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Dereliction by Poul Anderson

WE HAVE ALWAYS had our broken men, and I suppose we always shall. Nobody pays them any special heed. They are harmless, almost invisible, bits of wreckage that drift about until they sink from sight or the waves cast them ashore to lie among empty shells and strewn bones. Most never get far from the places of their ruin. A few somehow scrape together passage money or find berths on ships whose owners begrudge the cost of proper robotics. Thus they escape, once, twice, even a dozen times, telling themselves that beyond these next light-years there surely waits the opportunity, the luck, the fresh dream that is all they need to build their lives over again. At last they too strand and go no farther.

I met this one in Wang Fang’s, on the Fever Coast of Selvas on San Valerio. Nothing much had changed in the years since my last visit. The west side of the building still stood open to catch any breeze off the bay, which glimmered oily black under the clotted red stars of Horn’s Cluster. Nonetheless the tin roof trapped smoke and stenches, while you seemed less to breathe than to drink the air. Sweat plastered shirt to skin. At the far end Madame Sylphide’s bulk still overflowed her throne. Half featherless, her parrot danced madly on the tables in exchange for gulps from the customers’ cups. The tunes out of the multi were as raucous as ever. They were local men, Chambois sailors and Maraisard swamprunners, who sat crowded, talked, laughed, growled, shook dice or slapped cards. A few girls circulated, cadging drinks. Now and then one of them got somebody, usually a very young fellow, to go into the back room with her. When he returned, his friends were apt to make game of him, and custom required that he merely reply in kind, not invite any of them outside for a slash session.

Often you’ll see three or four foreigners as well, no tourists—the guides don’t want to risk that—but old acquaintances like me, who drop in whenever they happen by. We have enough of the patois and we know how to behave, the ritual bow to Wang Fang’s skull, the respects paid to Madame, the cognac bought for her and her bird, the offside table taken. Those men who care to talk with us will stroll over and do so; or we’ll swap stories with each other, till the bay shore treetops turn orange with dawn and we walk back to our aircars through a field of knee-deep fog. It’s a place for stories. That’s mainly why we come.

On this night I was the only such. It didn’t matter. Ancre-Jacques left his neighbors and joined me. We had much to tell from the time that had passed. I was third mate in the Freuchen when she took Sarauw’s team to Grayworld on the expedition that found a ten-million-year-old machine still at work—

Jacques was describing his brush with a pirate submarine in the Amazonian Sea when abruptly he broke off and squinted past me, through the smoke, toward the entrance. “Why, there’s La Balafre Triangulaire,” he said. “I thought he was out on Cap Trahison.” He raised a mighty arm and bellowed, “Eh-ah, rogue, over here!” In those parts, “coquin” comes near being an endearment. To me: “Poor devil, he’s always pitifully glad to meet spacefarers. A decent sort, makes himself useful in small ways, and he saved two children when the Fou Rieur tidal bore caught them.” They have small respect for the laws of God and man on the Fever Coast, but a great deal for physical courage, and in their fashion they are not unkindly.

Turning my head, I saw the newcomer approach. Though tall, he was so thin that I wondered how he had carried out the rescue. His build, sunburned fair skin, and sandy hair marked him out startlingly. In clothes faded and patched but clean, he made his way among the tables with a stiff carefulness that told me he was already half drunk. When he reached us, I saw the jagged scar from his right temple to the corner of his mouth that gave him his nickname.

Jacques invited him to sit down but didn’t introduce us. That isn’t done there, because some men have reason not to want it. My Firestar Line emblem identified me well enough. La Balafre Triangulaire nodded gravely and took a chair. Jacques shouted for more eau de mort all around. “My friend is newly in from Eisenheim, and was doing exploratory work before that, “ he explained.

Washed-out blue eyes seemed to kindle just a bit. “Eisenheim?” said Balafre. His voice was very low. I guessed that drink was what had hoarsened it and, from the accent, that the mother tongue was English. “Second planet of Schelling’s”—he stumbled through a catalogue designation I didn’t know but recognized as naval—“if I remember rightly?” I nodded. “Then did you earlier, by any chance, call at Belisarius?” His fingers gripped the tabletop. “It’s a planet of Third Grigorian’s. In the Canopus sector. Have you heard of it?”

“No and yes, in that order,” I answered. “We had no reason to stop there. It’s strictly a Fleet Base.”

His words wavered. “But did you at least hear something of it, at some port along your way? Any news or—It’s so bloody far from us. We’re so isolated on this damned continent. “ He swallowed, drew the rags of his dignity about himself, and finished, “I beg your pardon. You wonder what cause a beachcomber has to inquire.”

“Well, you’ve been a spaceman yourself,’’’ I ventured. He didn’t seem dangerously touchy.

“Not quite,” he sighed. “Not of your kind. Although once—but that was long ago.” He looked vaguely beyond me. “How long? Let me see, I’ve been on San Valerio seven years, is it? That would be about five standard. And before then—No, never mind, I verge on self-pity, the most contemptible of emotions. Worse, I bore you.”

“No, no,” I said, for I scented a story in him, and Jacques’s expression confirmed it. The liquor arrived and I paid. Balafre regained graciousness as he thanked me. He sipped with care, obviously trying to maintain a precise, desired level of tipsiness.

I heard a few anecdotes from this vicinity. He had a shack under the bluffs, made his living by odd jobs and picking over the ebb tides for rock pearls, got his scar when he stumbled across a ripfish. They could have repaired the damage at the clinic in Senville, an hour away by a bus that landed weekly, but he preferred to spend the money on booze. Porto Blanco, across the ocean, might as well have been on a moon. Not that he was a mindless derelict. He spent most of his abundant free time at the little terminal in his hut, screening books, drama, music from the global database.

After a while we realized we’d slipped into English, and offered Jacques our apologies. He laughed. “It’s practice for me to listen,” he said. “I deal with outsiders more than you may think, me. But when you speak of . . . Aristotle, the name? . . . and of what is justice, that is water over this head and I bid you good drinking, my friends.”

He got up and sought back to his own kind. Balafre and I talked till morning. If took nearly that long to get the real tale out of him—not that he had never told anybody else, but I was a stranger and he clung to his remnant of pride. Yet I too had read philosophers and seen a fair amount of worlds. In the end he decided that my opinion was as worth hearing as some priest’s or sea captain’s or wise old fisher wife’s. Had he received justice or was he the victim of a cruel wrong?

Assuredly they had not accorded him mercy.

* * *

“Lieutenant Arthur Laing, to report to Vice Admiral Derabina.”

The ensign behind the desk nodded, touched a button, and said, “A few minutes, I think. Have a seat.” He went back to whatever he was doing on a computer. Idle hours were scarce on Belisarius, and would be till Christina had been freed of the Khalia.

Restless, Laing ignored furniture and paced across the bleak little anteroom. Brought to this planet today, he felt light under two fifths of standard gravity. He wished the heaviness inside him could be abolished as easily.

Well, but wasn’t he supposed to play a part in the liberation? An important part, maybe crucial—whatever it was.

At the wall he stopped, and stared out. Before him was not a viewscreen, only a window. The Fleet had cut every possible comer in its haste. A year ago there had been nothing on this world but rock, sand, dust, ice, and the sole official name it had had was a catalogue number, unless, you wanted to say, “Third Grigorian’s IV.”

When it shone in the skies of Christina, we used to call it Ruby, Laing thought: But that was just to ourselves, Tess and me.

Dwarfed, the sun hung low in a ruddy heaven. Away from it, a few stars were visible through the tenuous air. The light fell pale across wasteland and the spacefield. He saw a shuttlecraft, newly down from orbit, and several ground crewmen, their suits and helmets calling to mind robots or trolls. Along the edge of ferro-concrete stretched bare metal walls. The skeleton of a monitor tower loomed behind them.

Here in the office, recycling was less than perfect; a chemical harshness tainted the breaths he drew. He remembered odors of growth and blossoming on Christina. How rare life was in the universe, how infinitely wonderful and precious. It seemed wrong to destroy even Khalia.

But that had to be done, of course.

“Lieutenant Laing?”

The voice at his back brought him around to confront a man who bore commander’s insignia. He saluted. The man responded, then smiled half shyly and said, “Never mind about ceremony. I’m Ian Maclaurin.” His English had a slight burr. He was surprisingly young for his rank, slim, blond, boyish-faced. Promotion in the Fleet could be fast, though, when a war was under way and a person had special capabilities.

“Oh, the, uh, psychophysicist? I’ve heard your name mentioned, but I’m afraid I’m in the dark about what you actually do.”

They shook hands. “I’m pretty ignorant about you, so that puts us on the same footing,” Maclaurin said. “And we’re also fellow Scots, aren’t we?”

“Only by rather distant ancestry in my case,” Laing replied. “I was born on Caesar. You?”

“Well, Dunbar, but they’ve kept the ethnos—recreated it, actually. People from the old country on Earth come to marvel at our picturesque ways.” They sat down opposite and close to each other. “I hoped I’d find you waiting. The admiral’s predictably behind schedule, as overworked as she is. Here’s our chance to get a little acquainted. We ought to spend days on it, but we won’t be granted them.”

In spite of the immediate liking he felt, unease tingled in Laing. “How necessary is it?” he asked. “Not that I’m being standoffish, but—What do they want me for, anyway?”

Maclaurin watched him closely from behind the geniality. “Haven’t you tried to guess?”

“No. “Laing constructed a smile. “I’m a scientist by trade. It’s bad form to make ‘hypotheses ‘in the absence of data. Nobody has told me anything except that this is secret and urgent. Obviously it involves my knowledge of Christina. “

“Of what?”

Laing realized that Maclaurin must be new here himself. Besides, the name was unofficial, casually decided on at mess one evening in honor of an actress famous at the time. She too was beautiful. “The third planet, that the Khalia are on.”

“Och, aye. Should have deduced that on the instant, Maclaurin said. “Yes, you’re right, we require a person familiar, very familiar with it, and specifically with the territory where the Khalia are. Your name popped out of the data scan.”

“Why me? Hundreds of people must have been on Christina from time to time since Grigorian reached this system. Yes, I know most of them didn’t do work that involved them especially, or at all, with Mozart, as we came to call that area. But I could name you a dozen at least other than me, starting with my wife, who spent years there, and—It depends on what aspect of it you have in mind, but whatever that is, I’ll bet I can tell you who’s the real expert.” Insofar as we have any, Laing’s mind added. Christina’s a whole world, as big and varied and mysterious as ever Earth was.

“I didn’t make the choice, but I know the reason,” Maclaurin told him. “They’re civilians, who scattered from end to end of Alliance space after we evacuated them. Any whom we might locate and who might be willing to serve would lack naval training and not be subject to naval discipline. You’re the one member of the Fleet who appeared to have the necessary information.’”

“Reservist. A glorified civilian, really.”

Maclaurin shrugged. “Well, the Fleet could recall you to active duty and bring you here.” He cocked his head. “Surprising that you’re not a regular officer, grown up in the Fleet, if you were born on Caesar.”

“Civilians are in the majority there too, regardless of any popular impression. My wife, now, she’s a Fleet brat.”

“But I gather that she never enlisted, while you did.”

Laing bridled. What the hell right had this dipnose to probe him?

It was as if Tess stood beside him again, blade-straight, red hair ruffled by the wind that sent banners snapping and streaming, afire with pride as the graduating cadets paraded by, her brother in the first rank of them. Again she racked back a drunk in a bar, some kind of pacifist, who had sneered at the Fleet, till the wretch stumbled away from her, half terrified. Again she lay in his, her bridegroom’s, arms and murmured, “Yes, I know I have something of a father fixation, but Dad is magnificent and, and it doesn’t stop me from loving you, darling.” Again she jubilated when he told her he had decided to join, and again when he received his commission, though she knew his reasons and respected them and laughed that she’d have made a dreadful wife for any officer bent on a real Fleet career.

“I’m sorry,” Maclaurin said. “I do apologize. No wish to intrude on your privacy, I swear. Nor to insult your intelligence. I have studied your dossier and already know the general course of your life to date, plus your psychoprofile, medical history, et cetera, et cetera. But that tells me little about the inner you. The mission has a better chance of succeeding if I get a sense of you as a whole human being, not a disembodied file of data. My job is as much art as science, and I suspect more black magic than either. So, yes, I am leading you in conversation about yourself.”

“I see.” Mollified, Laing felt a perhaps irrational eagerness to explain, to justify. “My wife did dream of serving. Throughout her girlhood, she meant to. But gradually she found that what absorbed her more, and what she was best qualified for, was ethology. Loosely speaking, natural history. Really mastering that and doing it demanded full time.” Again they stood on the university campus under a midnight moon and she wept, “I’m not disappointing my father too much, am I, am I?”

Maclaurin nodded. “More valuable to civilization too, I daresay.”

“Well, somebody has to mount guard against the murderous likes of the Khalia.”

“So you decided to enlist?”

“Not out of altruism,” Laing admitted. “For one thing, the Weasels hadn’t attacked anybody yet that we knew of.”

Now I, the detached and broad-minded scholar, am talking of them, yes, thinking of them like the lowest-browed slog-foot Marine. Well, I am not ashamed of myself. What they have done, what they do, is a horror, a menace, an abomination. It must be ended. That they swept into this system and disrupted our work among the amadei—the Fleet got us out barely in time—is small indeed, set beside what they wreak elsewhere. But it is what has hurt Tess and me in our own lives. Not just the cutting off of the research. The amadei were like children to us, the children we have not had ourselves.

He pulled out of his thoughts and continued: “Ironic, eh, that I should be the one of us who did? But quite logical. You doubtless know how the Fleet helps underwrite scientific and exploratory projects that have potential, value to it. Man-habitable planets like Christina aren’t exactly common. Whether or not eventual colonization is contemplated—and in this case, our recommendation against it is as strong as we could find words for—they will likely sometime become involved in operations, as places to establish bases or resupply or simply give crews on long missions a bit of R&R in a pleasant setting. So they need to be studied beforehand. But the Fleet naturally wants personnel of its own on the teams. Well, I’m a generalized biologist. My work doesn’t require the continuity that my wife’s does. It doesn’t suffer if I take occasional time off it. We found out that the Fleet would subsidize research on Christina, which we’d decided was our ideal lifetime project, if at least one of its officers was permanently engaged there. Her father pulled a few wires and, well, that’s how it came about.” He paused. “I’m rehashing what you know.”

“Not entirely,” Maclaurin said. “Or to the extent you do, I repeat, it’s valuable to me to hear arid see you giving me your perspective on matters.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Laing requested. “I didn’t join grudgingly.” It made Tess so radiantly glad—“I like the Fleet, its people, its traditions. My tours of duty have been short, agreeable diversions, a taste of the outside universe after many months in wilderness. But I am basically a scientist, not a warrior.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Maclaurin assured him. “As long as you’re prepared to do your duty—”

“Admiral Derabina will see you now, gentlemen;” the ensign called.

They entered the inner office together. It was as cramped and gauntly functional as everything else on ‘Belisarius, but not devoid of character. On the walls hung framed copies of citations for excellent service or outright heroism, together with pictures taken at the storming of Mount Satan and the defense of Kamehameha. On the desk, besides a terminal and communicator, stood a model of an attack ranger that Laing supposed had been Derabina’s first command. He and Maclaurin snapped to attention and saluted.

The admiral returned the gesture crisply. “At ease,” she said. “Be seated.” It sounded more like an order than an invitation. Yelena B. Derabina was a stocky woman whose face, beneath the short gray hair, made Laing think of ancient Tartars. En route he had occasionally heard her called a martinet and always heard her called humorless, but those who served under her and survived it developed a special esprit de corps. “Borisovna’s Bastards” got things done, and done right.

The men sat without relaxing. “Are you prepared to go straight to business, Lieutenant?” Borisovna snapped.

“Yes, ma’am.” Laing hesitated. “Except, well, I haven’t been briefed, just rushed directly through.”

“And you wonder why a flag officer takes you in charge. This is an extraordinary mission, Lieutenant. Nothing quite like it has ever been done before. The investment in it is enormous, the cost of failure larger yet. Although the danger of information leaking to the Khalia is small, still, the fewer individuals who know, the better. I want to be on top of the operation from start to finish. Giving you a few minutes gives me a chance to estimate your fitness. Your record suggests certain ambiguities.”

Laing flushed. “Ma’am, nobody has ever questioned my loyalty.”

“There has been no cause to. Your tours of duty were routine and non-combat. Most of your time you spent on Planet Three studying its wildlife.” The clipped voice softened slightly. “I know that that has had its dangers and that you acquitted yourself well in emergencies. No slur on your character is intended. In fact, your psychoprofile shows a sense of duty well above average. It is only that we have to know the limits of your ability. This undertaking must succeed. We won’t get a second try.”

“If I may speak, ma’am,” Maclaurin offered. At her nod: “Your ability is what we need, Laing, your capacity for quick perception, comprehension, decision, and action. In one sense, this is a suicide mission. Yet you’ll be perfectly safe . . . yourself. So dismiss any worries and concentrate on the technical problems.”

Insight sent a chill up Laing’s spine and out to his fingertips. “You’re planning a mind transfer?”

Maclaurin raised a hand. “That’s sensationalism. Actually—”

“In due course,” Derabina interrupted. “We’ll take things in order. What do you know of the military situation here, Lieutenant?”

Laing forced his consciousness to it. “Well, ma’am, We—you—have the Khalia bottled up on Christina—on Planet Three.”

“Is that all you have heard?” she asked with scorn. “I should think you would be more interested in the scene of your dedication.”

Laing swallowed his anger. “Ma’am,” he said, “the Khalian invasion came without warning, out of nowhere. The evacuation of Three was helter-skelter. My wife and I were swept onto different ships and taken to different systems. In the confusion, we had trouble finding each other’s locations, let alone getting back together. Then we had to make frantic arrangements, housing, jobs, necessities. Meanwhile the campaign around Target completely dominated the news. We couldn’t get anything but rumors from Third Grigorian’s. When I was contacted and put on active status and immediately shipped here, the crew were under strict orders regarding secrecy, They didn’t know why, so they didn’t want to risk violation, and clamped shut whenever talk turned to operations.”

He felt surprise that Derabina heard him out and responded quite patiently. “I see,” she said. “Not your negligence.

“The basic facts are simple. The Khalia arrived well prepared, with more supplies and equipment for construction than for combat: What warships they did bring sufficed to stand off our initial counterattacks, for we did not appreciate the threat at once. We assumed they only meant to carry out nuisance raids for a while. The Alliance has consistently underestimated the Khalia, thought of them as mere pirates. We’re gradually having our noses rubbed in the, fact that they are far more.

“Barely in time, a scoutcraft managed to get sightings on Planet Three—and escape. Thus the Fleet learned that the Khalians had brought into being a complete, fully dug-in, fully outfitted stronghold. With such a base, plus ample ships, they could interdict this entire stellar vicinity, a catastrophe for the Alliance.

“An armada was on its way. Now alerted, the Fleet detected it. A task force of ours intercepted it and turned it back. The force went on to regain Planet Three. However, that attempt failed, with heavy losses. The Khalian defenses were, and are, too strong. The best we could do was erect our own base here on Four. From it, we do control ambient space. Thus far, the Khalia have not taken their remaining vessels out of shelter. We have them under siege. But we can’t starve them out or wear them down. Given the resources of a terrestroid world, they can supply themselves indefinitely, now that they have the robots and other gear to exploit those resources.

“We cannot go away and leave them. Simply using the small craft they have on hand, they could make hit-and-run assaults for parsecs around. And, of course, their headquarters would be quick to send in much more force, as was originally planned.

“Maintaining the blockade is costly. It takes more ships than you, with your background, might think, Lieutenant. We must keep constant watch, in sufficient strength to repel any sortie. Additionally, we must patrol all space around the sun, out to more than a light-year, lest the enemy send reinforcements streaking in. Let those get past us and onto Three, or into low Three orbit, and they’ll be invulnerable, remember; and so the Khalia could build up their reserves piecemeal until they were ready to come out and challenge us. Supporting this effort of ours takes more personnel and equipment, by an order of magnitude, than the effort itself.

“At the same time, the war is intensifying overall. For example, we would make a large difference in the Target campaign. Third Grigorian’s has become an intolerable drain on Fleet and Alliance resources.” Did the admiral barely, grimly, smile? “You might well say that the Khalia have us bottled up.”

She leaned forward. “Do you understand, Lieutenant?”

“Well, uh, well, ma’am,” Laing floundered. He mustered resolution. “No, ma’am, not really. Why can’t you bombard from space? Saturate those defenses and blast a hole where the base was.”

“That wouldn’t be so good for the planet, “Maclaurin observed.”

Laing tautened. “No. Firestorms, fallout.” The Mozart country become slag and ash. “But I knew from the first that it was likely.”

“And Three doesn’t have intelligent life.”

“Well—the amadei, but they aren’t sapient. Smart, but still just animals. And their species has spread over more than half the world. It will survive. Life will come back to Mozart. The Khalia—probably the Khalia hunt the amadei for sport. No. Anyway, I was thinking of rays and plasma as well as missiles. Energy weapons are . . . comparatively clean.”

“What academy did you attend, Lieutenant?” Derabina demanded.

“Why, uh, Xiang on Celestia, ma’am. Where I happened to be when—”

“Their school of weapons must be deplorable. Even though you were not slated to become a line officer, you should have been better taught. Or have you forgotten your instruction?”

“No, ma’am, I—”

Derabina touched computer controls. She was doubtless putting in a reminder to herself to urge that the High Command order an investigation of Xiang, with possible courts-martial to follow. “You may try to explain, Commander,” she-said.

Laing was glad to turn his eyes on Maclaurin. The other man cleared his throat and began: “It’s a quantitative matter. These Khalians possess an extraordinary concentration of defensive weapons. They’ve demolished every missile we’ve launched at them—and we’ve sent some barrages, huge by any standard—in the stratosphere or higher. You’re aware total destruction isn’t necessary. A strong energy beam that touches an incoming warhead, however briefly, or a nuclear burst some distance off, either of those will scramble the electronics and make the missile a dud. No shielding, backup system, or evasive action has worked against the kind of firepower the Khalia have. Remember, they’ve got robotic mines and factories producing arms underground.

“We’ve tried kinetic kill, large meteoroids sent in at high velocities. Radiation doesn’t affect them. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of energy to move one capable of doing significant damage onto the right trajectory, and course corrections are slow. Khalian detectors pick the rocks up in plenty of time for small nukes to intercept and blast them into chunks of harmless size. Yes, we tried mounting automatic energy weapons in them, but between the defense missiles and the decoys, those proved inadequate.”

“What would ‘harmless size’ be?” Laing wondered.

“We’ve seen up to twenty tons of fragment strike in the area at velocities up to fifty KPS. They’ve made craters, they may have taken out an emplacement or two, but the Khalia are dug into bedrock, deeper than that, obviously with perfect crystal reinforcing materials. By the same token, toxins or radioactive dust would harm nothing but the surroundings, not bother them in their dens in the least.

“As for burning them out with rays and plasma beams, surely you can see for yourself what an intensity and what a time that would take. As close in as our force would have to keep station, it’d be a sitting duck for the Khaliatheir ground-based energy generators are more powerful than anything ships can carry. No, the attempt would be a disaster for us.”

“Targeting,” Derabina said.

“Och, aye. Yes, ma’am. That’s another problem we face. The Khalians chose their site on Three very well. They must have sent scouts and collected intelligence about the planet for years beforehand. You know how ruggedly mountainous that particular region is, how changeable and often cloudy the weather. Nobody foresaw a military need. It turns out that accurate maps never were put in the Fleet databases. Whatever such information existed was on Three itself, and left behind at the evacuation. Yes, incompetence, lack of foresight, and heads have already rolled—but my God, Laing, the Fleet’s composed of mortal beings. Mistakes and oversights are bound to occur.

“The upshot is that without a precise grid tied to proper benchmarks, we can’t pinpoint our fire except optically, at those short times when seeing through the atmosphere is close to perfect. Radar lacks adequate bandwidth, and the enemy jams it anyway. We can’t do a real mapping job ourselves, because no surveyor could fly low enough long enough before the Khalians shot it down. Oh, we can always aim within a probable few kilometers. But that error is one reason why kinetic kill has been such a fiasco for us.

“If we had better maps, we’d still he handicapped by not knowing exactly where the enemy base is. We spy the above ground stuff, but it’s spotted across half the continent. Of the central installation, the heart and brain, we know only that it’s below one of several deep valleys sheltered by surrounding mountains. The Khalia did a clever job of camouflage—forced regrowth of vegetation—and as for emitted radiation, it’s diffused and most of it must be from dummies. None of us are familiar with that country. We can’t tell what is ‘natural’ and what artificial.

“Now you, Laing, you’ve spent years in it. You’ve tramped over it, flown over it, pored over the maps again and again. You must know it like the palm of your hand.”

Laing dared a smile. ”To tell the truth, I never studied the palm of my hand especially.”

“You know what l mean. You don’t have a geodetic survey in your head, no. But you could recognize landmarks instantly. I’m sure, though you glimpsed them through cloud or rain; and then you’d instantly know where any other given place was, and you could see which had been heavily tampered with. Correct?”

Laing remembered Vesper Peak soaring out of a thunderstorm beneath which lay the River Argent and the camp where Tess waited for him. “Well, yes. Within limits. Yes, I did get pretty good at finding my way around, also from the air.”

“That is what we require,” Derabina said. He looked back at the admiral. The fierceness of her gaze was like a whip-slash. “One way or another we must end this stalemate, and soon. The Fleet cannot afford it much longer. We had resigned ourselves to ground assault. Under cover of as heavy a bombardment as we could possibly manage, we’d land an expeditionary force on a different continent. From that beachhead we’d expand and move. Surface-to-surface missiles should soften the Khalia somewhat, but air, armor, and infantry would have to finish the job. The cost is appalling. A million casualties, with corresponding losses in matériel, is a low estimate. Nevertheless, it seemed we must bear it.

“Then this new proposal was made. Commander Maclaurin was in the group that devised it. If it succeeds, he can share credit for saving a million Allied dead and wounded, plus the added casualties that their absence elsewhere would cause.”

Maclaurin’s eyes brightened, his cheeks reddened, and Laing suddenly understood the full meaning of that old word “accolade.”

“You can bring the same honor on yourself, Lieutenant,” Derabina said, and Laing understood why, in spite of everything, her people went bravely into battle.

“What . . . shall I do . . . ma’am?” he whispered.

Derabina’s words were again dry, but her voice rang. “You, or rather your duplicated mind, will pilot the weapon that all by itself can end this standoff.

“It exists, ready except for the programming. In outward appearance it is an ordinary chondritic meteoroid adrift in space, a lump of fragile rock, its largest dimension about four meters, which indicates a mass of perhaps ten tons. Actually the mass is lower. We will maneuver it into such an orbit that it will strike the atmosphere of Three not far from the zenith above the enemy base. The Khalia should take that for a natural occurrence, especially since it will fragment high in the air as chondrites usually do.

“Suddenly one of the pieces, about three meters thick, will shoot straight toward the base. Probably the Khalian computers will deduce, or detect, that this piece has an engine inside. It will be too late for missile interception, but they will fire an energy beam to disable any electronics. That will be useless. The meteoroid will strike on top of them.”

Derabina stopped. After a silence, Laing said, “Pardon me, ma’am, but I don’t follow you. Evidently the object won’t have a warhead, since you expect the Khalian defense would take any out. All you’ve got is a large boulder and ordinary cosmic speed; the motor can’t have added much velocity. From what I’ve been told about the enemy fortress, I don’t see how that would do so much as rattle their teacups.”

The admiral had clearly invited his bemusement. She wanted to savor his reaction when she explained; she was that human. “Ah, but apart from the disguise, the engine, and auxiliary apparatus, what you will be, piloting is five tons of antimatter.”

* * *

Laing was allowed twelve hours to eat, sleep, adjust to Belisarian conditions, before he reported at Maclaurin’s laboratory. Yet when he arrived the psychophysicist first took him into an adjacent domicile room, made coffee, and struck up a leisured conversation. It would be best if his subject was not relaxed, which was scarcely possible without drugs, but not extremely nervous. Moreover, he reiterated, a degree of personal acquaintance would enable him to perform his task better.

“It isn’t a simple business of gadgets scanning your nervous system, mapping it into an equivalent pattern, and putting that into a program,” he said. “Nor can we just copy off your relevant memories. Intelligence is too subtle and complex. It has a certain unity. We need your whole mind, or we get nothing. An improperly run scan could give us the semblance of a mind, but it would be . . . untrustworthy. Insane, in any of a dozen tricky ways. If I’m watching you while you’re in the circuits, knowledgeably observing your body language as well as your spoken responses to cues, that will be an important supplement to the instrumentation.”

Laing leaned back in an uncomfortable chair and strove to make his muscles ease off. Maclaurin’s living quarters were a help, neat but with homely touches, pictures of his wife and children and sailboat, a guitar, a few well-worn codex books, a chessboard for play against a computer. “I know hardly anything about mind transfer,” Laing admitted. ”It isn’t done often, is it?”

Maclaurin frowned. “Please, I hate that phrase ‘mind transfer.’ May its inventor spend eternity in hell listening to every journalistic cliché of recorded history. Your mind is not a thing that we can lift out and stuff into a machine. It’s an ongoing process, a function of your entire organism. What we do is—our devices observe it, derive a set of equations describing it, too many and too complicated for any organic brain to handle, and under the guidance of those equations write a program by which a special kind of computer operates correspondingly.” He paused before adding, “You are right, it’s seldom done. Originally it was for scientific research purposes, and these days, almost always, we do best giving instructions to a robot.”

Laing sipped his coffee. The warmth and flavor soothed him a little. “Matter of ethics too, I imagine,” he said slowly. “Shouldn’t we pity that shadow self of mine? Bad enough being trapped in a machine body, but with a kamikaze dive ahead of him—”

“No, don’t worry about that, “ Maclaurin replied. “There are compensations. Subjects have described the wonders of direct sensory input from instruments you and I can only read, and sharing the intellectual power of a computer. Just the same, true, we don’t do this sort of thing lightly. And, true, your alter ego is to be a sacrifice. But men and women have laid down their lives countless times that others might survive, and this is for a million or more.”

He drew breath. “Besides, the ego won’t mind self-immolation. Remember, it won’t be you, nor an identical twin of you. Same memories, same ways of thinking, but no flesh, no glands—essentially, no instinct of self-preservation. To the extent that ‘emotion’ means anything in, this case, it will be glad to serve so good a cause. We know that from earlier experience. If it were not true, our project would be out of the question. We have no way of laying compulsion on a consciousness without suppressing the capability of independent thought that is the very thing we need. The mind has to do what it does of its own will. That’s another reason you were tapped. Your psychoprofile shows a high sense of duty.”

Laing grimaced. “This won’t be a pleasant duty. Understatement of the century.”

Maclaurin gave him a close but gentle regard. “Yes, you do have to wreck the country where you lived and worked so long,” he agreed. “That entire continent will be in bad shape, and the background count will rise everywhere on the planet. However, we aren’t going to sterilize it. Not even this weapon can do that. Life is tough, tenacious.”

Laing nodded jerkily. “I know. I didn’t sleep much last night. Lay there thinking the matter out, as best I could. “

“I’m fairly confident you and your associates can go back in a few years and pick up your research. The Fleet is mindful of those who have served it well.”

“Not the same,” Laing muttered. “The locale, Mozart Land, and the amadei we know—those won’t exist. We’ll have to begin all over again, among strangers, in a strange country.”

“Uh, amadei?”

“Our team’s informal name.” Laing found himself curiously anxious to talk about them, regardless of how it hurt. “Officially, chrysodonts. The most interesting animal by far on Christina. They became Tess’s, my wife’s, specialty. I observed them as often as I could manage, and made friends among them.”

Maclaurin raised his brows. “Friends? There are no sapients on Three.” His voice roughened. “Are there?”

The Fleet did not condone genocide.

“No, no,” Laing answered quickly. “Likening the geological histories of separate planets is ridiculous, but as a crude catchphrase you might say Christina is at a stage similar to the late Cretaceous of Earth. Except on mountains, climates range from warm to hot. No polar caps. No dinosaurs, of course, but creatures with many analogies to reptiles dominate animal life and have evolved a marvelous variety of forms. The chrysodonts are bipedal, comparatively large-brained. The species we call the amadeus is the brightest of them. About like Terrestrial monkeys, if that means anything to you.”

“I saw a documentary about Earth nature once. How do they get that name?”

“Amadeus? They sing beautifully. It’s a nickname we field workers hit on, like Mozart and, oh, damn near everything else.” Laing tossed off his coffee and bashed the cup down on the table. “God, I want to weep for our amadei.”

“Chances are the Khalians have killed those you knew.”

“Yeah.” Laing looked elsewhere. “Maybe my mind-copy will enjoy his task, in a way.” Abruptly he wanted to think about that. “But must you really bring such a weapon to bear? Seems like overkill in spades.”

“We have to make sure,” Maclaurin explained. “Nobody’s ever done anything like this before, and as the admiral said, we won’t get a second try. Exercising emergency authority, by writ of the High Command, our agents collected practically the entire supply of anti-lithium anti-hydride in the Alliance. It’s normally used in minute quantities as an industrial explosive where ultra-precision is necessary, you may know. The stockpiling was to free up the plants to produce heavier nuclei. Now it’ll take them ten years to replace those five tons.”


“The hydride. Solid, fairly dense, chemically stable, much easier to handle than anti-hydrogen or anti-helium, and more effective for our purposes. We’ve got it suspended by a tension field in a vacuum chamber inside our meteoroid. Impact will switch off the field generator and drive the stuff out, a ways down into the ground. Conversion of mass to energy will be total, of course. But we can’t predict how fast it will happen, or how efficiently from the viewpoint of what we want to do. Gobs of material will be flung far and wide by the initial reaction, blazing through the air. We’ve got to be absolutely sure that enough force hits the Khalian base to destroy it utterly: Therefore we’re throwing as big a lump as we could get together, and need a conscious pilot to make certain it strikes very near the target.”

Maclaurin laughed. “What a fireworks display!” Maybe that was his defense against the expectation.

* * *

The hours of scanning were not a nightmare. Physical discomfort was minor, mainly due to prolonged immobility while connected to a labyrinth of tubes, Wires, monitors, meters. Maclaurin and his assistants were simpatico. The experience was eldritch, though. Forgotten moments of youth, childhood, infancy rose from the deeps to claim the whole of the universe and recede before others. Thought rambled dimly and without coherence, as it does on the verge of sleep. Emotions burst forth, objectless: love, anger, dread, lust, grief, mirth, primordial passions for which the waking mind had no name. They flowed into a oneness that exploded in a million whirling colors. Space-time dwindled to zero and stretched to infinity. Laing perceived the meaning of existence, but lost it again. He could not afterward remember any of those hours, except that he had dreamed such things. Finally a technician gave him an injection and he spun into oblivion.

He awoke in sickbay. Drowsily he saw that the various punctures in his skin were bandaged. They should soon heal, faster than his hair would grow back. He closed his eyes and slept onward.

At some later date he was more fully awake. Maclaurin came in, vibrant, and exclaimed, “It’s worked, it’s worked! Everything went top chop. The program’s in place now, and our weapon’s on the way.”

* * *

We will never know what the pseudobrain thought, bound for its destiny. We have nothing but that last stark message, and the fact of what happened next. Still less can we know what it felt, as sundered from ours as its existence was. Yet I heard much, that night in Wang Fang’s. Later, curious, I retrieved what I could from various databases whenever I was on worlds they occupy. And I already knew something about such machines. I had even talked with one. As said, I collect stories. So let me reconstruct this, believing I am not far wrong.

Think of that rock, slowly a-tumble with hell in its belly on a long fall around the sun. The Laing mind does not see space as you and I do. It perceives through instruments attuned to the entire spectrum, to ghostly winds of atoms and ions, to force fields and pulses and the rhythms of gravity as the planets dance about their mother. It sees the solar fire ahead in full incandescence, while at the same time it sees the maelstroms that are spots, flame-tongues of flares and prominences, lacy nacre of corona, and the zodiacal light outspread in great vague wings. Undazzled, it sees the stars in their manifold hues, crowding Heaven wherever it looks, for to these senses myriads stand clear that are too dim for our eyes. Space is not dark, it is radiant. Nor is it silent. The atoms between the stars sing in radio voices through which throbs that deep chant that remembers the birth of the universe. Here and there nebulae glow with new suns or the death-gasps of old. Clouds cleave the Milky Way, but they cannot hide the furious heartbeat of the galaxy from this machine. Sister galaxies gleam afar, outward and outward to that edge of observability where we descry the beginning and foresee the end of all things.

The Laing mind takes hours, days, to master its awarenesses. By itself it is merely human. It would be forever lost in bewilderment were it not conjoined to the computer that controls the whole. Given such a capability, the speed and volume of data handling, the immense library out of which it can draw whatever it needs in nanoseconds—given this, gradually it assimilates the flood of input. It understands and governs. Thus it can think afresh. No longer like a drunken god, but taking its godlike powers for granted, it recalls what it formerly was.

No, it realizes, that isn’t accurate. It never was Arthur Laing. He is back on yonder ruddy spark in the sky. The mind makes an optical enlargement until Belisarius rolls big in vision, a desolation of rock and dust storms. Neutrinos from the power plants stream through detectors, but maximum magnification cannot give sight of the Fleet Base. Life is so small in the cosmos, so transitory, intelligent life so rare.

Meanwhile the asteroid has orbited ever closer to Christina. Knowing that the Laing mind would need to settle down into its condition, the planners gave it plenty of time. Furthermore, by starting their missile off on this trajectory at such a remove, they denied the Khalia any possibility of noticing anything suspicious about it.

Christina waxes, at first a white star, then a tiny crescent, then a disc over whose dark part plays faint phosphorescence. The dayside begins to show a shadow-limned intricacy of cloud-play. Streaks come and go, blue, sight of the oceans, greenish brown when the skies clear above land, but they are soon gone again. The planet has known ice ages, humans have seen the traces, but this is its great summer, in which it has dreamed for fifty million years. Two moons, of less size than Luna, shine scarred upon the cloud deck.

The Laing mind remembers.

Tess gripped his hand. From their seats they saw the world swell before them. “Our home,” she breathed. “Oh, I know we’ll be happy here.”

He smiled. “I wish I could carry you over the threshold,” he said, and felt how much he meant that. He wanted her in his arms, the dear weight and warmth of her. Well, they’d shortly be on the ground, in camp. There ought to be private quarters for them, if only a tent. There’d better!

The spacecraft growled, braking. Mist blinded the viewscreens. Suddenly they broke through and beneath them reached forest, mountains, a river like a silvery snake.

The Laing mind strains its instruments forward. Emanations from the Khalian base are discernible. They strengthen hour by hour, presently minute by minute, radio, infrared, neutrinos, out of a spot like an inflamed wound. A few little ticklings come from elsewhere, aircraft on errands—or on safaris? The Khalia seem to love killing in the way humans love sex. No matter. After the base is destroyed, hunting down any survivors will be a trivial chore.

The Laing mind has no fear of obliteration. It does not envy its other, original, self. It lacks a body to savor the sweetnesses of life and long for them. Here is a duty to perform, a deed more useful than most in history, service to Tess and humankind and decency. It is able to take pride in that.

Nevertheless, while existence remains and it is free of immediate demands, it wants to remember everything it can.

The overcast was seldom gloomy, but pearl gray. After you had learned how to see when shadows were dim or absent, you felt that somehow the whole air had gone softly luminous. Mountains reared into it wherever you looked, blue majesties, their highest peaks lost in the clouds, bared to the stars. The valley floor was half glades, half woods. Laing stood in tall, tawny, rustling growth that was not actually grass, near the trees. Those towered coppery-barked, spreading out in violet-veined leaf canopies where drops of water glinted. Rainbow wings fluttered among them. A breeze took the curse off the heat, though he was long since used to that anyway. It bore odors evoking childhood whiffs of jasmine and ginger.

The amadeus family was taking its ease at the forest edge. “Family” might be a purely human idea, but Tess had come to think it fitted. Amadei lived in groups, about half a dozen adult males and as many females plus their young. The couples appeared to be more or less monogamous. Extended family, you could perhaps say. From time to time several bands met, frolicking· and singing for days, while newly mature members found mates. Afterward the families went back to their territories.

Laing was pleased to recognize individuals here. Often away studying different creatures, he hadn’t developed Tess’s intimacy with the amadei. (That was the reason for settling in Mozart; deep dales concentrated them, prevented wide wandering, and so you could observe them, win their trust, follow their lives year after year.) However, he’d gotten friendly with some.

They were a handsome sight, the adults of a size with him, body slanted forward, counterbalanced by a gracefully waving tail. The head was large, round, blunt-muzzled, on top of a rather long neck; the eyes glowed liquidly dark; the golden-gleaming teeth had seemed alarmingly large at first, and indeed the amadei did sometimes hunt lesser animals, but in their own company they were generally sweet-tempered. Their skin was delicately scaled, its blue-black shimmer suggestive of chain mail. Laing was fascinated by their forepaws. Those digits seemed well on the way to becoming true fingers, with opposable thumbs.

Gimpy hobbled about in search of berries. Tumtum, already sated, drowsed against a bole. Bella put food in the mouth of a hatchling, which she cradled in her left arm. Fussy made vain efforts to call two half-grown of hers down from reckless games in a tree. Another youngster poked a stick, sharpened with its teeth, into a myrmecoid nest and speared tasty bugs. Another adult watched—supervising?

Joe was quick to notice Laing. He uttered a warble of delight and bounded toward the man. He always was brash. The rest hung back for a couple of minutes. Thereby they let Joe get the most and choicest of the treats, crackers prepared from local plants, that Laing had in his pockets. When they saw that, everybody crowded around.

They started to sing. An amadeus had its personal songs, and Laing had never heard exactly the same twice. Their vocal range was a full seven octaves, and the variety of sounds they could make was incredible: trills, whistles, roars, thuds, clangs, ripplings, rushings. Each was melodious, and the whole became a composition, music that sparkled and rejoiced.

Laing had also heard ominous cantos warning of danger; he had listened to males trying vocally for dominance, and courtship songs, and lullabies, and what he felt sure were laments for the dead. Tess believed the amadei communicated by music more than by signals and attitudes.

“Hey”—Laing laughed—“don’t embarrass me. I’m out of goodies, and by now you should know I can’t carry a tune in a basket.”

The planet stands huge, Auroras flicker over the poles. Instruments go to full amplification. It would be most unwise to feel ahead with radar, but passive devices reveal much. Magnetic field variations, mascons, beds of radioactive minerals, and similar clues sketch the country below the clouds.

They are inexact. The radiation of the enemy base is more helpful, but fails to pinpoint it by too many kilometers. Deeply buried as it is, most of what comes out is weak and scattered. Also, the Khalia follow standard military practice in using baffler fields and planting dummy emitters far around. To everything but optics, the target is a broad, ill-defined smear. Light, including infrared, loses itself in the clouds, is absorbed and reradiated, comes forth essentially imageless. You must get below the vapors and look; and then you are within seconds of a missile strike, within less than a millisecond of an energy beam’s reach.

Nevertheless the Laing mind, has wondered what its purpose is. Couldn’t a bomb like this burst half a continent away, and succeed? However, analysis of information from the databank confirmed what Maclaurin had said. The destructive power is known: e=mc2, five tons of antimatter annihilating with five tons of our kind. But the dispersion will be enormous, the effectiveness unpredictable. Not only are the Khalia dug cavernously deep into hard, geologically stable rock, and shielded and reinforced and shockproofed, but they are beneath a deep, small valley, surrounded by guardian mountains. Just which valley is unknown. To be certain of a kill, even this doomsday blow must strike the right one.

The Laing mind will have a fractional second to identify the target, possibly through rain or haze, then calculate the thrust vector necessary to redirect its fall, and awaken the engine. Given its electronic senses and computer power, that should suffice—because it, the Laing mind, will see which of the green vales of Mozart has been so changed that the enemy must lair below. The Khalia have done a good enough job of restoration to fool outsiders, but Laing walked this land and flew above it for long, gladsome years.

Happy indeed. Junie let Tess hold her new hatchling. It fluted and cuddled close; amadei liked mammalian warmth and smoothness. She gave it a cracker. It took the tidbit in tiny paws and nibbled daintily. Having finished, it wriggled half free of her clasp. Holding fast by its tail, it nuzzled into her shirt pocket. .

“Oh, it knows where crackers come from,” Tess said.

“Right away it knows. Don’t you, kiddums? Smart little devil you’ve got, Junie.”

The amadeus caroled. Tess handed the baby back to her. “Eerily smart,” Laing said, and suddenly the forest around them was heavy with awe. “I do believe we’ve met the ancestors of an intelligent race.”

“Why, I don’t doubt that at all,” his wife replied. “Give them, hmm, ten million years at most.”

And they will make tools and poems, build, sow and reap, yearn, question, climb the high peaks and behold the stars, perhaps finally seek out yonder. And what of the music they will have made? If our spirits live on, will Bach and Beethoven and Mozart hear, and try to understand, and never quite do so, because that was not the peculiar genius of humankind?

Christina has laid hold of the meteoroid. It hurtles inward. Ahead are the Khalia. Left to itself, the part of the meteoroid that is the weapon will break free of the rest and crash somewhere on that landmass, or perhaps in the ocean. Devastation will follow, wherever the fall occurs. But it must be the intended devastation. Mathematics marches through the computer. The Laing mind prepares itself. It is full of purpose, inhumanly steady.

In the instant of vision, it shall decide on its target. The faster it does, the surer is victory. It reviews every aspect of the task.

Hitherto the Laing mind has not thought in astronomical terms. Nobody has, really. This is an instrumentality of war. But now, in passing, it sees that the impact, the energy release, will equal that of a fair-sized asteroid crashing into the planet.

Laing was neither a geologist nor a paleontologist. He had never been on Earth. His scientific education naturally involved some study of man’s ancient home, but mostly, afterward, he forgot.

Today his duplicate mind has total recall.

Christina is a rolling white brilliance before it. Perhaps half a minute remains till atmospheric penetration. That is ample for a computer. In thirty seconds the Laing mind can think the thoughts and fed the anguish of thirty human years.

It breaks radio silence. The maser beam spears back toward Belisarius. “I cannot murder an entire future.”

Its engine comes to life. The meteoroid veers, shudders. Pieces break off under the acceleration. Those drop harmless into the air, shooting stars. The death machine leaps from orbit. Outward it speeds, faster and faster, until by the time its fuel is spent no ship of the Fleet has any hope of overtaking it.

Thus far my reconstruction. I do not care to guess what the Laing mind thought while it flew straight into the sun.

The dawn mists, were faintly red, as if the oncoming light washed them with blood. They hid the bay, but jungle on the shores hulked sullen above them. We were the last in Wang Fang’s. Madame herself had gone to bed, and her parrot hunched asleep on its perch. She’d sold us the rest of the bottle we’d been working on before she locked up the bar. The boy hadn’t come in yet to clean spilth, ash, stubs, and tobacco juice off the floor. Enough smoke hung around to gray the air and make it bitter. Already through its coolness I felt the day’s heat inbound.

“The same thing happened on Earth,” La Balafre Triangulaire said. His voice was dull with weariness. Stubble covered sunken cheeks and darknesses rimmed bloodshot eyes. “At the end of the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs were in their glory, an asteroid hit. It threw up such dust and steam that for decades Earth was shrouded, most sunlight reflected off and twilight laid on the days. A winter that went on and on. Plants died, ashore and in the seas, plankton, the animals that fed on them and the predators that fed on those. Three fourths or more of living species became extinct. They included the ammonites, that had been around since long before the dinosaurs—and the dinosaurs themselves, except for a few reptiles and the birds.”

“I know,” I said. “That gave the mammals their chance. Many of them survived. They’d been insignificant, but now they blossomed, and so we came to be.”

Balafre nodded. “True. That wasn’t inevitable by any means, though. Humans weren’t foreordained. Any of a million accidents could have stunted the development of the hominids, and Earth would have borne only plants and beasts.”

He raised a bony forefinger. “Do you know also, my friend, that there in the late Cretaceous, the dinosaurs were working on intelligence? They weren’t sluggish lizards. Many of them had well-developed nervous systems. Some were warm-blooded. Among the advanced types were the dromeosaurs, bipeds, about man-size, with large brains and the beginnings of hands.”

“You’re telling me that the antimatter bomb would have had the same effect on Christina,” I said.

He nodded again, and again, and again. “Right. That has got to be what the electronic mind meant. I computed it for myself, given the hint. Same energy release as for an asteroid impact. Same pulverized rock turned into dust, water turned into steam, and fireball air currents to carry them into the stratosphere. If anything, the result would have been worse, because the explosions would have been scattered more widely. And radioactivity as well. Fimbul Winter. Mass extinction. Oh, the calculations indicated that smaller, more primitive life forms would persist. But the amadei, everywhere they were on the planet, they couldn’t have.

“Don’t mistake me,” he added jaggedly. “The Fleet commanders aren’t monsters. Not like the Khalia, not at all. They didn’t think about the meteorology, because as far as they were concerned they’d simply kill off a lot of animals along with the enemy—regrettable, but better than the losses they’d otherwise have to suffer.”

“That they did suffer,” I said.

He slumped and stared down at his hands, which encircled his almost empty glass. “Yeah. They did.” Lifting his head, for a moment, voice cracking: “But that ghost of me, it saved a whole future!”

The Fleet had not appreciated the act.

I picked my words with as much care as the liquor in me allowed. “Ghost of you, you say. Not you. Why did they blame you, then? What were you guilty of?”

“Nothing, “he said into the air. “I was as shocked as anybody. My superiors filed no charges. But it had been my other mind. How could they trust me? How could they keep me safe from fellow personnel, once our men began to die by the tens of thousands?

“Have you ever been among people, your own people, who won’t speak to you? By the time they handed me my ‘undesirable’ discharge, I didn’t care. I was glad, in a burnt-out fashion, to get away. I went home. My wife had left me. So here I am.”

“And you ask whether you got justice,” I murmured.

“Yes. I don’t know, myself. I didn’t do the thing. But would I have? I don’t know, I tell you. 1 never will.”

We fell mute for a while. I couldn’t think what to say, until at last: “Some people believe in a God who can judge us. Now, sorry, I’m worn out and have got to sleep. Busy time ahead of me.” I lied. “Good-bye. Good luck.”

I rose and went into the sunrise. Fog eddied about my shins. Beyond the bay, ocean shone steely under a sky turning hard blue. Everywhere around me lay silence.

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