Time Piece

Joe Haldeman

May 15, 2022

They say you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance every time you go out. That makes it one chance in eight that you’ll live to see your third furlough; the one I’m on now.

Somehow the odds don’t keep people from trying to join. Even though not one in a thousand gets through the training and examination, there’s no shortage of cannon fodder. And that’s what we are. The most expensive, best trained cannon fodder in the history of warfare. Human history, anyhow; who can speak for the enemy?

I don’t even call them snails any more. And the thought of them doesn’t trigger that instant flash of revulsion, hate, kill-fever—the psyconditioning wore off years ago, and they didn’t renew it. They’ve stopped doing it to new recruits; no percentage in berserkers. I was a wild one the first couple of trips, though.

Strange world I’ve come back to. Gets stranger every time, of course. Even sitting here in a bogus twenty-first-century bar, where everyone speaks Basic and there’s real wood on the walls and peaceful holograms instead of plugins, and music made by real men…

But it leaks through. I don’t pay by card, let alone by coin. The credit register monitors my alpha waves and communicates with the bank every time I order a drink. And, in case I’ve become addicted to more modern vices, there’s a feelie matrix (modified to look like an old-fashioned visiphone booth) where I can have my brain stimulated. Thanks but no, thanks—always get this picture of dirty hands inside my skull, kneading, rubbing. Like when you get too close to the enemy and they open a hole in your mind and you go spinning down and down and never reach the bottom till you die. I almost got too close last time.

* * *

We were on a three-man reconnaissance patrol, bound for a hellish little planet circling the red giant Antares. Now red giant stars don’t form planets in the natural course of things, so we had ignored Antares; we control most of the space around it, so why waste time in idle exploration? But the enemy had detected this little planet—God knows how—and about ten years after they landed there, we monitored their presence (gravity waves from the ships’ braking) and my team was assigned the reconnaissance. Three men against many, many of the enemy—but we weren’t supposed to fight if we could help it; just take a look around, record what we saw, and leave a message beacon on our way back, about a light-year out from Antares. Theoretically, the troopship following us by a month will pick up the information and use it to put together a battle plan. Actually, three more recon patrols precede the troop ship at one-week intervals; insurance against the high probability that any one patrol will be caught and destroyed. As the first team in, we have a pretty good chance of success, but the ones to follow would be in trouble if we didn’t get back out. We’d be past caring, of course: the enemy doesn’t take prisoners.

We came out of lightspeed close to Antares, so the bulk of the star would mask our braking disturbance, and inserted the ship in a hyperbolic orbit that would get us to the planet—Anomaly, we were calling it—in about twenty hours.

“Anomaly must be tropical over most of its surface.” Fred Sykes, nominally the navigator, was talking to himself and at the two of us while he analyzed the observational data rolling out of the ship’s computer. “No axial tilt to speak of. Looks like they’ve got a big outpost near the equator, lots of electromagnetic noise there. Figures... the goddamn snails like it hot. We requisitioned hot-weather gear, didn’t we, Pancho?”

Pancho, that’s me. “No, Fred, all we got’s parkas and snowshoes.” My full name is Francisco Jesus Mario Juan-José Hugo de Naranja, and I outrank Fred, so he should at least call me Francisco. But I’ve never pressed the point. Pancho it is. Fred looked up from his figures and the rookie, Paul Spiegel, almost dropped the pistol he was cleaning.

“But why…” Paul was staring. “We knew the planet was probably Earthlike if the enemy wanted it. Are we gonna have to go tromping around in spacesuits?”

“No, Paul, our esteemed leader and supply clerk is being sarcastic again.” He turned back to his computer. “Explain, Pancho.”

“No, that’s all right.” Paul reddened a bit and also went back to his job. “I remember you complaining about having to take the standard survival issue.”

“Well, I was right then and I’m doubly right now. We’ve got parkas back there, and snowshoes, and a complete terranorm environment recirculator, and everything else we could possibly need to walk around in comfort on every planet known to man—Dios! That issue masses over a metric ton, more than a bevawatt laser. A laser we could use, but crampons and pith helmets and elephant guns…”

Paul looked up again. “Elephant guns?” He was kind of a freak about weapons.


“That’s a gun that shoots elephants?”

“Right. An elephant gun shoots elephants.”

“Is that some new kind of ammunition?”

I sighed, I really sighed. You’d think I’d get used to this after twelve years—or four hundred—in the service. “No, kid, elephants were animals, big gray wrinkled animals with horns. You used an elephant gun to shoot at them.

“When I was a kid in Rioplex, back in the twenty-first, we had an elephant in the zoo; used to go down in the summer and feed him synthos through the bars. He had a long nose like a fat tail; he ate with that.”

“What planet were they from?”

It went on like that for a while. It was Paul’s first trip out, and he hadn’t yet gotten used to the idea most of his compatriots were genuine antiques, preserved by the natural process of relativity. At lightspeed you age imperceptibly, while the universe’s calendar adds a year for every light-year you travel. Seems like cheating. But it catches up with you eventually.

We hit the atmosphere of Anomaly at an oblique angle and came in passive, like a natural meteor, until we got to a position where we were reasonably safe from detection (just above the south polar sea), then blasted briefly to slow down and splash. Then we spent a few hours in slow flight at sea level, sneaking up on their settlement.

It appeared to be the only enemy camp on the whole planet, which was typical. Strange for a spacefaring, aggressive race to be so incurious about planetary environments, but they always seemed to settle in one place and simply expand radially. And they do expand; their reproduction rate makes rabbits look sick. Starting from one colony, they can fill a world in two hundred years. After that, they control their population by infantiphage and stellar migration.

We landed about a hundred kilometers from the edge of their colony, around local midnight. While we were outside setting up the espionage monitors, the ship camouflaged itself to match the surrounding jungle optically, thermally, magnetically, etc.—we were careful not to get too far from the ship; it can be a bit hard to find even when you know where to look.

The monitors were to be fed information from flea-sized flying robots, each with a special purpose, and it would take several hours for them to wing into the city. We posted a one-man guard, one-hour shifts; the other two inside the ship until the monitors started clicking. But they never started.

Being senior, I took the first watch. A spooky hour, the jungle making dark little noises all around, but nothing happened. Then Fred stood the next hour, while I put on the deepsleep helmet. Figured I’d need the sleep—once data started coming in, I’d have to be alert for about forty hours. We could all sleep for a week once we got off Anomaly and hit lightspeed.

Getting yanked out of deepsleep is like an ice water douche to the brain. The black nothing dissolved and there was Fred a foot away from my face, yelling my name over and over. As soon as he saw my eyes open, he ran for the open lock, priming his laser on the way (definitely against regulations, could hole the hull that way; I started to say something but couldn’t form the words). Anyhow, what were we doing in free fall? And how could Fred run across the deck like that while we were in free fall?

Then my mind started coming back into focus and I could analyze the sinking, spinning sensation—not free-fall vertigo at all, but what we used to call snail-fever. The enemy was very near. Crackling combat sounds drifted in from outdoors.

I sat up on the cot and tried to sort everything out and get going. After long seconds my arms and legs got the idea; I struggled up and staggered to the weapons cabinet. Both the lasers were gone, and the only heavy weapon left was a grenade launcher. I lifted it from the rack and made my way to the lock.

Had I been thinking straight, I would’ve just sealed the lock and blasted—the presence in my mind was so strong that I should have known there were too many of the enemy, too close, for us to stand and fight. But no one can think while their brain is being curdled that way. I fought the urge to just let go and fall down that hole in my mind, and slid along the wall to the airlock. By the time I got there my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and my face was wet with tears.

Looking out, I saw a smoldering gray lump that must have been Paul, and Fred screaming like a madman, fanning the laser on full over a 180-degree arc. There couldn’t have been anything alive in front of him; the jungle was a lurid curtain of fire, but a bolt lanced in from behind and Fred dissolved in a pink spray of blood and flesh.

I saw them then, moving fast for snails, shambling in over thick brush towards the ship. Through the swirling fog in my brain I realized that all they could see was the light pouring through the open lock, and me silhouetted in front. I tried to raise the launcher but couldn’t—there were too many, less than a hundred meters away, and the inky whirlpool in my mind just got bigger and bigger and I could feel myself slipping into it.

The first bolt missed me; hit the ship and it shuddered, ringing like a huge cathedral bell. The second one didn’t miss, taking off my left hand just above the wrist, roasting what remained of my left arm. In a spastic lurch I jerked up the launcher and yanked the trigger, holding it down while dozens of microton grenades popped out and danced their blinding way up to and across the enemy’s ragged line. Dazzled blind, I stepped back and stumbled over the med-robot, which had smelled blood and was eager to do its duty. On top of the machine was a switch that some clown had labeled EMERGENCY EXIT; I slapped it, and as the lock clanged shut the atomic engines muttered—growled—screamed into life and a ten-gravity hand slid me across the blood-slick deck and slammed me back against the rear-wall padding. I felt ribs crack and something in my neck snapped. As the world squeezed away, I knew I was a dead man but it was better to die in a bed of pain than to just fall and fall…

* * *

I woke up to the less-than-tender ministrations of the med-robot, who had bound the stump of my left arm and was wrapping my chest in plastiseal. My body from forehead to shins ached from radiation burns, earned by facing the grenades’ bursts, and the nonexistent hand seemed to writhe in painful, impossible contortions. But numbing anesthetic kept the pain at a bearable distance, and there was an empty space in my mind where the snail-fever had been, and the gentle hum told me we were at lightspeed; things could have been one flaming hell of a lot worse. Fred and Paul were gone but that just moved them from the small roster of live friends to the long list of dead ones.

A warning light on the control panel was blinking stroboscopically. We were getting near the hole—excuse me, “relativistic discontinuity”—and the computer had to know where I wanted to go. You go in one hole at lightspeed and you’ll come out of some other hole; which hole you pop out of depends on your angle of approach. Since they say that only about 1 percent of the holes are charted, if you go in at any old angle you’re liable to wind up in Podunk, on the other side of the galaxy, with no ticket back.

I just let the light blink, though. If it doesn’t get any response from the crew, the ship programs itself automatically to go to Heaven, the hospital world, which was fine with me. They cure what ails you and then set you loose with a compatible soldier of the opposite sex, for an extended vacation on that beautiful world. Someone once told me that there were over a hundred worlds named Hell, but there’s only one Heaven. Clean and pretty from the tropical seas to the Northern pine forests. Like Earth used to be, before we strangled it.

A bell had been ringing all the time I’d been conscious, but I didn’t notice it until it stopped. That meant the information capsule had been jettisoned, for what little it was worth. Planetary information, very few espionage-type data; just a tape of the battle. Be rough for the next recon patrol.

I fell asleep knowing I’d wake up on the other side of the hole, bound for Heaven.

* * *

I pick up my drink—an old-fashioned old-fashioned—with my new left hand and the glass should feel right, slick but slightly tacky with the cold-water sweat, fine ridges molded into the plastic. But there’s something missing, hard to describe, a memory stored in your fingertips that a new growth has to learn all over again. It’s a strange feeling, but in a way seems to fit with this crazy Earth, where I sit in my alcoholic time capsule and, if I squint with my mind, can almost believe I’m back in the twenty-first.

I pay for the nostalgia—wood and natural food, human bartender and waitress who are also linguists, it all comes dear—but I can afford it, if anyone can. Compound interest, of course. Over four centuries have passed on Earth since I first went off to war, and my salary’s been deposited at the Chase Manhattan Credit Union ever since. They’re glad to do it; when I die, they keep the interest and the principal reverts to the government. Heirs? I had one illegitimate son (conceived on my first furlough) and when I last saw his gravestone, the words on it had washed away to barely legible dimples.

But I’m still a young man (at lightspeed you age imperceptibly while the universe winds down outside) and the time you spend going from hole to hole is almost incalculably small. I’ve spent most of the past half millennium at lightspeed, the rest of the time usually convalescing from battle. My records show that I’ve logged a trifle under one year in actual combat. Not bad for 438 years’ pay. Since I first lifted off I’ve aged twelve years by my biological calendar. Complicated, isn’t it—next month I’ll be thirty, 456 years after my date of birth.

But one week before my birthday I’ve got to decide whether to try my luck for the fourth trip out or just collect my money and retire. No choice, really. I’ve got to go back.

It’s something they didn’t emphasize when I joined up, back in 2088—maybe it wasn’t so obvious back then, the war only decades old—but they can’t hide it nowadays. Too many old vets wandering around, like animated museum pieces.

I could cash in my chips and live in luxury for another hundred years. But it would get mighty lonely. Can’t talk to anybody on Earth but other vets and people who’ve gone to the trouble to learn Basic.

Everyone in space speaks Basic. You can’t lift off until you’ve become fluent. Otherwise, how could you take orders from a fellow who should have been food for worms centuries before your grandfather was born? Especially since language melted down into one Language.

I’m tone deaf. Can’t speak or understand Language, where one word has ten or fifteen different meanings, depending on pitch. To me it sounds like puppy dogs yapping. Same words over and over; no sense.

Of course, when I first lived on Earth there were all sorts of languages, not just one Language. I spoke Spanish (still do when I can find some other old codger who remembers) and learned English—that was before they called it Basic—in military training. Learned it damn well, too. If I weren’t tone deaf I’d crack Language and maybe I’d settle down.

Maybe not. The people are so strange, and it’s not just the Language. Mindplugs and homosex and voluntary suicide. Walking around with nothing on but paint and powder. We had Fullerdomes when I was a kid, but you didn’t have to live under one. Now if you take a walk out in the country for a breath of fresh air, you’ll drop over dead before you can exhale.

My mind keeps dragging me back to Heaven. I’d retire in a minute if I could spend my remaining century there. Can’t, of course; only soldiers allowed in space. And the only way a soldier gets to Heaven is the hard way.

I’ve been there three times; once more and I’ll set a record. That’s motivation of a sort, I suppose. Also, in the unlikely event that I should live another five years, I’ll get a commission, and a desk job if I live through my term as a field officer. Doesn’t happen too often but there aren’t too many desk jobs that people can handle better than cyborgs.

That’s another alternative. If my body gets too garbaged for regeneration, and they can save enough of my brain, I could spend the rest of eternity hooked up to a computer, as a cyborg. The only one I’ve ever talked to seemed to be happy.

I once had an African partner named N’gai. He taught me how to play O’wari, a game older than Monopoly or even chess. We sat in this very bar (or the identical one that was in its place two hundred years ago) and he tried to impress on my non-Zen–oriented mind just how significant this game was to men in our position.

You start out with forty-eight smooth little pebbles, four in each one of the twelve depressions that make up the game board. Then you take turns, scooping the pebbles out of one hole and distributing them one at a time in holes to the left. If you dropped your last pebble in a hole where your opponent had only one or two, why, you got to take those pebbles off the board. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

But Ngai sat there in a cloud of bhang-smoke and mumbled about the game and how it was just like the big game we were playing, and every time he took a pebble off the board, he called it by name. And some of the names I didn’t know, but a lot of them were on my long list.

And he talked about how we were like the pieces in this simple game; how some went off the board after the first couple of moves, and some hopped from place to place all through the game and came out unscathed, and some just sat in one place all the time until they got zapped from out of nowhere...

After a while I started hitting the bhang myself, and we abandoned the metaphor in a spirit of mutual intoxication.

And I’ve been thinking about that night for six years, or two hundred, and I think that N’gai—his soul find Buddha—was wrong. The game isn’t all that complex.

Because in O’wari, either person can win.

The snails populate ten planets for every one we destroy.

Solitaire, anyone?

Joe Haldeman received a Purple Heart while serving as a combat engineer in Vietnam. He is the author of The Forever War and the recipient of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012, and he taught creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1983 to 2014. His most recent novel is Work Done for Hire.