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Mazer in Prison

Orson Scott Card

  Mazer in Prison


  Orson Scott Card

  Being the last best hope of humanity was a lousy job.

  Sure, the pay was great, but it had to pile up in a bank back on Earth, because there was no place out here to shop.

  There was no place to walk. When your official exercise program consisted of having your muscles electrically stimulated while you slept, then getting spun around in a centrifuge so your bones wouldn't dissolve, there wasn't much to look forward to in an average day.

  To Mazer Rackham, it felt as though he was being punished for having won the last war.

  After the defeat of the invading Formics -- or "Buggers," as they were commonly called -- the International Fleet learned everything they could from the alien technology. Then, as fast as they could build the newly designed starships, the IF launched them toward the Formic home world, and the other planets that had been identified as Formic colonies.

  But they hadn't sent Mazer out with any of those ships. If they had, then he wouldn't be completely alone. There'd be other people to talk to -- fighter pilots, crew. Primates with faces and hands and voices and smells, was that asking so much?

  No, he had a much more important mission. He was supposed to command all the fleets in their attacks on all the Formic worlds. That meant he would need to be back in the Solar system, communicating with all the fleets by ansible.

  Great. A cushy desk job. He was old enough to relish that.

  Except for one hitch.

  Since space travel could only approach but never quite reach three hundred million meters per second, it would take many years for the fleets to reach their target worlds. During those years of waiting back at International Fleet headquarters -- IF-COM -- Mazer would grow old and frail, physically and mentally.

  So to keep him young enough to be useful, they shut him up in a near-lightspeed courier ship and launched him on a completely meaningless outbound journey. At some arbitrary point in space, they decreed, he would decelerate, turn around, and then return to Earth at the same speed, arriving home only a few years before the fleets arrived and all hell broke loose. He would have aged no more than five years during the voyage, even though decades would have passed on Earth.

  A lot of good he'd do them as a commander, if he lost his mind during the voyage.

  Sure, he had plenty of books in the onboard database. Millions of them. And announcements of new books were sent to him by ansible; any he wanted, he could ask for and have them in moments.

  What he couldn't have was a conversation.

  He had tried. After all, how different was the ansible from regular email over the nets? The problem was the time differential. To him, it seemed he sent out a message and it was answered immediately. But to the person on the other end, Mazer's message was spread out over days, coming in a bit at a time. Once his whole message had been received and assembled, the person could write an answer immediately. But to be received by the ansible on Mazer's little boat, the answer would be spaced out a bit at a time, as well.

  The result was that for the person Mazer was conversing with, many days intervened between the parts of the conversation. It had to be like talking with somebody with such an incredible stammer that you could walk away, live your life for a week, and then come back before he had finally spit out whatever it was he had to say.

  A few people had tried, but by now, with Mazer nearing the point where he would decelerate to turn the ship around, his communications with IF-COM on the asteroid Eros were mostly limited to book and holo and movie requests, plus his daily blip -- the message he sent just to assure the I.F. that he wasn't dead.

  He could even have automated the daily blip -- it's not as if Mazer didn't know how to get around their firewalls and reprogram the shipboard computer. But he dutifully composed a new and unique message every day that he knew would barely be glanced at back at IF-COM. As far as anyone there cared, he might as well be dead; they would all have retired or even died before he got back.

  The problem of loneliness wasn't a surprise, of course. They had even suggested sending someone with him. Mazer himself had vetoed the idea, because it seemed to him to be stupid and cruel to tell a person that he was so completely useless to the fleet, to the whole war effort, that he could be sent out on Mazer's aimless voyage just to hold his hand. "What will your recruiting poster be next year?" Mazer had asked. "'Join the Fleet and spend a couple of years as a paid companion to an aging space captain!'?"

  To Mazer it was only going to be a few years. He was a private person who didn't mind being alone. He was sure he could handle it.

  What he hadn't taken into account was how long two years of solitary confinement would be. They do this, he realized, to prisoners who've misbehaved, as the worst punishment they could give. Think of that -- to be completely alone for long periods of time is worse than having to keep company with the vilest, stupidest felons known to man.

  We evolved to be social creatures; the Formics, by their hivemind nature, are never alone. They can travel this way with impunity. To a lone human, it's torture.

  And of course there was the tiny matter of leaving his family behind. But he wouldn't think about that. He was making no greater sacrifice than any of the other warriors who took off in the fleets sent to destroy the enemy. Win or lose, none of them would see their families again. In this, at least, he was one with the men he would be commanding.

  The real problem was one that only he recognized: He didn't have a clue how to save the human race, once he got back.

  That was the part that nobody seemed to understand. He explained it to them, that he was not a particularly good commander, that he had won that crucial battle on a fluke, that there was no reason to think he could do such a thing again. His superior officers agreed that he might be right. They promised to recruit and train new officers while Mazer was gone, trying to find a better commander. But in case they didn't find one, Mazer was the guy who fired the single missile that ended the previous war. People believed in him. Even if he didn't believe in himself.

  Of course, knowing the military mind, Mazer knew that they would completely screw up the search for a new commander. The only way they would take the search seriously was if they did not believe they had Mazer Rackham as their ace-in-the-hole.

  Mazer sat in the confined space behind the pilot seat and extended his left leg, stretching it up, then bringing it behind his head. Not every man his age could do this. Definitely not every Maori, not those with the traditional bulk of the fully adult male. Of course, he was only half-Maori, but it wasn't as if people of European blood were known for their extraordinary physical flexibility.

  The console speaker said, "Incoming message."

  "I'm listening," said Mazer. "Make it voice and read it now."

  "Male or female?" asked the computer.

  "Who cares?" said Mazer.

  "Male or female?" the computer repeated.

  "Random," said Mazer.

  So the message was read out to him in a female voice.

  "Admiral Rackham, my name is Hyrum Graff. I've been assigned to head recruitment for Battle School, the first step in our training program for gifted young officers. My job is to scour the Earth looking for someone to head our forces during the coming conflict -- instead of you. I was told by everyone who bothered to answer me at all that the criterion was simple: Find someone just like Mazer Rackham."

  Mazer found himself interested in what this guy was saying. They were actually looking for his replacement. This man was in charge of the search. To listen to him in a voice of a different gender seemed mocking and disrespectful.

  "Male voice," said Mazer.

  Immediately the voice changed to a robust baritone. "
The trouble I'm having, Admiral, is that when I ask them specifically what traits of yours I should try to identify for my recruits, everything becomes quite vague. The only conclusion I can reach is this: The attribute of yours that they want the new commander to have is 'victorious.' In vain do I point out that I need better guidelines than that.

  "So I have turned to you for help. You know as well as I do that there was a certain component of luck involved in your victory. At the same time, you saw what no one else could see, and you acted -- against orders -- at exactly the right moment for your thrust to be unnoticed by the Hive Queen. Boldness, courage, iconoclasm -- maybe we can identify those traits. But how do we test for vision?

  "There's a social component, too. The men in your crew trusted you enough to obey your disobedient orders and put their careers, if not their lives, in your hands.

  "Your record of reprimands for insubordination suggests, also, that you are an experienced critic of incompetent commanders. So you must also have very clear ideas of what your future replacement should not be.

  "Therefore I have obtained permission to use the ansible to query you about the attributes we need to look for -- or avoid -- in the recruits we find. In the hope that you will find this project more interesting than whatever it is you're doing out there in space, I eagerly await your reply."

  Mazer sighed. This Graff sounded like exactly the kind of officer who should be put in charge of finding Mazer's replacement. But Mazer also knew enough about military bureaucracy to know that Graff would be chewed up and spit out the first time he actually tried to accomplish something. Getting permission to communicate by ansible with an old geezer who was effectively dead was easy enough.

  "What was the sender's rank?" Mazer asked the console.


  Poor Lieutenant Graff had obviously underestimated the terror that incompetent officers feel in the presence of young, intelligent, energetic replacements.

  At least it would be a conversation.

  "Take down this answer, please," said Mazer. "Dear Lieutenant Graff, I'm sorry for the time you have to waste waiting for this message ... no, scratch that, why increase the wasted time by sending a message stuffed with useless chat?" Then again, doing a whole bunch of editing would delay the message just as long.

  Mazer sighed, unwound himself from his stretch, and went to the console. "I'll type it in myself," said Mazer. "It'll go faster that way."

  He found the words he had just dictated waiting for him on the screen of his message console, with the edge of Graff's message just behind it. He flipped that message to the front, read it again, and then picked up his own message where he had left off.

  "I am not an expert in identifying the traits of leadership. Your message reveals that you have already thought more about it than I have. Much as I might hope your endeavor is successful, since it would relieve me of the burden of command upon my return, I cannot help you."

  He toyed with adding "God could not help you," but decided to let the boy find out how the world worked without dire and useless warnings from Mazer.

  Instead he said "Send" and the console replied, "Message sent by ansible."

  And that, thought Mazer, is the end of that.


  The answer did not come for more than three hours. What was that, a month back on Earth?

  "Who is it from?" asked Mazer, knowing perfectly well who it would turn out to be. So the boy had taken his time before pushing the matters. Time enough to learn how impossible his task was? Probably not.

  Mazer was sitting on the toilet -- which, thanks to the Formics' gravitic technology, was a standard gravity-dependent chemical model. Mazer was one of the few still in the service who remembered the days of air-suction toilets in weightless spaceships, which worked about half the time. That was the era when ship captains would sometimes be cashiered for wasting fuel by accelerating their ships just so they could take a dump that would actually get pulled away from their backside by something like gravity.

  "Lieutenant Hyrum Graff."

  And now he had the pestiferous Hyrum Graff, who would probably be even more annoying than null-g toilets.

  "Erase it."

  "I am not allowed to erase ansible communications," said the female voice blandly. It was always bland, of course, but it felt particularly bland when saying irritating things.

  I could make you erase it, if I wanted to go to the trouble of reprogramming you. But Mazer didn't say it, in case it might alert the program safeguards in some way. "Read it."

  "Male voice?"

  "Female," snapped Mazer.

  "Admiral Rackham, I'm not sure you understood the gravity of our situation. We have two possibilities: Either we will identify the best possible commanders for our war against the Formics, or we will have you as our commander. So either you will help us identify the traits that are most likely to be present in the ideal commander, or you will be the commander on whom all the responsibility rests."

  "I understand that, you little twit," said Mazer. "I understood it before you were born."

  "Would you like me to take down your remarks as a reply?" asked the computer.

  "Just read it and ignore my carping."

  The computer returned to the message from Lieutenant Graff. "I have located your wife and children. They are all in good health, and it may be that some or all of them might be glad of an opportunity to converse with you by ansible, if you so desire. I offer this, not as bribe for your cooperation, but as a reminder, perhaps, that more is at stake here than the importunities of an upstart lieutenant pestering an admiral and a war hero on a voyage into the future."

  Mazer roared out his answer. "As if I had need of reminders from you!"

  "Would you like me to take down your remarks as --"

  "I'd like you to shut yourself down and leave me in --"

  "A reply?" finished the computer, ignoring his carping.

  "Peace!" Mazer sighed. "Take down this answer: I'm divorced, and my ex-wife and children have made their lives without me. To them I'm dead. It's despicable for you to attempt to raise me from the grave to burden their lives. When I tell you that I have nothing to tell you about command it's because I truly do not know any answers that you could possibly implement.

  "I'm desperate for you to find a replacement for me, but in all my experience in the military, I saw no example of the kind of commander that we need. So figure it out for yourself -- I haven't any idea."

  For a moment he allowed his anger to flare. "And leave my family out of it, you contemptible ..."

  Then he decided not to flame the poor git. "Delete everything after 'leave my family out of it.'"

  "Do you wish me to read it back to you?"

  "I'm on the toilet!"

  Since his answer was nonresponsive, the computer repeated the question verbatim.

  "No. Just send it. I don't want to have the zealous Lieutenant Graff wait an extra hour or day just so I can turn my letter into a prize-winning school essay."


  But Graff's question nagged at him. What should they look for in a commander?

  What did it matter? As soon as they developed a list of desirable traits, all the bureaucratic buttsniffs would immediately figure out how to fake having them, and they'd be right back where they started, with the best bureaucrats at the top of every military hierarchy, and all the genuinely brilliant leaders either discharged or demoralized.

  The way I was demoralized, piloting a barely-armed supply ship in the rear echelons of our formation.

  Which was in itself a mark of the stupidity of our commanders -- that fact that they thought there could be such a thing as a "rear echelon" during a war in three-dimensional space.

  There might have been dozens of men who could have seen what I saw -- the point of vulnerability in the Formics' formation -- but they had long since left the service. The only reason I was there was because I couldn't afford to quit before vesting in my pension. So I put up with spi
teful commanders who would punish me for being a better officer than they would ever be. I took the abuse, the contempt, and so there I was piloting a ship with only two weapons -- slow missiles at that.

  Turned out I only needed one.

  But who could have predicted that I'd be there, that I'd see what I saw, and that I'd commit career suicide by firing my missiles against orders -- and then I'd turn out to be right? What process can test for that? Might as well resort to prayer -- either God is looking out for the human race or he doesn't care. If he cares, then we'll go on surviving despite our stupidity. If he doesn't, then we won't.

  In a universe that works like that, any attempt to identify in advance the traits of great commanders is utterly wasted.

  "Incoming visuals," said the computer.

  Mazer looked down at his desk screen, where he had jotted


  Intuition (test for that, sucker!)

  Tolerance for the orders of fools.

  Borderline-insane sense of personal mission.

  Yeah, that's the list Graff's hoping I'll send him.

  And now the boy was sending him visuals. Who approved that?

  But the head that flickered in the holospace above his desk wasn't an eagerbeaver young lieutenant. It was a young woman with light-colored hair like her mother's and only a few traces of her father's part-Maori appearance. But the traces were there, and she was beautiful.

  "Stop," said Mazer.

  "I am required to show you --"

  "This is personal. This is an intrusion."

  "-- all ansible communications."


  "This is a visual and therefore has high priority. Sufficient ansible bandwidth for full motion visuals will only be used for communications of the --"

  Mazer gave up. "Just play it."

  "Father," said the young woman in the holospace.

  Mazer looked away from her, reflexively hiding his face, though of course she couldn't see him anyway. His daughter Pai Mahutanga. When he last saw her, she was a tree-climbing five-year-old. She used to have nightmares, but with her father always on duty with the fleet, there was no one to drive away the bad dreams.