noble experiment."
There was a moment of absolute silence, except for the crackling fire. The phrase "modest proposal" meant nothing to most of them, I realized, born a millennium after Swift. "Okay," Charlie said. "What's the punch line?"
"They want to isolate a human population as a genetic baseline. Let's give them isolation with a vengeance. "What I propose is that we take the Time Warp from them. But we don't just go back and forth between Mizar and Alcor. We take it out as far as it can go, and come back safely."
"Twenty thousand light-years," Marygay said. "Forty thousand, here and back. Give them two thousand generations for their experiment."
"And leave us alone for two thousand generations," I said.
"How many of us could you take?" Cat asked.
"The Time Warp's designed for two hundred, crowded," Marygay said. "I spent a few years on it, waiting for William, and it wasn't too bad. We would probably want a hundred fifty, for long-term living."
"How long?" Charlie said.
"We'd age ten years," I said. "Real years."
"It's an interesting idea," Diana said, "but I doubt you'd have to highjack the damned thing. It's a museum piece, empty for a generation. Just ask for it."
"We shouldn't even have to ask for it. Man's claim to ownership of it is a legal fiction. I paid for one three-hundred-twelfth of it, myself," Marygay said. There were 312 vets in on the original "time shuttle" deal.
"With wealth artificially generated by relativity," Lori said. "Your salary piling up interest, while you were out soldiering."
"That's true. It was still money." Marygay turned to the others. "Nobody else here bought a piece of the shuttle?" There was a general shaking of heads, but Teresa Larson raised her hand. "They stole it from us, pure and simple," she said. "I got billions of Earth dollars, enough to buy a mansion on the Nile. But it won't buy a loaf of bread on Middle Finger."
"To be devil's advocate here," I said, "Man offered to 'assume stewardship' of it, if the humans were going to abandon it. And most of the humans had no interest in it after it had served its purpose."
"Including me," Marygay said. "And I don't deny having been a willing collaborator in the swindle. They bought back our shares with money we could only spend on Earth. It was amusing at the time, worthless money in exchange for a worthless antique."
"It is an antique," I said. "Marygay took me up there once to show me around. But did it ever occur to you to wonder why they keep it maintained?"
"Tell me," Diana said. "You're going to."
"Not out of sentiment, that's for sure. I suspect they're maintaining it as a kind of lifeboat for themselves, if the situation gets difficult."
"So let's make it difficult," Max said. "Stack 'em in there like cordwood and shoot 'em back to Earth. Or to their Tauran pals."
I ignored that. "No matter what their plans are, they won't just let us have it. It may be three Earth centuries old, but it's still by far the largest and most powerful machine in this corner of the universe—even without weapons, a Class III cruiser is a lot of power and materiel. They don't make anything like them anymore. It probably comprises a tenth of the actual material wealth in the system."
"It's an interesting thought," Lori said, "but how do you plan to get there? Both of the orbital shuttles on the planet are at Centrus. You'll have to highjack at least one of those before you highjack the time shuttle."
"It will take some planning," I admitted. "We have to manufacture a situation where the alternative to letting us take the Time Warp is unacceptable. Suppose we had kidnapped those four Taurans and threatened to kill them?"
She laughed. "They'd probably say, 'Go ahead,' and send for four more."
"I'm not convinced of that. I suspect they may be no more actually interchangeable than Man is. We only have their word for it—as you say, if they're all the same, why go to the expense of sending four?"
"You could just ask them for the ship first," said Ami Larson. "I mean, they are reasonable. If they said no, then—"
People were murmuring, and a couple of them laughed out loud. Ami was third-generation Paxton, not a vet. She was here because she was married to Teresa.
"You grew up with them, Ami." Diana kept a controlled neutral expression. "Some of us old folks aren't so trusting."
"So we go out for ten years, or forty thousand, and come back," said Lar Po. "Suppose Man's experiment has been successful. We'll be useless Cro-Magnons."
"Worse than that," I said cheerfully. "They'll probably have directed their evolution into some totally new direction. We might be like house pets. Or jellyfish.
"But part of my point is that you and I and most of us here have done this before. Every time we came back from a campaign, we'd have to start over—even if only a few dozen years had passed on Earth, most of our friends and relatives had died or aged into totally different people. Customs and laws were alien. We were largely unemployable, except as soldiers."
"And you want to do it again, voluntarily?" Charlie said. "Leave behind the life you've built for yourself?"
"Fisherman—teacher. I could tear myself away."
"William and I are in a better situation than most," Marygay said. "Our children are grown, and we're still young enough to strike out in a new direction."
Ami shook her head. She was our age, biologically, and she and Teresa had teenage daughters. "You aren't curious about how your kids will turn out? You don't want to see your grandchildren?"
"We're hoping they'll come along," she said.
"If they don't?"
"Then they don't," I said. "A lot of children leave home and start off on their own."
Ami pressed on. "But not many parents do. Look at the choice you're giving them. Throw away their own world to join their parents."
"As time travelers. As pioneers."
Charlie butted in. "Forget about that aspect for a minute. Do you actually think you can recruit a hundred, a hundred fifty people without anybody going to Man and pointing the finger at you?"
"That's why we want to keep it among vets."
"I just don't want to see my oldest friend in jail."
"We're in jail, Charlie." I made a gesture that didn't knock anything over. "We can't see the bars because they're over the horizon."
The meeting broke up at midnight, after I called for a show of hands. Sixteen were with us, eighteen against, and six undecided. More support than I'd thought. We walked home through snow that had a pleasant crunch to it, enjoying the night air, not saying much.
We came in the back door, and there at the dining room table, sipping tea, was Man. Over by the fire, warming its back, a Tauran. My arm came up halfway, in an aiming reflex.
"It's late," I said to the Man, my eyes on the Tauran's fisheye clusters. One hand fluttered its seven fingers, fourteen-jointed.
"I have to talk to you now."
"Where are the children?"
"I asked them to go upstairs."
"Bill! Sara!" I called. "Whatever you say to us, they can hear." I turned to the Tauran. "—An evening of good fortune," I approximated in its language. Marygay repeated it, better.
"Thank you," it said in English, "but not for you, I fear." It was wearing a black cloak, a nice Halloween effect with its wrinkled orange skin. The cloak made it look less alien, hiding the wasp waist and huge pelvis.
"I must be getting old," I said to Man. "Lori seemed like one of us."
"She is. She didn't know we were listening."
Bill and Sara were at the top of the stairs in nightgowns. "Come on down. We're not going to say anything you can't hear."
"But I am," Man said. "Go back to bed." They obeyed. Disappointing, but not surprising. They'd listen anyhow. "This is Antres 906," Man said, "the cultural attache to Middle Finger."
I nodded at it. "Okay."
"Are you curious as to why he is here?"
"Not really. Just go ahead and have your say."
"He is here because a Tauran representative must be present in any negotiations involving possible travel to Tauran planets."
"What does that have to do with culture?" Marygay said
"It's the cultural attaché," she said. "What does that have to do with us borrowing the time shuttle?"
" 'Culture' includes tourism. And stealing is not borrowing."
"They're not on our route," I said. "We're going straight up, out of the galactic plane, and straight back. An isosceles triangle, actually."
"You should have gone through proper channels for this."
"Sure. Starting with you, the sheriff." He covered the back of his hand, with its identifying scar.
"You could start with anyone. We are a group mind."
"But you didn't send just anyone. You sent the one Man in this town who has weapons and exercises with weights."
"You are both soldiers." He opened his vest to display a large pistol. "You might resist."
"Resist what?" Marygay said.
"Coming with me. You're under arrest."
Paxton doesn't have a large enough criminal element to warrant an actual jail, but I suppose anything that locks on the outside will do. I was in a white room with no windows, furnished with a mattress on the floor and a toilet. There was a fold-down sink next to the toilet, and across from it, a fold-down desk. But no chair. The desk had a keyboard, but it didn't work.
It had a barroom smell, spilled alcohol. That must be what they used as a disinfectant, for some reason.
I knew from a visit last year that the place had only two detention rooms, so Marygay and I constituted a crime wave. (Serious criminals, actually, didn't even spend the night here; they went straight to the real jail in Wimberly.)
I spent a while contemplating the error of my ways, and then managed to get a few hours' sleep in spite of not being able to turn off the lights.
When the sheriff opened the door I could see sunshine behind him; it was ten or eleven. He handed me a white cardboard box that had soap, a toothbrush, and such. "The shower is across the hall. Please join me for tea when you are ready." He left with no further explanation.
There were two showers; Marygay was already in one of them. I raised my voice. "He tell you anything?"
"Just unlocked the door and said to come for tea. Why didn't we ever think of doing this with the children?"
"Too late to start now." I showered and shaved and we went to the sheriff's office together.
His pistol was hanging on a peg behind him. The papers on his desk had been hastily stacked in a corner, and he'd set out a pot of tea with some crackers and jam and honey.
We sat and he poured us tea. He looked tired. "I've been with the Tree all night." Since it had become daytime in Centrus, he might have been with hundreds or a thousand Men. "I have a tentative consensus."
"That took all night?" I said. "For a group mind, you don't synape very fast." I kidded my Man colleagues at the university about that. (Physics, in fact, was a good demonstration of Man's limitations: an individual Man could tap into my colleagues' brains, but he or she wouldn't understand anything advanced without having previously studied physics.)
"In fact, much of that time was waiting for individuals to be summoned. Besides your … problem, there was another important decision to be made, not unrelated. 'The more leaves, the more Tree.' "
The jam was greenberry, a spicy sour flavor I'd liked immediately—one of the only things that had impressed me, the first day on Middle Finger. I'd arrived in deep winter.
"So you've decided to hang us in the town square?" I said. "Or will it be a simple private beheading?"
"If it were necessary to kill you, it would already have been done." Great sense of humor. "What would be the point in explaining things?"
He poured himself some tea. "There will be a wait. I need confirmation from the Whole Tree." That meant sending word to Earth and back, at least ten months. "But the tentative consensus is to send you away with my blessings. Give you the time shuttle."
"And in return," Marygay said, "you lose one hundred fifty powerful malcontents."
"It's not just that. You are already fascinating anachronisms. Think of how valuable you will be forty thousand years from now!"
"Living fossils," I said. "What an idea."
He hesitated for a moment; the word was unfamiliar. There were no actual fossils on his world. "Yes, in body as well as in modes of thought. In a way, I owe it to my own heritage. I should have thought of it myself." In their own language, there was a "collective 'I,' " which I assumed he was using.
"You said there were two decisions," Marygay said. "A related one."
"A mirror of yours, in a way." He smiled. "Yon know I love humans very much. It has always saddened me to see you go through life crippled."
"Crippled … by our individuality?" I said.
"Exactly! Unable to tap the Tree, and share life with billions of others."
"Well, we were given the choice when we mustered out. I've had over twenty years to regret not joining you, and so far I'm just as glad I didn't."
"You did have the choice, yes, and some veterans took it."
"How many?" Marygay asked.
"Actually, less than one percent. But I was new and strange to you then.
"The point is that it's been a hundred Years—nearly three hundred Earth years—since anyone was given the choice. The population of Middle Finger has grown in that time to over twenty thousand, more than large enough to maintain a viable genetic pool. So I want to start giving people the choice again."
"Anyone who wants can become you?" I had a powerful premonitory urge to gather my children to me.
"No, it would only be one per new birth, and they would have to pass tests for suitability. And they wouldn't really be me, of course; their genetic make-up will be inferior. But they would still be leaves on the Tree." He smiled in a way that I'm sure he thought was not condescending. "It sounds horrible to you, doesn't it. You call us 'zombies.' "
"It does occur to me that there are enough of you already, on this planet. Not to mention ten billion or so back on Earth. Why not leave us alone? That was the original plan."
"This is consistent with the original plan, only kinder. You don't see it that way because you're too old-fashioned."
"Well, at least we have ten months to get used to the idea." To talk some sense into Bill and Sara.
"Oh, this isn't like the starship. I can go ahead, and if the Whole Tree disagrees, only few people will be affected. But I do know myself; I know the Tree. There will be no problem."
"People who join you will still be human, though," Marygay said. "They'll still marry and have families."
Man looked puzzled. "Of course not."
"But they'll be able," I said.
"Oh, no. They will have to consent to sterilization." He shook his head. "You don't understand. You say there are enough of me. In reality, there are more than enough of you.
I went straight from jail to the university, since I had to teach at 1400, and liked to be in the office for an hour before class, to go over notes and be available to talk to students. They served a hot lunch in the teachers' lounge, too.
It was kind of grandiose to call the place a "university," though it did grant a couple of dozen degrees. It was a circle of ten log buildings connected by breezeways. My physics building had two labs, two small classrooms, and a larger lecture hall, which we shared with chemistry and astronomy. The second floor, which was really just a high attic, was a storage area with two offices tacked on the end.
I shared the office with a Man and Jynn Silver. Jynn had not been at the meeting, because she'd gone to Centrus for her son's wedding, but I was pretty sure she would be on our side. She had no love for Man in general, and for the one who shared our office, in particular.
He was there when I came in, after a quick bowl of soup at the lounge. That was odd; he taught mornings and didn't usually hang around.
He was staring out the window. "You know," he said without preamble. "You're one of the first to know that you might join us. Rather than leave us."
"True." I sat down and turned on my screen. "I was tempted for about a microsecond. Then sanity returned."
"Joking aside. You should take some time to consider the advantages."
"I'm not joking." I looked over at him. "To me it would be a kind of death."
"The death of your individuality." He pronounced the last word very slowly, with just a breath of contempt.
"It's not something you could really understand. Human thing."
"I'm human." Technically true. "If you wanted more children, you could adopt."
Now there was a compelling argument. "Two's plenty, thanks." I blinked through the index outline.
"You could save so much research time—"
"I'm not doing research. I'm a modest fisherman who's trying to teach rotational kinematics. If you'll let me get to my notes."
There was a light knock on the doorframe. "Master Mandella?"
Baril Dain, from last term. "Come on in, Baril."
He glanced at Man. "I don't want to take up your time. Just that, well, I heard about your time trip thing. Can anyone go?"
"We'll have to pick from volunteers." He'd been a below-average student, but I'd made allowance for home conditions. His mother a drunk and his father living over in Filbin. "Are you six yet?"
"I will be in Archimedes, 13 Archimedes."
"That'll be plenty of time." Six months. "We'll need young people. What are you best at?"
"Music. I don't remember your word, the English word for it … the chosed-reng."
"Harp," Man supplied, not looking up. "Forty-four-string magneto-harmonic neoharp."
God, I hated the whining sound of those. "We'll see. We'll need all kinds of talents." Probably human music would have priority, though.
"Thank you, sir." He nodded and backed out, as if I were still his teacher.
"The children know already," Man said. "I'm surprised."
"Good news travels fast." I opened a drawer with a screech and took out a pad and stylus, and pretended to copy something from the screen.
The classroom was stuffy, stale with three classes' exhalations. I opened the window partway and sat on the table in front. All twelve students were there.
A pretty girl in front raised her hand. "What's it like to be in jail, Master?"
"As many years as you've been in school, Pratha, you know all there is to know about jail." That got a slight laugh. "It's just a room with no windows." I picked up the text and brushed the face with my sleeve.
"Were you scared, Master?" Modea, my best pupil.
"Of course. Man isn't accountable to us. I could have been locked up forever, eating the slop they and you call food." They smiled indulgently at my old-fashionedness. "Or they could have executed me."
"Man wouldn't, sir."
"I guess you know them better than I do. But the sheriff was careful to point out that that was in their power." I held up the text. "Let's go back for a minute and review what we know about the big I, moment of inertia."
It was a difficult period. Rotational kinematics is not intuitive. I remembered how much trouble I'd had with it, more than halfway back to Newton's day. The kids paid attention and took notes, but most of them had that "on autopilot" look. Taking it down by rote, hoping they could puzzle it out later. Some of them would not. (Three were hopelessly lost, I suspected, and I'd have to talk to them soon.)
We ground through to the end of the lesson. While they were putting on their coats and capes, Gol Pri voiced an obvious concern. "Master Mandella, if Man does let you take the starship, who will our teacher be? For mathematical physics?"
I thought for a moment, discarding possibilities. "Man, probably, if it's someone from Paxton." Gol's face tightened slightly. He'd had classes from my officemate. "I would put in a search, though. There are plenty of people in Centrus who could do it, if they felt a sudden hunger for life on the frontier."
"Would you be teaching on the ship?" Pratha said. "If we came along?"
Her expression was interesting and not ambiguous. Down, boy; she's barely older than your daughter. "Sure. That's about all I'm good for."
Actually, they might make me harvest fish, aboard the Time Warp. That would be a major part of the diet, and I certainly knew my way around a cleaver.
When I got home from class, I didn't go straight out to the dock. There was no rush. The day was clear and cold, Mizar making the sky a naked energetic blue, like an electric arc. I'd wait for Bill to get home.
Meanwhile I brewed a pot of tea and blinked through the news. The service came from Centrus, so our story was there, but buried in the exurb section, cross-ref to vets and Earth. Just as well. I didn't want a lot of questions before we had answers.
I asked for random Beethoven and just listened, staring out at the lake and forest. There was a time when I would have thought you'd be nuts to trade this for the austerity and monotony of a starship.
There was also a time when I was, we were, romantic about the frontier. We came out here when Marygay was pregnant with Bill. But it's grown up to where it's just Centrus without conveniences. And there's no place farther out, not to live. No population pressure to speak of. No cultural mandate to keep moving out.
One of the useless things I remember from school is the Turner Thesis. How the American character was shaped by the frontier, always receding, always tempting.
That gave me a little chill. Is that what we were proposing? A temporal version of a dream that was, really dead before I was born. Though it drove my father, along with my family—in a VW bus with flowers painted all over the rusted body—to the Pacific and then north to Alaska. Where we found rough-and-ready frontier shops that served latte and cappuccino.
It was possible that out of ten billion souls scattered through this corner of the Galaxy, only Marygay and I had even a tenuous connection to the American frontier. Charlie and Diana and Max were born in a place that still called itself America, but it had not been a place that Frederick Jackson Turner would have recognized, its only "frontier" light-years and centuries away, men and women fighting an incomprehensible enemy for no reason.
Bill came in and we both put on aprons and gloves and went out to the dock. We worked in relative silence, monosyllables, for the first two trotlines, Bill beheading them with such fervor that twice he got the cleaver stuck in the wood.
"People give you shit about your parents being jail-birds?"
" 'Birds'? Oh, being in jail, yeah. They mostly thought it was funny. Stealing the starship and all, like a movie."
"Looks like they'll just give it to us."
"Our history Man said she thought they would. They could replace the starship with a newer one, from Earth, through the collapsar. No real loss." He whacked down on a fish. "To them."
That was clear enough. "But there would be to you. If you don't go with us."
He held down the writhing headless fish for a moment, then chopped off its tail and threw it in the freezer. "There are things I can't say in English. Maybe there aren't words."
"You say 'there would be to you,' a loss. Or you could say 'there will be a loss to you.' But nothing in between."
I paused, my hand on the line, trying to sort out grammar. "I don't get it. You say 'would' because it's in the future, uncertain."
He spat out a phrase in Standard: "Ta meeya a cha! You say meeya when the outcome is uncertain but the decision has been made. Not to loo a cha or to lee a cha, which is like your 'would' or 'will.' "
"I was never good with languages."
"I guess not. But the point is, the point is … " He was angry, jaw set, reddening. He did another fish and jammed its head back on the hook. "No matter what the outcome, you've done it. You've said to the world 'the hell with Bill and Sara.' You're going your own way. Whether Man allows it or not, the intent is there."
"That's harsh." I finished the fish I was doing. "You can come with us. I want you to come with us."
"And what an offer that is! Throw away everything! Thanks a lot."
I struggled to keep my voice calm. "You could see it as an opportunity, too."
"Maybe to you. I'd be over ten-thirty-some, by little years—and everyone I ever knew, except for you, dead for forty thousand. That's not an opportunity. That's a sentence! Almost a death sentence."
"To me it's a frontier. The only one left."
"Cowboys and Hindus," he said quietly, turning back to the fish.
I didn't say "Pakistanis."
I could see that he was normal and I was not, even by the standards of my own long-dead culture. Marygay and I, and the other Forever War vets, had repeatedly been flung forward in time, often knowing that when you came to ground, the only people still alive from your past would be the ones you had traveled with.
Twenty years later, that was still central to me: the present is a comforting illusion, and although life persists, any one life is just a breath in the wind. I would be challenged on that the next afternoon, from an unexpected source.
Three times a long Year, I had to report to Diana for some primitive medicine. No human or Man born in the past several centuries had had cancer, but some of us fossils lacked the genes to suppress it. So periodically, Diana had to check, as we politely used to say, where the sun don't shine.
The wall of her office, upstairs in the dome, had been gleaming metal at first, with really strange acoustics due to its roundness. She could stand across the room and whisper, and it would sound as if she were next to your ear. Charlie and Max and I liberated some studs and panels from a stack behind the firehouse, and nailed together a passably square room. The walls were a comfortable clutter of pictures and holos now, which I tried to study intensely as she threaded a sensor probe up into my colon.
"Your little friend's back," she said. "Precancerous lesions. I've got a sample to send off." It was an odd sensation when the probe withdrew, so fast it made me gasp. Relief and a little pain, an erotic shiver.
"You know the drill. When you get the pill, don't eat for twelve hours, take it, then two hours later, stuff yourself. Bread, mashed potatoes." She crossed over