The Forever ManGordon R. Dickson
The Forever Man
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
THE FOREVER MAN © 1986 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.
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Table of Contents
The phone was ringing. He came up out of a sleep as dark as death, fumbled at the glowing button in the phone’s base with numb fingers and punched it. The ringing ceased.
“Wander here,” he mumbled. An officer he did not recognize showed on the screen.
“Major, this is Assignment. Lieutenant Van Lee. Laagi showing upward of thirty ships facing our sector of the Frontier. Scramble, sir.”
“Right,” he muttered.
There was no reason for the Laagi to start putting extra ships into that part of their territory that faced the North American Sector, and necessitate an all-personnel call-out of the ship-handling crews—including people like himself who had just come back in off patrol out there six hours ago.
But then, attacking or running, the Laagi made no sense. They never had.
“You’re to show in Conference Room K at four hundred hours. Bring your personals.”
“Right.” Groggily he rolled over on his stomach and squinted at his watch in the glow from the button on the phone. In the pale light, the figures on his wrist-com stood at twelve minutes after three—three hundred twelve hours. Enough time.
“Understood, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Very good, sir. Out.”
The phone went dead. For a moment the desire for sleep sucked at Jim Wander like some great black bog; then with a convulsive jerk he threw it and the covers off him in one motion and sat up on the edge of his bed in the darkness, scrubbing at his face with an awkward hand.
After a second, he turned the light on, got up, showered and dressed. As he shaved, he watched his face in the mirror. It was still made up of the same roughly squarish, large-boned features he remembered, but the lines about the mouth and between the eyebrows seemed deepened with the sleep, under the tousled black hair, coarsely curling up from his forehead. It could not be drink, he thought. He never drank except on leave, nowadays. Alcohol at other times did nothing for him anymore. It was just that now he slept like a log, like a log watersoaked and drowning in some bottomless lake.
He had not gone stale. Out on the Frontier he was as good as ever. But he needed something—what, he could not specify. He felt the lack of it, like the emptiness of a long-empty stomach inside him. But it was not hunger, because he was fed regularly; and it was not women, as his friends suggested, because he had no trouble finding women on his leaves from duty. What he wanted was to come to grips with something. That was it, to have a wall behind him he could set his back against and a job to do in front of him, where he could see himself getting it done, instead of fighting an endless war and getting nowhere, surrounded by those who found simply being in the war enough to justify their existence.
He needed to accomplish something and find someone who understood what it was like to have that need.
He got up and started getting himself ready for duty.
When he was finally dressed, he strapped on last of all his “personals,” his sidearm, the painkiller kit, the little green thumbnail-square box holding the x-capsule. Then he left his room, went down the long, sleeping corridor of the officers’ quarters and out a side door into the darkness of predawn and the rain.
He could have gone around by the interior corridors to the Operations building, but it was a short cut across the quadrangle and the rain and chill would wake him, drive the last longing for sleep from his bones. As he stepped out of the door the invisible rain, driven by a light wind, hit him in the face. Beyond were the blurred lights of the Operations building across the quadrangle.
Far off to his left thunder rolled. Tinny thunder, the kind heard at high altitudes, in the mountains. Beyond the rain and darkness were the Rockies. Above the Rockies, the clouds. And beyond the clouds, space, stretching light-years of distance to the Frontier.
—To where he would doubtless be before the dawn rose, above this quadrangle, above these buildings, these mountains, and this Earth.
He entered the Operations building, showed his identification to the Officer of the Day, and took the lift tube up to the fourth floor. The frosted pane of the door to Conference Room F glowed with a brisk, interior light. He knocked on the door and went in without waiting for an answer. Inside, the room was half-full of pilots like himself and their gunners.
“Oh, Jim!” said the colonel behind the briefing desk. “Not here. They want you in Conference Room K, this time.”
Jim grunted. He had forgotten. He went out. One floor down and halfway down the corridor to the right was Conference K. Jim went in this time without even knocking—and stopped. Like all conference rooms in Operations, it had one desk and many chairs. This room also had two people, one of whom was General Louis Mollen, Sub-Chief of Operations, and the other was a woman Jim did not know.
Mollen, round and hard-bodied as a medicine ball, with a head to match, sat behind the desk; and in a chair half-facing him was a woman in military flight clothes, in her midtwenties, lean and high-foreheaded, with the fresh skin and clear eyes of someone who has spent most of her years inside walls, sheltered from the weather. Under reddish blond hair her eyes were blue-green, in a face that was rectangular, with the jawlines sloping straight down to a small, square chin. It was not a remarkable face. Nor was it unremarkable. It was a strong, determined face.
“Sorry, sir. I should have knocked,” said Jim.
“Not important,” said Mollen. “Come in.”
Jim came in and both the other two stood up as he approached the desk. They watched him closely, and Jim found himself examining the woman. The flight coveralls she wore had been fitted to her, which meant she was not just a civilian fitted out by the supply depot for this occasion. At the same time something about her did not belong in the Operations building; and Jim, out of the dullness of the fatigue that was still on him and the emptiness in him, found himself twinged by a sudden and reasonless resentment at her presence here, at the moment of a scramble. She looked unnaturally wide-awake and competent for this dark hour of the mo
rning. Of course, so did Mollen; but that was different.
Jim stopped in front of the desk.
“Jim,” said the general, deep-voiced, his round, snub-nosed, pugnacious face unsmiling. “I want you to meet Dr. Mary Gallegher. She’s from the Geriatrics Bureau.”
She would be, thought Jim sourly, reaching out to shake hands with her. Mary Gallegher was almost as tall as Jim himself, who at five feet ten was near the upper limit in height for the cramped quarters of the pilot’s com seat of a fighter ship, and her handshake was not weak. But still… here she was, thought Jim, still resenting her for being someone as young as Jim himself, full of the juices of living, and with all her attention focused on the gray and tottering end-years of life. A bodysnatcher—a snatcher of old bodies from the brink of the grave for a few months or a few years.
“Pleased to meet you, Mary,” he said.
“Good to meet you, Jim.”
“Sit down,” said the general. Jim pulled up a chair and they all sat down once more around the desk.
“What’s up, sir?” asked Jim. “They told me it was a general call-out.”
“The call-out’s a fake. Just an excuse to put extra ships on the Frontier for something special,” answered Mollen. “The something special’s why Mary’s here. And you. What do you remember about the Sixty Ships Battle?”
“It was right after we found we had a frontier in common with the Laagi, wasn’t it?” said Jim, slightly puzzled. “Over one hundred years ago or so. Back before we found out logistics made mass spaceship battles unworkable. Sixty of ours met forty-some of theirs beyond the Frontier, as it is now, and theirs were better. What about it?”
“Do you remember how the battle came out?” It was the civilian, Mary Gallegher, leaning forward with an intensity that puzzled him.
“They were better, as I say. Our ships were slower then. We hadn’t started to design them for guarding a frontier, instead of fighting pitched battles. They cut us up and suckered what was left into staying clumped together while they set off a nova explosion,” he said. He looked into her eyes and spoke deliberately. “The ships on the edge of the explosion were burned up like paper cutouts. The ones in the center just disappeared.”
“Disappeared,” said Mary Gallegher. She did not seem disturbed by Jim’s description of the explosion. “That’s the right word. How long ago did you say this was?”
“Over a hundred years ago,” said Jim. He turned and looked at General Mollen, with a glance that said plainly, ‘What is this, sir?’
“Look here, Jim,” said the general. “We’ve got something to show you.”
He pushed aside the few papers on the surface of the table in front of him and touched some studs on the control console near the edge of the top. The overhead lights dimmed. The surface of the table became transparent and gave way to a scene of stars. To the three seated around the desk top it was as if they looked down and out into an area of space a thousand lightyears across. To the civilian, Jim was thinking, the stars would be only a maze. To Jim himself, the image was long familiar.
Mollen’s hands did things with the studs. Two hazy spheres of dim light, each about a hundred and fifty lightyears in diameter along its longest axis, sprang into view, bright enough to establish their position and volume, not so bright as to hide the stars they enclosed. The center of one of the spheres was the surf of Earth, and the farthest extent of this sphere in one direction intermixed with an edge of the other.
“Our area of space.” said Mollen’s voice, out of the dimness around the table. “—And the Laagi’s, Mary. They block our expansion in that direction, and we block theirs in this. The distribution of the stars in this view being what it is, it’s not practical for either race to go around the other. You see the Frontier area, Mary?”
“Where the two come together, yes,” said Mary.
“Now Jim—” said Mollen. “Jim commands a Wing of our Frontier Guard ships, and he knows that area well. Nothing but unmanned drones of ours have ever gotten deep into Laagi territory beyond the Frontier and come back out again. Agreed, Jim?”
“Agreed, sir,” said Jim. “More than twenty, thirty lightyears deep is suicide.”
“Well, perhaps,” said Mollen. “But let me go on. The Sixty Ships Battle was fought a hundred and twelve years ago—here.” A bright point of light sprang into existence in the Frontier area. “One of the ships engaged in it was a one-man vessel with a semianimate automatic control system, named by its pilot La Chasse Gallerie, you said something, Jim?”
The exclamation had emerged from Jim’s lips involuntarily. And at the same time, foolishly, a slight shiver had run down his back. It had been years since he had run across the old tale as a boy.
“It’s a French-Canadian ghost legend, sir,” he said. “The legend was that voyageurs who had left their homes in Eastern Canada to go out on the fur trade routes and who had died out there would be able to come back home one night of the year. New Year’s night. They’d come sailing in through the storms and snow in ghost canoes, to join the people back home and kiss the girls they now wouldn’t ever be seeing again. That’s what they called the story, ‘La Chasse Gallerie.’ It means the hunting of a type of butterfly that invades beehives to steal honey.”
“The pilot of this ship was a Canadian,” said Mollen. “Raoul Penard.” He coughed dryly. “He was greatly attached to his home. La Chasse Gallerie was one of the ships near the center of the nova explosion, one of the ones that disappeared. At that time we didn’t realize that the nova explosion was merely a destructive application of the principle used in phase-shift drive. You’ve heard of the statistical chance that a ship caught just right by a nova explosion could be transported instead of destroyed, Jim?”
“I’d hate to count on it, sir,” said Jim. “Anyway, what’s the difference? Modern ships can’t be anticipated or held still long enough for any kind of explosion to be effective. The Laagi haven’t used the nova for eighty years. Neither have we.”
“True enough,” said Mollen. “But we aren’t talking about modern ships. Look at the desk schema, Jim. Forty-three hours ago, one of our deep, unmanned probes returned from far into Laagi territory with pictures of a ship. Look.”
Jim heard a stud click. The stars shifted and drew back. Floating against a backdrop of unknown stars he saw the old-fashioned cone shape of a one-man space battlecraft, of a type forgotten eighty years before. The view moved in close and he saw a name, abraded by dust and dimmed, but readable on the hull.
La Chasse Gallerie—The breath caught in his throat.
“It’s been floating around in Laagi territory all this time?” Jim said. “I can’t believe—”
“More than that"—Mollen interrupted him—“that ship’s under pilotage and moving.” A stud clicked. The original scene came back. A bright line began at the extreme edge of the desk and began to creep toward the back limits of Laagi territory. It entered the territory and began to pass through.
“You see,” said Mollen’s voice out of the dimness, “it’s coming back from wherever the nova explosion kicked it to, over one hundred years ago. It’s headed back toward our own territory. It’s headed back, toward Earth.”
Jim stared at the line in fascination.
“No,” he heard himself saying. “It can’t be. It’s some sort of Laagi trick. They’ve got a Laagi pilot aboard—”
“Listen,” said Mollen. “The probe heard talking inside the ship. And it recorded. Listen—”
Again, there was the faint snap of a stud. A voice, a human voice, singing raggedly, almost absentmindedly to itself, entered the air of the room and rang on Jim’s ears.
…en roulant ma boule, roulant—roulant ma boule, roulant…
The singing broke off and the voice dropped into a mutter of a voice that switched back and forth between French and English, speaking to itself. Jim, who had all but forgotten the little French he had picked up as a boy in Quebec, was barely able to ma
ke out that the owner of the voice was carrying on a running commentary on the housekeeping duties he was doing about the ship. Talking to himself after the fashion of hermits and lonely men.
“All right,” said Jim, even while he wondered why he was protesting such strong evidence at all. “Didn’t you say they had the early semianimate control systems then? They used brain tissue grown in a culture, didn’t they? It’s just the control system, parroting what it’s heard, following out an early order to bring the ship back.”
“Look again,” said Mollen. The view changed once more to a close-up of La Chasse Gallerie. Jim looked and saw wounds in the dust-scarred hull—the slashing cuts of modern light weapons, refinements of the ancient laser beam-guns.
“The ship’s already had its first encounter with the Laagi on its way home. It met three ships of a Laagi patrol—and fought them off.”
“Fought them off? That old hulk?” Jim stared into the dimness where Mollen’s face should be. “Three modern Laagi ships?”
“That’s right,” said Mollen. “It killed two and escaped from the third and by rights it ought to be dead itself, but it’s still coming, on ordinary drive, evidently. It’s not phase-shifting. Now, a control system might record a voice and head a ship home, but it can’t fight off odds of three to one. That takes a living mind.”
A stud clicked. Dazzling overhead light sprang on again and the desk top was only a desk top. Blinking in the illumination, Jim saw Mollen looking across at him.
“Jim,” said the general, “this is a volunteer mission. That ship is still well in Laagi territory and it’s going to be hit again before it reaches the Frontier. Next time it’ll be cut to ribbons, or captured. We can’t afford to have that happen. Its pilot, this Raoul Penard, has got too much to tell us, even beginning with the fact of how he happens to be alive in space at well over a hundred years of age.” He watched Jim closely. “Jim, I’m asking you to take a Section of four ships in to meet La Chasse Gallerie and bring her out.”
Jim stared at him. He found himself involuntarily wetting his lips and stopped the gesture.