Joe Haldeman is a multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, the author of an acknowledged classic (The Forever War), and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor.
The cab took my eyeprint and the door swung open. I was glad to get out. No driver to care how rough the ride was, on a road that wouldn’t even be called a road on Earth. The place had gone downhill in the thirty years I’d been away.
Low gravity and low oxygen. My heart was going too fast. I stood for a moment, concentrating, and brought it down to a hundred, then ninety. The air had more sulfur sting than I remembered. It seemed a lot warmer than I remembered that summer, too, but then if I could remember it all I wouldn’t have to be here. My missing finger throbbed.
Six identical buildings on the block, half-cylinders of stained pale green plastic. I walked up the dirt path to number three: Offworld Affairs and Confederación Liaison. I almost ran into the door when it didn’t open. Pushed and pulled and it reluctantly let me inside.
It was a little cooler and less sulfurous. I went to the second door on the right, Travel Documents and Permissions, and went in.
“You don’t knock on Earth?” A cadaverous tall man, skin too white and hair too black.
“Actually, no,” I said, “not public buildings. But I apologize for my ignorance.”
He looked at a monitor built into his desk. “You would be Flann Spivey, from Japan on Earth. You don’t look Japanese.”
“I’m Irish,” I said. “I work for a Japanese company, Ichiban Imaging.”
He touched a word on the screen. “Means number one. Best, or first?”
“Both, I think.”
“Papers.” I laid out two passports and a folder of travel documents. He spent several minutes inspecting them carefully. Then he slipped them into a primitive scanning machine, which flipped through them one by one, page by page.
He finally handed them back. “When you were here twenty-nine Earth years ago, there were only eight countries on Seca, representing two competing powers. Now there are seventy-nine countries, two of them off-planet, in a political situation that’s…impossible to describe simply. Most of the other seventy-eight countries are more comfortable than Spaceport. Nicer.”
“So I was told. I’m not here for comfort, though.” There weren’t many planets where they put their spaceports in nice places.
He nodded slowly as he selected two forms from a drawer. “So what does a ‘thanatopic counselor’ do?”
“I prepare people for dying.” For living completely, actually, before they leave.
“Curious.” He smiled. “It pays well?”
He handed me the forms. “I’ve never seen a poor person come through that door. Take these down the hall to Immunization.”
“I’ve had all the shots.”
“All that the Confederación requires. Seca has a couple of special tests for returning veterans. Of the Consolidation War.”
“Of course. The nanobiota. But I was tested before they let me return to Earth.”
He shrugged. “Rules. What do you tell them?”
“The people who are going to die. We just sort of let it catch up with us. Avoid it as long as possible, but…”
“That’s a way.” I took the forms. “Not the only way.”
I had the door partly open when he cleared his throat. “Dr. Spivey? If you don’t have any plans, I would be pleased to have midmeal with you.”
Interesting. “Sure. I don’t know how long this will take…”
“Ten minims, fifteen. I’ll call us a floater so we don’t have to endure the road.”
The blood and saliva samples took less time than filling out the forms. When I went back outside, the floater was humming down and Braz Nitian was watching it land from the walkway.
It was a fast two-minute hop to the center of town, the last thirty seconds disconcerting free fall. The place he’d chosen was Kaffee Rembrandt, a rough-hewn place with a low ceiling and guttering oil lamps in pursuit of a 16th-century ambience, somewhat diluted by the fact that the dozens of Rembrandt reproductions glowed with apparently sourceless illumination.
A busty waitress in period flounce showed us to a small table, dwarfed by a large self-portrait of the artist posed as “Prodigal Son with a Whore.”
I’d never seen an actual flagon, a metal container with a hinged top. It appeared to hold enough wine to support a meal and some conversation.
I ordered a plate of braised vegetables, following conservative dietary advice—the odd proteins in Seca’s animals and fish might lay me low with a xeno-allergy. Among the things I didn’t remember about my previous time here was whether our rations had included any native flesh or fish. But even if I’d safely eaten them thirty years ago, the Hartford doctor said, I could have a protein allergy now, since an older digestive system might not completely break down those alien proteins into safe amino acids.
Braz had gone to college on Earth, UCLA, an expensive proposition that obligated him to work for the government for ten years (which would be fourteen Earth years). He had degrees in mathematics and macroeconomics, neither of which he used in his office job. He taught three nights a week and wrote papers that nine or ten people read and disagreed with.
“So how did you become a thanatopic counselor? Something you always wanted to be when you grew up?”
“Yeah, after cowboy and pirate.”
He smiled. “I never saw a cowboy on Earth.”
“Pirates tracked them down and made them walk the plank. Actually, I was an accountant when I joined the military, and then started out in pre-med after I was discharged, but switched over to psychology and moved into studying veterans.”
“Natural enough. Know thyself.”
“Literally.” Find thyself, I thought. “You get a lot of us coming through?”
“Well, not so many, not from Earth or other foreign planets. Being a veteran doesn’t correlate well with wealth.”
“That’s for sure.” And a trip from Earth to Seca and back costs as much as a big house.
“I imagine that treating veterans doesn’t generate a lot of money, either.” Eyebrows lifting.
“A life of crime does.” I smiled and he laughed politely. “But most of the veterans I do see are well off. Almost nobody with a normal life span needs my services. They’re mostly for people who’ve lived some centuries, and you couldn’t do that without wealth.”
“They get tired of life?”
“Not the way you or I could become tired of a game, or a relationship. It’s something deeper than running out of novelty. People with that little imagination don’t need me. They can stop existing for the price of a bullet or a rope—or a painless prescription, where I come from.”
“Not legal here,” he said neutrally.
“I know. I’m not enthusiastic about it, myself.”
“You’d have more customers?”
I shrugged. “You never know.” The waitress brought us our first plates, grilled fungi on a stick for me. Braz had a bowl of small animals with tails, deep-fried. Finger food; you hold them by the tail and dip them into a pungent yellow sauce.
It was much better than I’d expected; the fungi were threaded onto a stick of some aromatic wood like laurel; she brought a small glass of a lavender-colored drink, tasting like dry sherry, to go with them.
“So it’s not about getting bored?” he asked. “That’s how you normally see it. In books, on the cube.”
“Maybe the reality isn’t dramatic enough. Or too complicated to tell as a simple drama.
“You live a few hundred years, at least on Earth, you slowly leave your native culture behind. You’re an immortal—culturally true if not literally— and your non-immortal friends and family and business associates die off. The longer you live, the deeper you go into the immortal community.”
“There must be some nonconformists.”
“‘Mavericks,’ the cowboys used to say.”
“Before the pirates did them in.”
“Right. There aren’t many mavericks past their first century of life extension. The people you grew up with are either fellow immortals or dead. Together, the survivors form a society that’s unusually cohesive. So when someone decides to leave, decides to stop living, the arrangements are complex and may involve hundreds of people.
“That’s where I come in, the practical part of my job: I’m a kind of overall estate manager. They all have significant wealth; few have any living relatives closer than great-great-grandchildren.”
“You help them split up their fortunes?”
“It’s more interesting than that. The custom for centuries has been to put together a legacy, so called, that is a complex and personal aesthetic expression. To simply die, and let the lawyers sort it out, would trivialize your life as well as your death. It’s my job to make sure that the legacy is a meaningful and permanent extension of the person’s life.
“Sometimes a physical monument is involved; more often a financial one, through endowments and sponsorships. Which is what brings me here.”
Our main courses came; Braz had a kind of eel, bright green with black antennae, apparently raw, but my braised vegetables were reassuringly familiar.
“So one of your clients is financing something here on Seca?”
“Financing me, actually. It’s partly a gift; we get along well. But it’s part of a pattern of similar bequests to non-immortals, to give us back lost memories.”
“It was a military program, to counteract the stress of combat. They called the drug aqualethe. Have you heard of it?”
He shook his head. “Water of what?”
“It’s a linguistic mangling, or mingling. Latin and Greek. Lethe was a river in Hell; a spirit drank from it to forget his old life, so he could be reincarnated.
“A pretty accurate name. It basically disconnects your long-term memory as a way of diverting combat stress, so-called post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Too well. I spent eight months here as a soldier, when I was in my early twenties. I don’t remember anything specific between the voyage here and the voyage back.”
“It was a horrible war. Short but harsh. Maybe you don’t want the memory back. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’ we say here.”
“We say that too. But for me…well, you could say it’s a professional handicap. Though actually it goes deeper.
“Part of what I do with my clients is a mix of meditation and dialogue. I try to help them form a coherent tapestry of their lives, the good and the bad, as a basic grounding for their legacy. The fact that I could never do that for myself hinders me as a counselor. Especially when the client, like this one, had his own combat experiences to deal with.”
“He’s, um, dead now?”
“Oh, no. Like many of them, he’s in no particular hurry. He just wants to be ready.”
“How old is he?”
“Three hundred and ninety Earth years. Aiming for four centuries, he thinks.”
Braz sawed away at his eel and looked thoughtful. “I can’t imagine. I mean, I sort of understand when a normal man gets so old he gives up. Their hold on life becomes weak, and they let go. But your man is presumably fit and sane.”
“More than I, I think.”
“So why four hundred years rather than five? Or three? Why not try for a thousand? That’s what I would do, if I were that rich.”
“So would I. At least that’s how I feel now. My patron says he felt that way when he was mortal. But he can’t really articulate what happened to slowly change his attitude.
“He says it would be like trying to explain married love to a babe just learning to talk. The babe thinks it knows what love is, and can apply the word to its own circumstances. But it doesn’t have the vocabulary or life experience to approach the larger meaning.”
“An odd comparison, marriage,” he said, delicately separating the black antennae from the head. “You can become unmarried. But not undead.”
“The babe wouldn’t know about divorce. Maybe there is a level of analogy there.”
“We don’t know what death is?”
“Perhaps not as well as they.”
I liked Braz and needed to hire a guide; he had some leave coming and could use the side income. His Spanish was good, and that was rare on Secas; they spoke a kind of patchwork of Portuguese and English. If I’d studied it thirty years before, I’d retained none.
The therapy to counteract aqualethe was a mixture of brain chemistry and environment. Simply put, the long-term memories were not destroyed by aqualethe, but the connection to them had been weakened. There was a regimen of twenty pills I had to take twice daily, and I had to take them in surroundings that would jog my memory.
That meant going back to some ugly territory.
There were no direct flights to Serraro, the mountainous desert where my platoon had been sent to deal with a situation now buried in secrecy, perhaps shame. We could get within a hundred kilometers of it, an oasis town called Console Verde. I made arrangements to rent a general-purpose vehicle there, a jépe.
After Braz and I made those arrangements, I got a note from some Chief of Internal Security saying that my activities were of questionable legality, and I should report to his office at 0900 tomorrow to defend my actions. We were in the airport, fortunately, when I got the message, and we jumped on a flight that was leaving in twenty minutes, paying cash. Impossible on Earth.
I told Braz I would buy us a couple of changes of clothing and such at the Oasis, and we got on the jet with nothing but our papers, my medications, and the clothes on our backs—and my purse, providentially stuffed with the paper notes they use instead of plastic. (I’d learned that the exchange rate was much better on Earth, and was carrying half a year’s salary in those notes.)
The flight wasn’t even suborbital, and took four hours to go about a tenth of the planet’s circumference. We slept most of the way; it didn’t take me twenty minutes to tell him everything I had been able to find out about that two-thirds year that was taken from me.
Serraro is not exactly a bastion of freedom of information under the best of circumstances, and that was a period in their history that many would just as soon forget.
It was not a poor country. The desert was rich in the rare earths that interstellar jumps required. There had been lots of small mines around the countryside (no farms) and only one city of any size. That was Novo B, short for Novo Brasil, and it was still not the safest spot in the Confederatión. Not on our itinerary.
My platoon had begun its work in Console Verde as part of a force of one thousand. When we returned to that oasis, there were barely six hundred of us left. But the country had been “unified.” Where there had been seventy-eight mines there now was one, Preciosa, and no one wanted to talk about how that happened.
The official history says that the consolidation of those seventy-eight mines was a model of self-determinism, the independent miners banding together for strength and bargaining power. There was some resistance, even some outlaw guerilla action. But the authorities—I among them, evidently— got things under control in less than a year.
Travel and residence records had all been destroyed by a powerful explosion blamed on the guerillas, but in the next census, Serarro had lost thirty-five percent of its population. Perhaps they walked away.
We stood out as foreigners in our business suits; most men who were not in uniform wore a plain loose white robe. I went immediately into a shop next to the airport and bought two of them, and two sidearms. Braz hadn’t fired a pistol in years, but he had to agree he would look conspicuous here without one.
We stood out anyway, pale and tall. The men here were all sunburned and most wore long braided black hair. Our presence couldn’t be kept secret; I wondered how long it would be before that Chief of Internal Security caught up with me. I was hoping it was just routine harassment, and they wouldn’t follow us here.
There was only one room at the small inn, but Braz didn’t mind sharing. In fact, he suggested we pass the time with sex, which caught me off guard. I told him men don’t routinely do that on Earth, at least not the place and time I came from. He accepted that with a nod.
I asked the innkeeper whether the town had a library, and he said no, but I could try the schoolhouse on the other side of town. Braz was napping, so I left a note and took off on my own, confident in my ability to turn right and go to the end of the road.
Although I’d been many places on Earth, the only time I’d been in space was that eight-month tour here. So I kept my eyes open for “alien” details.
Seca had a Drake index of 0.95, which by rule of thumb meant that only five percent of it was more harsh than the worst the Earth had to offer. The equatorial desert, I supposed. We were in what would have been a temperate latitude on Earth, and I was sweating freely in the dry heat.
The people here were only five generations away from Earth, but some genetic drift was apparent. No more profound than you would find on some islands and other isolated communities on Earth. But I didn’t see a single blond or red-head in the short, solidly built population here.
The men wore scowls as well as guns. The women, brighter colors and a neutral distant expression.
Some of the men, mostly younger, wore a dagger as well as a sidearm. I wondered whether there was some kind of code duello that I would have to watch out for. Probably not wearing a dagger would protect you from that.
Aside from a pawn shop with three balls, and a tavern with bright signs announcing berbesa and bino, most of the shops were not identified. I supposed that in a small isolated town, everybody knew where everything was.
Two men stopped together, blocking the sidewalk. One of them touched his pistol and said something incomprehensible, loudly.
“From Earth,” I said, in unexcited Confederación Spanish. “Soy de la Tierra.” They looked at each other and went by me. I tried to ignore the crawling feeling in the middle of my back.
I reflected on my lack of soldierly instincts. Should I have touched my gun as well? Probably not. If they’d started shooting, what should I do? Hurl my sixty-year-old body to the ground, roll over with the pistol in my hand, and aim for the chest?
“Two in the chest, then one in the head,” I remembered from crime drama. But I didn’t remember anything that basic from having been a soldier. My training on Earth had mainly been calisthenics and harassment. Endless hours of parade-ground drill. Weapons training would come later, they said. The only thing “later” meant to me was months later, slowly regaining my identity on the trip back to Earth.
By the time I’d gotten off the ship, I seemed to have all my memories back through basic training, and the lift ride up to the troop carrier. We had 1.5-gee acceleration to the Oort portal, but somewhere along there I lost my memory and didn’t get it back till the return trip. Then they dropped me on Earth—me and the other survivors—with a big check and a leather case full of medals. Plus a smaller check, every month, for my lost finger.
I knew I was approaching the school by the small tide of children running in my direction, about fifty of them, ranging from seven or eight to about twelve, in Earth years.
The school house was small, three or four rooms. A gray-bearded man, unarmed, stepped out and I hailed him. We established that we had English in common and I asked whether the school had a library. He said yes, and it would be open for two hours yet. “Mostly children’s books, of course. What are you interested in?”
“History,” I said. “Recent. The Consolidation War.”
“Ah. Follow me.” He led me through a dusty playground to the rear of the school. “You were a Confederación soldier?’
“I guess that’s obvious.”
He paused with his hand on the doorknob. “You know to be careful?” I said I did. “Don’t go out at night alone. Your size is like a beacon.” He opened the door and said, “Suela? A traveler is looking for a history book.”
The room was high-ceilinged and cool, with thick stone walls and plenty of light from the uniform glow of the ceiling. An elderly woman with white hair taking paper books from a cart and re-shelving them.
“Pardon my poor English,” she said, with an accent better than mine. “But what do you want in a paper book that you can’t as easily download?”
“I was curious to see what children are taught about the Consolidation War.”
“The same truth as everyone,” she said with a wry expression, and stepped over to another shelf. “Here…” she read titles, “this is the only one in English. I can’t let you take it away, but you’re welcome to read it here.”
I thanked her and took the book to an adult-sized table and chair at the other end of the room. Most of the study area was scaled down. A girl of seven or eight stared at me.
I didn’t know, really, what I expected to find in the book. It had four pages on the Consolidation and Preciosa, and in broad outline there was not much surprising. A coalition of mines decided that the Confederación wasn’t paying enough for dysprosium, and they got most of the others to go along with the scheme of hiding the stuff and holding out for a fair price—what the book called profiteering and restraint of trade. Preciosa was the biggest mine, and they made a separate deal with the Confederación, guaranteeing a low price, freezing all their competitors out. Which led to war.
Seca—actually Preciosa—asked for support from the Confederación, and the war became interstellar.
The book said that most of the war took place far from population centers, in the bleak high desert where the mines were. Here.
It struck me that I hadn’t noticed many old buildings, older than about thirty years. I remembered a quote from a twentieth-century American war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The elderly librarian sat down across from me. She had a soft voice. “You were here as a soldier. But you don’t remember anything about it.”
“That’s true. That’s exactly it.”
“There are those of us who do remember.”
I pushed the book a couple of inches toward her. “Is any of this true?”
She turned the book around and scanned the pages it was open to, and shook her head with a grim smile. “Even children know better. What do you think the Confederación is?”
I thought for a moment. “At one level, it’s a loose federation of forty-eight or forty-nine planets with a charter protecting the rights of humans and non-humans, and with trade rules that encourage fairness and transparency. At another level, it’s the Hartford Corporation, the wealthiest enterprise in human history. Which can do anything it wants, presumably.”
“And on a personal level? What is it to you?”
“It’s an organization that gave me a job when jobs were scarce. Security specialist. Although I wasn’t a ‘specialist’ in any sense of the word. A generalist, so called.”
“Not so called. Nothing immoral or illegal.”
“But they took your memory of it away. So it could have been either, or both.”
“Could have been,” I admitted. “I’m going to find out. Do you know about the therapy that counteracts aqualethe?”
“No…it gives you your memories back?”
“So they say. I’m going to drive down into Serarro tomorrow and see what happens. You take the pills in the place you want to remember.”
“Do me a favor,” she said, sliding the book back, “and yourself, perhaps. Take the pills here too.”
“I will. We had a headquarters here. I must have at least passed through.”
“Look for me in the crowd, welcoming you. You were all so exotic and handsome. I was a girl, just ten.”
Ten here would be fourteen on Earth. This old lady was younger than me. No juve treatments. “I don’t think the memories will be that detailed. I’ll look for you, though.”
She patted my hand and smiled. “You do that.”
Braz was still sleeping when I got back to the inn. Six time zones to adjust to; might as well let him sleep. My body was still on meaningless starship time, but I’ve never had much trouble adjusting. My counseling job is a constant whirl of time zones.
I quietly slipped into the other bunk and put some Handel in my earbuds to drown out his snoring.
The inn didn’t have any vegetables for breakfast, so I had a couple of eggs that I hoped had come from a bird, and a large dry flavorless cracker. Our jépe arrived at 8:30 and I went out to pay the substantial deposit and inspect it. Guaranteed bulletproof except for the windows, nice to know.
I took the first leg of driving, since I’d be taking the memory drug later, and the label had the sensible advice Do Not Operate Machinery While Hallucinating. Words to live by.
The city, such as it was, didn’t dwindle off into suburbs. It’s an oasis, and where the green stopped, the houses stopped.
I drove very cautiously at first. My car in LA is restricted to autopilot, and it had been several years since I was last behind a steering wheel. A little exhilarating.
After about thirty kilometers, the road suddenly got very rough. Braz suggested that we’d left the state of Console Verde and had entered Pretorocha, whose tax base wouldn’t pay for a shovel. I gave the wheel to him after a slow hour, when we got to the first pile of tailings. Time to take the first twenty pills.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew the unsupervised use of the aqualethe remedy was discouraged, because some people had extreme reactions. I’d given Braz an emergency poke of sedative to administer to me if I really lost control.
Rubble and craters. Black grit over everything. Building ruins that hadn’t weathered much; this place didn’t have much weather. Hot and dry in the summer, slightly less hot and more dry in the winter. We drove around and around and absolutely nothing happened. After two hours, the minimum wait, I swallowed another twenty.
Pretorocha was where they said I’d lost my finger, and it was where the most Confederación casualties had been recorded. Was it possible that the drug just didn’t work on me?
What was more likely, if I properly understood the literature, was one of two things: one, the place had changed so much that my recovering memory didn’t pick up any specifics; two, that I’d never actually been here.
That second didn’t seem possible. I’d left a finger here, and the Confederación verified that; it had been paying for the lost digit for thirty years.
The first explanation? Pictures of the battle looked about as bleak as this blasted landscape. Maybe I was missing something basic, like a smell or the summer heat. But the literature said the drug required visual stimuli.
“Maybe it doesn’t work as well on some as on others,” Braz said. “Or maybe you got a bad batch. How long do we keep driving around?”
I had six tubes of pills left. The drug was in my system for sure: cold sweat, shortness of breath, ocular pressure. “Hell, I guess we’ve seen enough. Take a pee break and head back.”
Standing by the side of the road there, under the low hot sun, urinating into black ash, somehow I knew for certain that I’d never been there before. A hellish place like this would burn itself into your subconscious.
But aqualethe was strong. Maybe too strong for the remedy to counter.
I took the wheel for the trip back to Console Verde. The air-conditioning had only two settings, frigid and off. We agreed to turn it off and open the non-bulletproof windows to the waning heat.
There was a kind of lunar beauty to the place. That would have made an impression on me back then. When I was still a poet. An odd thing to remember. Something did happen that year to end that. Maybe I lost it with the music, with the finger.
When the road got better I let Braz take over. I was out of practice with traffic, and they drove on the wrong side of the road anyhow.
The feeling hit me when the first buildings rose up out of the rock. My throat. Not like choking; a gentler pressure, like tightening a necktie.
Everything shimmered and glowed. This was where I’d been. This side of the city.
“Braz…it’s happening. Go slow.” He pulled over to the left and I heard warning lights go click-click-click.
“You weren’t…down there at all? You were here?”
“I don’t know! Maybe. I don’t know.” It was coming on stronger and stronger. Like seeing double, but with all your body. “Get into the right lane.” It was getting hard to see, a brilliant fog. “What is that big building?”
“Doesn’t have a name,” he said. “Confederación sigil over the parking lot.”
“Go there…go there…I’m losing it, Braz.”
“Maybe you’re finding it.”
The car was fading around me, and I seemed to drift forward and up. Through the wall of the building. Down a corridor. Through a closed door. Into an office.
I was sitting there, a young me. Coal black beard, neatly trimmed. Dress uniform. All my fingers.
Most of the wall behind me was taken up by a glowing spreadsheet. I knew what it represented.
Two long tables flanked my work station. They were covered with old ledgers and folders full of paper correspondence and records.
My job was to steal the planet from its rightful owners—but not the whole planet. Just the TREO rights, Total Rare Earth Oxides.
There was not much else on the planet of any commercial interest to the Confederación. When they found a tachyon nexus, they went off in search of dysprosium nearby, necessary for getting back to where you came from, or continuing farther out. Automated probes had found a convenient source in a mercurian planet close to the nexus star Poucoyellow. But after a few thousand pioneers had staked homestead claims on Seca, someone stumbled on a mother lode of dysprosium and other rare earths in the sterile hell of Serarro.
It was the most concentrated source of dysprosium ever found, on any planet, easily a thousand times the output of Earth’s mines.
The natives knew what they had their hands on, and they were cagey. They quietly passed a law that required all mineral rights to be deeded on paper; no electronic record. For years, seventy-eight mines sold two percent of the dysprosium they dug up, and stockpiled the rest—as much as the Confederación could muster from two dozen other planets. Once they had hoarded enough, they could absolutely corner the market.
But they only had one customer.
Routine satellite mapping gave them away; the gamma ray signature of monazite-allenite stuck out like a flag. The Confederación deduced what was going on, and trained a few people like me to go in and remedy the situation, along with enough soldiers to supply the fog of war.
While the economy was going crazy, dealing with war, I was quietly buying up small shares in the rare earth mines, through hundreds of fictitious proxies.
When we had voting control of fifty-one percent of the planet’s dysprosium, and thus its price, the soldiers did an about-face and went home, first stopping at the infirmary for a shot of aqualethe.
I was a problem, evidently. Aqualethe erased the memory of trauma, but I hadn’t experienced any. All I had done was push numbers around, and occasionally forge signatures.
So one day three big men wearing black hoods kicked in my door and took me to a basement somewhere. They beat me monotonously for hours, wearing thick gloves, not breaking bones or rupturing organs. I was blindfolded and handcuffed, sealed up in a universe of constant pain.
Then they took off the blindfold and handcuffs and those three men held my arm and hand while a fourth used heavy bolt-cutters to snip off the ring finger of my left hand, making sure I watched. Then they dressed the stump and gave me a shot.
I woke up approaching Earth, with medals and money and no memory. And one less finger.
Woke again on my bunk at the inn. Braz sitting there with a carafe of melán, what they had at the inn instead of coffee. “Are you coming too?” he said quietly. “I helped you up the stairs.” Dawn light at the window. “It was pretty bad?”
“It was…not what I expected.” I levered myself upright and accepted a cup. “I wasn’t really a soldier. In uniform, but just a clerk. Or a con man.” I sketched out the story for him.
“So they actually chopped off your finger? I mean, beat you senseless and then snipped it off?”
I squeezed the short stump gingerly. “So the drug would work.
“I played guitar, before. So I spent a year or so working out alternative fingerings, formations, without the third finger. Didn’t really work.”
I took a sip. It was like kava, a bitter alkaloid. “So I changed careers.”
“You were going to be a singer?”
“No. Classical guitar. So I went back to university instead, pre-med and then psychology and philosophy. Got an easy doctorate in Generalist Studies. And became this modern version of the boatman, ferryman…. Charon—the one who takes people to the other side.”
“So what are you going to do? With the truth.”
“Spread it around, I guess. Make people mad.”
He rocked back in his chair. “Who?”
“What do you mean? Everybody.”
“Everybody?” He shook his head. “Your story’s interesting, and your part in it is dramatic and sad, but there’s not a bit of it that would surprise anyone over the age of twenty. Everyone knows what the war was really about.
“It’s even more cynical and manipulative than I thought, but you know? That won’t make people mad. When it’s the government, especially the Confederación, people just nod and say, ‘More of the same.’”
“Same old, we say. Same old shit.”
“They settled death and damage claims generously; rebuilt the town. And it was half a lifetime ago, our lifetimes. Only the old remember, and most of them don’t care anymore.”
That shouldn’t have surprised me; I’ve been too close to it. Too close to my own loss, small compared to others’.
I sipped at the horrible stuff and put it back down. “I should do something. I can’t just sit on this.”
“But you can. Maybe you should.”
I made a dismissive gesture and he leaned forward and continued with force. “Look, Spivey. I’m not just a backsystem hick—or I am, but I’m a hick with a rusty doctorate in macroeconomics—and you’re not seeing or thinking clearly. About the war and the Confederación. Let the drugs dry out before you do something that you might regret.”
“That’s pretty dramatic.”
“Well, the situation you’re in is melodramatic! You want to go back to Earth and say you have proof that the Confederación used you to subvert the will of a planet, to the tune of more than a thousand dead and a trillion hartfords of real estate, then tortured and mutilated you in order to blank out your memory of it?”
“Well? That’s what happened.”
He got up. “You think about it for awhile. Think about the next thing that’s going to happen.” He left and closed the door quietly behind him.
I didn’t have to think too long. He was right.
Before I came to Seca, of course I searched every resource for verifiable information about the war. That there was so little should have set off an alarm in my head.
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to travel from star to star, collecting exotic memories. But you have no choice of carrier. To take your memories back to Earth, you have to rely on the Confederación.
And if those memories are unpleasant, or just inconvenient…they can fix that for you.
Over and over.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Haldeman