Naked to the StarsGordon R. Dickson
Naked to the Stars
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
NAKED TO THE STARS © 1961 by Almat Publishing Corp. © 1989 by Gordon R. Dickson.
First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Start Science Fiction, 609 Greenwich Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10014.
All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Start Science Fiction,
an imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
The voice, speaking out of the ancient blackness of the nigh ton the third planet of Arcturus—under an alien tree, bent and crippled by the remorseless wind—paused, and cleared its throat... ahem,” it said. “Gentlemen...”
It seemed to lose its way for a second. It faltered and fell silent. Then it appeared to find strength and speak again:
". . .it’s this way with the soldier. What makes the soldier different from the common, garden-variety murderer is the cause for which the soldier kills—” the voice broke off to clear its throat, which had become impeded by something soft and liquid.
"Bull!” said another voice, out of the wind-dry darkness.
“In a war,” continued the first voice, unheeding, “to defend his hearth and family, for a crusade, during a definite limited time—the shield of high purpose and the feeling that his cause is just may be kept clean and bright. But soldiers become veterans—”
The voice broke off once more, on a liquid cough. It cleared its throat with effort.
“Some do. Yeah,” said the second voice.
“—become veterans. And veterans become professional military men. So much so, that while it may remain a fine thing to let the enemy attack before the soldier goes to war, it becomes the practical thing to go to war first. When this happens, the aforementioned shield of high purpose, the heretofore unsullied escutcheon... ah...” the voice hesitated in its tone of impersonal dictation and muttered off into nonsense.
“Throw another nerve block into him, Joby,” said Section Leader Calvin Truant, of the 4th Assault Wing, 91st Combat Engineers, Human Expedition against the Lehaunan.
“If I do,” replied the voice that had been answering to the lecturing one, “I’ll shove both thumbs through his spine. It’s had it.”
“Do it now,” said Cal. There was a rustle, and the muttering broke off with a light gasp. There followed a moment’s unnatural-seeming silence, then the voice resumed confidently.
“. . . become veterans. And veterans become profess—with regard to the present situation of the Expedition, I can only report it as bogged down from the viewpoint of a Contacts Service Officer. Normally, at a time of truce we would expect to make considerable contact on the level of cultural understanding. However, it is by no means clear that the Lehaunan understand exactly what we mean by ‘truce’—”
“You tell ’em!” said another, younger voice. “They were real trucy to you, weren’t they, Runyon?”
“That’s enough of that, Tack,” said Cal. “Get back to the cable phone. See if Division hasn’t got any orders for us yet.”
“Right,” said the younger voice. Cal heard feet moving off among the gravel and stones of the dark hillside along the side of the little hollow where they all lay, toward the eighty-three other men of what still called itself the 4th Assault Wing. In then early opposite direction, up the slope of the hollow, there was a faint glow in the night sky; a reflection of lights in the valley beyond where the small local community around the Lehaunanarea Power Center was. The glow would have been invisible to any but men who had had no illumination but this for the past hours since the great orange orb of Arcturus had set.
“. . . nor do they think of war in the same sense as we do, apparently. Although evidently capable of defending themselves,with great skill and effect against any powered attack, the Lehaunan appear largely ignorant of the idea of individual angers and hatreds. It appears almost as if they look on the weapon that kills them as somehow unconnected with the soldier who fires it. Under conditions other than these of war, possibly they would be a kindly and naive people...”
“Yeah, you put that down, Gutless Won—” the exhaustion-hoarse voice of Joby broke off in a slight note of embarrassment, similar to that of a person who finds himself talking out of turn and too loudly at a funeral. “—Contacts Officer,” he amended.
From behind, along the slope, there was the rattle of displaced gravel.
“Section?” It was the young voice of the soldier Cal had called Tack.
“Well?” said Cal.
There was a moment of total silence. Even Contacts Officer Lieutenant Harry Runyon paused in the dictation of his delirium-born reports to his superiors.
“How about the other thing?” said Cal. “They get the word passed on to Medics we’ve got a basket case here?”
“Sure, Sec. But they said no beamed-power equipment to be used for fear of the Lehaunan blowing it up. Period. Including ambulances.”
The rest of them could hear Joby spit, in the darkness.
“Thought you didn’t like Contacts Officers, Joby?” jeered Tack.
“And your sister,” said Joby. “He’s attached to our outfit.”
“Cut it,” said Cal.
His own words came to his ears sounding unreally quiet and distant. He was a little surprised to hear them. It was like some-body else talking. The feeling was part of the general sensation he had of being somehow without a body; a feeling he knew was essentially lightheadedness from lack of sleep. He had not slept for one—two days now. Not since Lieutenant James, thelast combat commissioned officer, had been taken off by ambulance, leaving Cal, a Section Leader only, in command of the Wing. (Runyon, of course, being a Contacts Officer and forbid-den to take any part in the fighting, did not count.)
“Tack,” said Cal. “Up top and take a look.”
The sound of a quiet slither went away up the slope from them.
“Truce was up at sunset,” said Joby. The Contacts Officer had fallen silent again. Perhaps he was mercifully dead. Neither Cal nor Joby moved to find out.
“Get Walk over here,” said Cal. Joby went off, back toward the eighty-three men and the cable phone. Left for a moment with no one to know what he did, Cal felt a sudden, almost drunken desire to lie down. He fought it away from him. He heard Joby’s return; and Joby spoke.
“Here we are.”
“What’s up, Cal?”
The second voice, that of Section Leader Walker Lee Blye,had a quality and tone something like Cal’s, the latter’s exhaustion-tricked and unreal sense of hearing noted. It was not the same voice in an ordinary sense, being deeper, harsher, and more clipped. But there was something in the phrasing, in the breathing, that made it seem like his own voice speaking back to him out of the pain and darkness of the night. It was as if that part of Cal himself which, suffering, struck out in blind retaliation at the universe, had answered back. Cal pushed the light-headed fancy from himself.
“Tell you as soon as Tack gets back down here,” he said.They rested together in the darkness, the three of them, able-bodied soldiers. Harry Runyon had taken up his muttering once more, but now in too low a tone to be understood. Joby spoke.“You ever get the urge?”
They thought about it for
a moment in the dark.
“You mean Earth?” said Walk’s voice. “Stay back there? Go civilian?”
“Yeah,” said Joby.
“I thought of it,” said Walk. “I thought of it. At the end of every expedition I think of it. But I’m not built for it. When I get rich and they shovel me under there’ll be the slow drums and the trumpets. Not some damn civilian organ in a mortuary.” Cal listened without saying anything.
“Lanson went back,” said Joby. “No new coat of varnish for him this trip, he said.”
“He’s a Congressman from South McMurdo now.”
“Kerr went into business back there. Deep-sea farming off Brazil someplace. Guess he did all right.”
“Nah,” said Joby. “He got himself another coat. Hundred twenty-seventh Armor Assault Group. Section in Ballistics told me.”
“Well. And he likes it. I got a letter...”
“After a while, I guess—”
“—we must,” said Runyon, strongly and suddenly out of his muttering, “distinguish. The one from the other. The innocent from the guilty. The defenders from the attackers. The—dear sir, if you will refer to my previous reports . . .’’ he trailed off back into mumbling.
“Lots like him back home now,” said Walk. Cal woke a little out of his lightheadedness at the statement, and looked at Walk’s direction. He could not see the other man, but he could imagine the sudden flash of the white teeth in Walk’s lean face as he said it, and the sudden glittering glance thrown through the obscurity at Cal.
“You mean, Runyon?” said Joby.
“Don’t know why the ex-Service people in Government don’t put a stop to that,” said Joby. “All the good men and women we lost against the Griella. Now against the Lehaunan. And now they start letting these Societies, these Equal-Vote, Non-Violence people put on uniforms right beside us and turn right around after peace is signed and do their best to give back everything we took. Who’n hell has to make friends with Aliens, anyway? We can lick’m, can’t we?”
“Civilians!” said Walk.
“We’ve got ex-mulebrains in Government,” said Joby. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Well, I tell you,” said Walk, and again Cal imagined the flash of teeth, the glitter of eyes in his direction. “They marry civilians; they’ve got civilian relatives. It affects their point of view.”
“No,” Cal made himself say with a heavy effort. “The ones who crack their varnish and quit always were half-civilian anyway. That’s what it is.”
“Someday,” said Walk, “a bunch of us’ll go back. Up ship,a full Expedition and go back armed.”
“And fight Headquarters,” said Joby.
“Headquarters’d be on our side.”
“Then why don’t they order us back?” asked Joby. “What the hell—you, me, any of us—we go back there and what happens?”
“. . . only young men should fight wars,” said the voice of Runyon, suddenly and clearly out of the blackness, “to reduce the tax burden and. . .”
“I mean,” said Joby, raising his voice above the sound of Runyon’s, “I go back. All right, I’ve got my own vote plus one extra for being a veteran. I got veteran’s bonus points for government job tests. I got land option and combat pension. Why fight? I ought just be able to take over.”
There was another moment of silence during which Runyon muttered about nothing being more certain than a soldier’s Death Benefits.
“No,” said Joby heavily, after a moment. “I guess not. Not worth it. We can sweat these holier-than-thou gutless wonders out, I guess.”
“No,” said Walk. “You were closer to right to start with.You and I know what the answer is—the same answer that always works. Clean them out. Get rid of them.”
A sound of slithering descent approached them down the slope, invisibly.
“Here,” said Cal.
“Well,” said Tack’s voice, now in their midst, “it’s still going on. I sat up there with Djarali and watched one myself. Something like a truck, and one comes out of that hole in the hill into that walled compound, up at the far end of town. One about every twelve minutes. Djar says he’s counted nine more since he went on sentry; and he hasn’t seen any go back into the hill.”
“And the truce quit at sunset,” said Joby.
Cal stood up. He looked back through the darkness to where the eighty-three men waited. In his mind’s eye he saw the heavy equipment and weapons back there all parked and idle with the protection of a little rise in ground between the men and them.
“Walk,” he said, “go back and get on that cable phone. Tell them I’m asking for orders—from the General if necessary. And tell them if they can’t get an ambulance up here, they can at least get a runner in here with some drugs for Runyon. Joby can’t keep on gigging him with a nerve pinch forever. Tacky!”
“Right, here, Cal.”
“Got your sketch pad and junk with you?”
“I got a pocket kit.”
“All right. Keep that.” Cal began to unclip his weapons harness. “Get out of your other gear. You and I are going for a stroll, down into that town.”
“Down among those Lehaunan?” said Walk.
“That’s right. You’re in charge until I get back. I’m going to try and find out what those trucks, or whatever they are, are bringing in. Ready, Tack?”
There were a few final clinks from Tack’s direction, and then the sound of a dropped harness.
“All ready. But, oh Section Leader, sir”—Tack’s voice scaled up in bad mimicry of a high-voiced recruit—“isn’t this one of those volunteer missions?”
“Shut up,” said Cal. “You’re to stick close and not play any games. Walk, give us three hours to get back. After that, it’s all yours.”
“Right. Have fun!”
“Oh, we’ll have a ball.”
Cal led the way off the slope, hearing Tack close behind him.
In the Lehaunan town, once Cal and Tack got into it, there was plenty of light. It came from tall glowing, barber pole affairs that were the local equivalent, evidently, of street lights.They cast a dim but, to human eyes, garish glare over the rounded buildings and small protuberances that looked like half-barrels sticking up out of the pavement between the buildings. Cal took his way from sight-to-sight.
There were no true streets, but simply spaces between the buildings and he had not dared to bring even so simple a mechanical device as a compass, after the way the Lehaunan had reacted to Runyon’s voice recorder, some hours previously. Cal was fairly sure he was proceeding as directly as was possible through the town to the walled compound against the hillside beyond, but it was slow going and after fifteen minutes or so of threading his way between the buildings, he sat down on one of the half-barrels and waited for Tack to catch up.
There were two barber pole street lights in this particular open space. One was about fifteen feet high and three feet in diameter, the other about eight feet high and two feet wide. Both glowed with the crackling, hard, amber illumination. It hurt the eyes to look directly at them, but for all their size, the light they threw on the curved walls of the buildings thirty and fifty feet away from them was little more than a campfire in the center of the same area would have provided. A couple of the adult, sooty-furred Lehaunans passed in opposite directions through the space while Cal sat resting. But neither gave him more than a casual glance that seemed to at once recognize his lack of a weapon harness.
What was delaying Tack was a young Lehaunan, looking like a black-furred raccoon about three feet high, who had apparently become fascinated by Tack’s sketch book and pencil and was tagging inquisitively after the soldier. In the weird glare from the barber poles, they made a humorous-looking pair: the young Lehaunan like a human child encased in animal Halloween costume and shoving close to the fresh-faced young man in the dirty coveralls. Tack had let himself be worked
upon to the point where he was actually drawing pictures for his small pursuer.
“Hurry it up,” said Cal numbly.
“Be right with you, Sec,” said Tack. He made a few steps toward where Cal was sitting, then paused to add several more lines to the sketch he was making at a rough distance of six inches under the curious orange nose of his companion. “He’s cute. Y’know?”
“I know,” said Cal under his breath. He had started thinking again, however, about Walk Blye, and his mind swung off at a tangent. There was a danger in Walk.
The man had a streak in him. Walk was like a wolf the Wing had once raised from a cub and tried to keep for a mascot, until it went berserk in its fifth year and had to be hunted down with fire rifles, out in the boondocks back of camp. The wolf had been perfectly like a dog in all respects but one. He would press against your knees, shoving his head forward as you petted him.And then, suddenly, there would be something like a light touch against the back of your hand. All at once, blood would bead up along a thin line where he had slashed you. But when you looked from the hand back to him, there he was, still pressing against your knees and begging to be petted.
At the end he had gone wild, slashing and butchering at all things about him for no reason. And when he had been knocked off his feet with fire rifles and Cal, who was closest, had come up to do the unhappy job of finishing him off, he had whined and raised his head and licked out his tongue at Cal’s hand, not as if supplicating or in shame, but almost as if feverishly seeking petting for what he had done. And a hand to slash.
With Walk, the slash was always in words.
“Right,” he had said, as Cal and Tack were leaving. “Have fun.”
Cal had been twenty feet up the slope before it registered on him that the last two words had not been said in the usual tone of rough and friendly irony, but on a driving note of bitter, sneering contempt. As if Cal, instead of taking on a risky mission required by duty, had been dodging out to avoid some unpleasant task where he was. Like the wolf, Walk had slashed without warning; and Cal knew this to be a sign that something was eating at the man. The bitter part was that he was also Cal’s oldest friend. They had entered the Service together. They had saved each other’s lives before this, and might well again.