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by Joe Haldeman

Here’s a disturbing little story about the call of duty that shows us that maybe you don’t have as much choice about answering it as you think you do . . .

Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Joe Haldeman took a B.S. degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Maryland, and did postgraduate work in mathematics and computer science. But his plans for a career in science were cut short by the U.S. Army, which sent him to Vietnam in 1968 as a combat engineer. Seriously wounded in action, Haldeman returned home in 1969 and began to write. He sold his first story to Galaxy in 1969, and by 1976 had garnered both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for his famous novel, The Forever War, one of the landmark books of the ’70s. He took another Hugo Award in 1977 for his story “Tricentennial,” won the Rhysling Award in 1983 for the best science fiction poem of the year (although usually thought of primarily as a “hard-science” writer, Haldeman is, in fact, also an accomplished poet, and has sold poetry to most of the major professional markets in the genre), and won both the Nebula and the Hugo Award in 1991 for the novella version of The Hemingway Hoax. His story “None So Blind” won the Hugo Award in 1995. His other books include two mainstream novels, War Year and 1969; the SF novels, Mindbridge, All My Sins Remembered, There Is No Darkness (written with his brother, SF writer Jack C. Haldeman II), Worlds, Worlds Apart, Worlds Enough and Time, Buying Time, and The Hemingway Hoax; the “techno-thriller” Tools of the Trade, the collections, Infinite Dreams, Dealing in Futures, Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds, and None So Blind; and, as editor, the anthologies Study War No More, Cosmic Laughter, and Nebula Award Stories Seventeen. His most recent book is the long-awaited follow-up to The Forever War, called Forever Peace, which has just won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Haldeman lives part of the year in Boston, where he teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the rest of the year in Florida, where he and his wife Gay make their home.

* * *

With each step your boot heel cracks through the sun-dried crust and your foot hesitates, drops through an inch of red talcum powder, and then you draw it back up with another crackle. Fifty men marching in a line through this desert and they sound like a big bowl of breakfast cereal.

Jacob held the laser projector in his left hand and rubbed his right in the dirt. Then he switched hands and rubbed his left in the dirt. The plastic handles got very slippery after you’d sweated on them all day long, and you didn’t want the damn thing to squirt out of your grip when you were rolling and stumbling and crawling your way to the enemy, and you couldn’t use the strap, no place off the parade ground; goddamn slide-rule jockey figured out where to put it, too high, take the damn thing off if you could. Take the goddamn helmet off too, if you could. No matter you were safer with it on. They said. And they were pretty strict, especially about the helmets.

“Look happy, Jacob.” Sergeant Melford was always all smile and bounce before a battle. During a battle, too. He smiled at the tanglewire and beamed at his men while they picked their way through it—if you go too fast you get tripped and if you go too slow you get burned—and he had a sad smile when one of his men got zeroed and a shriek a happy shriek when they first saw the enemy and glee when an enemy got zeroed and nothing but smiles smiles smiles through the whole sorry mess. “If he didn’t smile, just once,” young-old Addison told Jacob, a long time ago, “just once he cried or frowned, there would be fifty people waiting for the first chance to zero that son of a bitch.” And Jacob asked why and he said, “You just take a good look inside yourself the next time you follow that crazy son of a bitch into hell and you come back and tell me how you felt about him.”

Jacob wasn’t stupid, that day or this one, and he did keep an inside eye on what was going on under his helmet. What old Sergeant Melford did for him was mainly to make him glad that he wasn’t crazy too, and no matter how bad things got, at least Jacob wasn’t enjoying it like that crazy laughing grinning old Sergeant Melford.

He wanted to tell Addison and ask him why sometimes you were really scared or sick and you would look up and see Melford laughing his crazy ass off, standing over some steaming roasted body, and you’d have to grin, too, was it just so insane horrible or? Addison might have been able to tell Jacob but Addison took a low one and got hurt bad in both legs and the groin and it was a long time before he came back and then he wasn’t young-old anymore but just old. And he didn’t say much anymore.

With both his hands good and dirty, for a good grip on the plastic handles, Jacob felt more secure and he smiled back at Sergeant Melford.

“Gonna be a good one, Sarge.” It didn’t do any good to say anything else, like it’s been a long march and why don’t we rest a while before we hit them, Sarge or, I’m scared and sick and if I’m gonna die I want it at the very first, Sarge: no. Crazy old Melford would be down on his hunkers next to you and give you a couple of friendly punches and josh around and flash those white teeth until you were about to scream or run but instead you wound up saying, “Yeah Sarge, gonna be a good one.”

We most of us figured that what made him so crazy was just that he’d been in this crazy war so long, longer than anybody could remember anybody saying he remembered; and he never got hurt while platoon after platoon got zeroed out from under him by ones and twos and whole squads. He never got hurt and maybe that bothered him, not that any of us felt sorry for the crazy son of a bitch.

Wesley tried to explain it like this: “Sergeant Melford is an improbability locus.” Then he tried to explain what a locus was and Jacob didn’t really catch it, and he tried to explain what an improbability was, and that seemed pretty simple but Jacob couldn’t see what it all had to do with math. Wesley was a good talker though, and he might have one day been able to clear it up but he tried to run through the tanglewire, you’d think not even a civilian would try to do that, and he fell down and the little metal bugs ate his face.

It was twenty or maybe twenty-five battles later, who keeps track, when Jacob realized that not only did old Sergeant Melford never get hurt, but he never killed any of the enemy either. He just ran around singing out orders and being happy and every now and then he’d shoot off his projector but he always shot high or low or the beam was too broad. Jacob wondered about it but by this time he was more afraid, in a way, of Sergeant Melford than he was of the enemy, so he kept his mouth shut and he waited for someone else to say something about it.

Finally Cromwell, who had come into the platoon only a couple of weeks after Jacob, noticed that Sergeant Melford never seemed to zero anybody and he had this theory that maybe the crazy old son of a bitch was a spy for the other side. They had fun talking about that for a while, and then Jacob told them about the old improbability locus theory, and one of the new guys said he sure is an imperturbable locust all right, and they all had a good laugh, which was good because Sergeant Melford came by and joined in after Jacob told him what was so funny, not about the improbability locus, but the old joke about how do you make a hormone? You don’t pay her. Cromwell laughed like there was no tomorrow and for Cromwell there wasn’t even any sunset, because he went across the perimeter to take a crap and got caught in a squeezer matrix.

The next battle was the first time the enemy used the drainer field, and of course the projectors didn’t work and the last thing a lot of the men learned was that the light plastic stock made a damn poor weapon against a long knife, of which the enemy had plenty. Jacob lived because he got in a lucky kick, aimed for the groin but got the kneecap, and while the guy was hopping around trying to stay upright he dropped his knife and Jacob picked it up and gave the guy a new orifice, eight inches wide and just below the navel.

The platoon took a lot of zeros and had to fall back, which they did very fast because the tanglewire didn’t work in a drainer field, either. They left Addison behind, sitting back against a crate with his hands in his lap and a big drooly red grin not on his face.

With Addison gone, no other private had as much combat time as Jacob. When they rallied back at the neutral zone, Sergeant Melford took Jacob aside and wasn’t really smiling at all when he said: “Jacob, you know that now if anything happens to me, you’ve got to take over the platoon. Keep them spread out and keep them advancing, and most of all, keep them happy.”

Jacob said, “Sarge, I can tell them to keep spread out and I think they will, and all of them know enough to keep pushing ahead, but how can I keep them happy when I’m never very happy myself, not when you’re not around.”

That smile broadened and turned itself into a laugh. You crazy son of a bitch, Jacob thought and because he couldn’t help himself, he laughed too. “Don’t worry about that,” Sergeant Melford said. “That’s the kind of thing that takes care of itself when the time comes.”

The platoon practiced more and more with knives and clubs and how to use your hands and feet but they still have to carry the projectors into combat because, of course, the enemy could turn off the drainer field whenever he wanted to. Jacob got a couple of scratches and a piece of his nose cut off, but the medic put some cream on it and it grew back. The enemy started using bows and arrows so the platoon had to carry shields, too, but that wasn’t too bad after they designed one that fit right over the protector, held sideways. One squad learned how to use bows and arrows back at the enemy and things got as much back to normal as they had ever been.

Jacob never knew exactly how many battles he had fought as a private, but it was exactly forty-one. And actually, he wasn’t a private at the end of the forty-first.

Since they got the archer squad, Sergeant Melford had taken to standing back with them, laughing and shouting orders at the platoon and every now and then loosing an arrow that always landed on a bare piece of ground. But this particular battle (Jacob’s forty-first) had been going pretty poorly, with the initial advance stopped and then pushed back almost to the archers; and then a new enemy force breaking out on the other side of the archers.

Jacob’s squad maneuvered between the archers and the new enemy soldiers and Jacob was fighting right next to Sergeant Melford, fighting pretty seriously while old Melford just laughed his fool head off, crazy son of a bitch. Jacob felt that split-second funny feeling and ducked and a heavy club whistled just over his head and bashed the side of Sergeant Melford’s helmet and sheared the top of his helmet off just as neat as you snip the end off a soft-boiled egg. Jacob fell to his knees and watched the helmet full of stuff twirl end over end in back of the archers and he wondered why there were little glass marbles and cubes inside the gray-blue blood-streaked mushy stuff and then everything just went

Inside a mountain of crystal under a mountain of rock, a tiny piezoelectric switch, sixty-four molecules in a cube, flipped over to the OFF position and the following transaction took place at just less than the speed of light:



and came back again just like that. Jacob stood up and looked around. The same old sun-baked plain, but everybody but him seemed to be dead. Then he checked and the ones that weren’t obviously zeroed were still breathing a bit. And, thinking about it, he knew why. He chuckled.

He stepped over the collapsed archers and picked up Melford’s bleedy skull-cap. He inserted the blade of a knife between the helmet and the hair, shorting out the induction tractor that held the helmet on the head and served to pick up and transmit signals. Letting the helmet drop to the ground, he carefully bore the grisly balding bowl over to the enemy’s crapper. Knowing exactly where to look, he fished out all the bits and pieces of crystal and tossed them down the smelly hole. Then he took the unaugmented brain back to the helmet and put it back the way he had found it. He returned to his position by Melford’s body.

The stricken men began to stir and a few of the most hardy wobbled to their hands and knees.

Jacob threw back his head and laughed and laughed.

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