13 October 2012

The Veteran

[This is another one from the Far Edge and not my narrative voice but that of a kind of a website journalist working on Smitty's World, covering FTL trade news and related topics -- RX]


     You've seen the type.  A little out of sync, too quiet or too loud; unless he's sitting with a bunch of gray heads, he doesn't get the jokes. He doesn't go outdoors when the sun's up and it's no bet that he's wearing a counter-pressure suit right now and the helmet's within arm's reach.  He can't sleep without the comforting hum and clank of machinery and if the air stops blowing, he wakes in the silence, heart pounding.

     Where is he?  It doesn't really matter, not to to him.  Wherever he goes, it isn't home.  It never will be.  Say he's on Smitty's world; that works.  There's no real "outdoors" on the sunless wanderer Captain Johann Cameron Harper Smith claimed for his own, no more than there is on a starship; it's a silent hell of frozen gases, frozen liquids, frozen rocks, frozen metals, kerogen frozen so hard they spend a year slowly warming the excavated rubble before feeding it into the hungry maws of the city's ever-running refineries.

     There are bars and pubs and greasy spoons, gambling hells, flophouses and godowns; there are out-of-the-way corners not too close to the recycling bins and the City Patrol doesn't check that close.  There's plenty of work for a savvy hand, few questions asked; and plenty to drink when the day is done, drink until it all goes blurry dark.  There aren't nearly enough pressure doors, part of The Smith's crazy Defense Initiative that Official Citizens ignore questions about, changing the subject with studied, careful blandness when asked. A man with a temporary "wolf ticket," learning the secondary network of pressurized tunnels by being limited to it as the first step toward full Citizenship, why, he'll do all right even without regular work, if he keeps his wits. He'll even wonder at the wag who kept stenciling "sto pervyy kilometr" on the inside of the 2-level airlocks and laugh, once, after he's looked it up. Sometime it's a little chilly; sometimes it's too warm.  But the air always keeps moving and there's a constant, tiny, comforting rumble and hum wherever you go.  He'd tell you it's fine.

     A man like that, if he glances in the spotted, wavy mirror behind the bar, what does he see?  Not the years he skipped — maybe in the eyes, a little.  The haphazard two-day's growth of a sloppy shave with a tiny windup razor doesn't conceal the grim line of his mouth, or the lines around it, etched in by the shipmates and friends he lost, pushing C in a hastily-built vehicle ducking in and out of reality, men and women who went mad from too long, too close in the glittering gray space of a Goubau-Droscher-Heim 'Drive field, who died slowly behind plastic when the reactor overheated or quickly when their helmet seal failed, or who just went out an airlock, wordless, quietly, just gone one shift-start, leaving a problem for the navigators and stardrive techs.  He sees his posture, balanced, careful, anchored, lessons beat into bones and muscles from lousy Jumps, drifted calibrations, "Bad as an Earthbag," they'd laugh, until there was no humor in it and you'd listen for the strain and screech and pop that meant you'd be latching the helmet on, pulling gloves in place, dreading the bloat and dire farts when the pressure dropped.

     Or does he care to see that much?  Whatever, he won't look long. He knows what he'll see. Too many years, too many and not enough, skimming through the old "home" system (all he ever saw were pictures and those looked fake, who believed in penguins?  Or elephants?) or some USSF/NATO-dominated planetary system ("All four!" his crewmates had jeered, and him along with them, but even one world is so big, so terribly big), listening for any comms, any broadcasting,  photo-analyzing optics, passive RADAR quivering, look and listen and guess, then hop up superluminal, encrypt and infodump, take orders, resupply, repair, upgrade, reposition and do it again.  And again, picking up speed, correcting radio tunings for Doppler, and every time you do it, two months have lept by in a fortnight, and then six months, a year, five, a decade...  The War started in '50 or '51; his war began in '64, when he was a wet-behind-the-ears 21, grown up during the first long Jump to Peace-and-Prosperity and then onwards when Earth's ships showed up.  Landed Trinity where his parents farmed, or tried to, signed up with the the old Jupiter Gang and off before the trouble there really started. '49, 50, or '62, it all dwindled to an end in '89 when he was 30, hair going gray, skin blotchy from low-pressure exposure, soul worn down by too long hemmed in, too many dead. They mustered him out not on Smitty World, oh no, on the world where his parents had settled, survived the troubles, prospered and grown old, dead and gone a decade ago. A hero's greeting for him and a random shipload: grizzled star-sailors, aggressively fit Mil/Space types, familiar strangers gathered across forty years of conflict. His friends, relatives, old playmates, either they went out and served and mostly died, or they were worse, old, old with lives lived, families, grandchildren....  He didn't know them.  He didn't know anybody, not even the people he used to know.
  
          The open sky and lovely landscaped lawns — the troubles were long past, clearing and replanting a shared faith and the region was "eighty-nine percent Earth life," they assured him, as if that meant something — made him feel like a bug on a plate; the farms were even worse and the cities, well, in both of them he just felt like a bug.  It all seemed fake and one fake night — gawd, the nights, a sky full of stars and where's his air helmet? — one fake night he followed one fake drink with another and another and another again in a fake bar where fake people talked into fake phones as brightly-colored and plain-shaped as candy bars, just like their fake personalities, and woke up in a too-bright cell with a very real itemized bill of damages and at least six months of steady work to pay it all away.

     He did it; he took the recommended tranks and the newer drugs that made everything dull, bearable gray, while everyone was so nice, so understanding.  He begged to work nights, he found a basement apartment and painted the windows over and when he had made restitution, he went down to the port and took the first starship that would let him work passage.  Some Bell or Cloche or Bowler or whatever they called them, fast, agile mid-size free-traders developed during the War.  He didn't ask where it was headed.  What difference would it make?

     Falling back up into the sky was like going home; the old tension settled over him like a blanket on the run out to flat space. The vertigo, the nightmare feeling of a too-close, too-strong 'Drive field — damn, the little ships ran it close, even compared to the brilliant, hasty improvisations of the surveillance fleet — was like an old friend returning, or at least a comfortably familiar nemesis.

     Even the "interlaced watch" was familiar — eight on, four off, four on, eight off and overlapped by the "night shift" — right down to alternating fours, semi-skilled helper one day and training the next.  They didn't need a Responder, as his main job on the Wartime zap-ships had come to be known, "Emergency Responder," a job he'd said was like tacking jelly to a bulkhead, do it wrong and everyone got splattered; on a little ship, everyone was a bit of a Responder, as much as was ever needed or so they said. He ran through every job he was remotely qualified for, as far up as Navs Third, his old secondary skill. He'd have got higher, if he'd had less knack for doing the right thing in emergencies, maybe; he'd always loved the order and predictability of the math. Having seen the technology change from the clanking, power-sucking "interpolator" sorting stacks of punch-cards with a fancy slide rule for fine figuring, having transitioned through spooling — spilling! — tape drives and overheating, easily-zapped germanium gates right up though safety-tripled, radiation-hardened microprocessors.  His reaction to the improvements a few years of peace and officially-open trade had already made was the same mixture of frustration and delight he'd felt doing upgrades in the War years — minus the crawling fear during installation and training.  It was like coming home.

     And yet it wasn't.  Like most free-traders, the crew were long-established, all family or as good as.  Even when his Responder skills were needed, it wasn't a crewman gone dangerous from too long in a fragile tin can, speeding though the horrible void.  No, it was the same old fire from the same old "borrowed" Russian design of an oxygen generator, the same old half-a-kludge that had taken out Marty Willson, seven years back or 15, depending how you counted.  Once you'd been through the first one, it was nothing but routine and he was mostly puzzled when the free-trader's crew made much of his actions.  He still didn't feel entirely comfortable, but a guarded friendliness had replaced guarded neutrality.  Still, he spent some years aboard, teeth clenched for quiet when the nightmares got too strong, or when they struck on-shift, walking down a hallway too much like the place where a high-pressure steam pipe popped a bad weld and broiled Carrie Karlson before she really knew, and suddenly he was hearing them again, the sounds she'd made from what used to be her face before falling over like a dropped side of beef.  Or the time in the lights flickered on a difficult transition and he was suddenly back on the heart-stopping supply and crew-exchange run to Cockroach Base on Cuithne when one of the really big USSF starships had popped out of Jump space far too close to the Earth-Moon system for an Earth vessel and screamed inbound decelerating at a g and a half, totally not on the intel predictive.  They'd killed everything — ev-ry-thing — and coasted, hoping to pass as an overlooked blob of rock, a little too hot but maybe, maybe—  It had worked.  It shouldn't have, but it did.  He felt it all again, the heart-pounding fear, and then he was back at his console on the free-trader, soaked with sweat, staring furiously at nothing.
 
     He could have held on -- he was holding on -- but it ended when the Enviro super got married; there really was no job no room for her new husband despite what the Captain — her father — claimed and the long Jump in had been especially hard; he'd found himself missing time, coming back to himself walking down a hallway, loading up a ration tray, staring at a Navs screen.  When the ship emerged from Jump, the hum and mutter at the back of his mind kept on, as it never had before. They were inbound to Smitty's World, fiercely independent, favorably situated, a sunless wanderer found by chance and claimed by a First Fleet ship captain.  Plenty of work for the willing, especially if the willing weren't too particular.  Safely berthed, he gathered up his duffel and signed off the ship, putting down his name in front of a Purser (not coincidentally the bride's mother) who struggled to not look too grateful.

     That kind of man, on a busy place like Smitty's World, can always find work fixing and hauling, packing small items, digging through bad wiring or balky code. He may not eat well or sleep on silk sheets, but he never has to miss a meal, at least not until the noise and nightmares get too damn loud.  Even then, once a Responder, always a Responder: half fireman, half EMT, half policeman and "not quite spacecraft engineer," as the saying went; when alarms rang, he was there, doing the right thing.

     True, there was no work for a Starship Astrogator, especially one with no more certs than scribbled letters from ship captains and Nav Ones.  But there was plenty of work for a man willing to work hard, if he had a feel for technology. Best of all, the settlement was unapologetically what it was, domed over beneath airless, starry skies and dug into the crumbly compressed dust and hard rock, artificially lit, heated and ventilated, as sane and sensible as any starship, or just about.

     He'd even tried applying to join The Smith's City Patrol, "Proctors," police and fire and crisis mediators all rolled into one; and been turned flat down.  "Full Citizens only," they said.  By then it was dawning on him that the complex, changing and by The Smith's executive fiat unmapped inhabitation had layers and lives that visitors and transients never saw, and past that, places no non-Citizen resident would never reach, and beyond that to habs and corridors and courtyard for only the fully-invested among even them.

     But by then his hands were increasingly uncooperative and the nightmares sometimes too loud to down in alcohol; and the work started to get simpler and lower-paying.  He coped.  If words sometimes fled, why, he spoke even less than before; and if drink alone failed to bring unbroken sleep, the exhaustion of hard physical labor helped. He even found a Medico, downy-cheeked and idealistic, who spoke knowingly of 'Drive Field aggravated combat stress; it was then he realized, again, that no one who hasn't been there had even the least clue, or wanted to hear that his war — and most crew's war — was boredom and bad math, not hand-to-hand in the uncaring vacuum or even missiles at extreme range.  He made polite noises, paid his bill and left.  He adjusted.  He coped.  Whatever it took.

     And he still was who he was, who he'd been, who the War had made him into, catching patterns, catching the scent of trouble and dealing with it, no matter how unsteadily.  He had a reputation and no bad one  It came to a head one of his more-lucid days, when a "general labor specialist" spoiling for a fight came into the bar where he was eating a large bowl of thick stew, supper in trade for a half-day's dishwashing.

     He'd gotten pretty shaky by then, swearing at the cooperativeness of his own hands, careful of his gait, each step sometimes a study; but it came and went and damned if he'd go talk again to another nosy medico, they way they got side-tracked into his service time, snootily disapproving or hero-worshipping, irritating either way. So he'd been struggling that day; when the much-larger stranger slammed through the door (and they're nearly all doors on Smitty's; world except for the locks between levels) and lit into a little dockhand drinking at the bar and casually straight-armed a bartender who tried to intervene, everything snapped into focus.  He was up before anyone else and on the aggressor, hand going to a "C-clamp" compliance hold on the other's head. It went slow-motion as guy was turning away from the intended victim with a suddenly-visible knife.  He did as he'd been trained and as he'd practiced: grabbed the knife-hand wrist and pulled in the direction it was going, while moving out of the way.  The aggressor lost balance and he more-or-less rode him down to the deck, hitting with as much force as he could muster.  It worked.  —And then things sped up again and he was sitting on an unconscious fighter on the floor of a bar, bruised and splashed with stew.  The proctors made a big fuss when they showed up.  Seems the knifeman had been slashing his way though all his co-workers and the man at the bar has been the eleventh on his list.  Word made it all the way up to The Smith himself, and word came back down that nothing was too good for such a hero.

     He took full Second Level Citizenship when offered; but he never went back to that bar and rarely ventured into the visitor-and-transient-accessible warrens and domes afterward, either.  He faded back into the shadows and small businesses and sometimes shadowy work, the small unsanctioned, much-wanted things that do little harm. As his condition became worse and worse, he found obscure corners, places out of the way, rarely-used accesses, and kept on.    

     A man like that, as his own body began to betray him, when things stopped making sense, would he search out help as he once helped?  Would his pride let him continue, if he sensed the least pity or condescension?  In the end, it wouldn't matter; there are some battles a man can't win, some emergencies too big to control.

     I'm not sure how he'd've viewed any of this story, his story, or how you see it, either; but if you were stringing for a free-trader website on Smitty's world, keeping track of the more-colorful characters, buying drinks and listening to stories, and you had to wrap up a life lived without citing rumor, speculation or late-night tales that sound too tall when the lights are full on, you'd write it up like this:
     Grey, Stephan, b. ~1950, Hoplite base, Luna; d. Thursday last, 5 October, 2012 (Earth, GMT) Newport, Smithtown; personal age, ~35.  Raised in flight and on Trinity, Grey served aboard FCS "Longreach" surveillance/transport ships during the late conflict with Earth, retiring in 1989 as Astrogator 3rd/Prime Responder of LazyTongs.  He is best known here as the man who stopped the 35-South Slasher five years ago.  He was found dead in a utility corridor in the early hours of 6 October (GMT).  Autopsy revealed advanced brain cancer, probably due to prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and high levels of 'Drive radiation.
    Then you'd look at the screen and swear in frustration at everything you couldn't put in.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------


     (In memory of my friend, occasional nemesis and long-ago boss Steve C., who lost the battle last month; and of my Dad, betrayed by his own brain and gamely carrying on, so well we barely noticed as he started fading away; and to every soldier who returned home only to discover home was no longer there.)

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

     (In unfortunate synchronicity, horror/noir/thriller writer Tom Piccirilli is recovering from emergency surgery for brain cancer right now.  More info and links to IndieGogo fundrasier; here's a publisher selling his works and passing along 100% of the profit to Tom.)