Why did she leave me? Well, it was ten years."
She didn't volunteer for freezing?
Then it's not as though she was waiting ten years for you to return home.
"She said it was the ten years itself. Ten years out of her own time."
I don't understand. She was frozen. She lost no time.
"Of course she did. We both did. Life here on Earth had gone through ten years. Everything changes in ten years."
Don't you think that's something of an exaggeration?
"I mean everything that matters changes in ten years."
Interviews From Studies On Post-Dilation Trauma.
Interview Series 3. Subject: Diomedes Metaxiotis.
And there we were again, back in the Boom Tube.
Nine of us, our skin coloured jaundice by the airlock's amber alert light, the smell of sweat and exhaustion and fear suddenly pungent and repulsive.
I caught a glimpse of the outside world just before the iris door sealed with a kiss; a vague, fleeting glimpse of forest wet with heavy rain, the first tendrils of mist beginning to rise with the warming day.
I tried to catch my breath, but God had stuck his fingers down my throat, and my eyes wouldn't close.
"I'll never go outside again," said Janice, who was sitting next to me. I tried to turn my head, but the muscles in my neck would not respond. I could see Ntomo, though, and she was looking at Janice and shaking her head.
"I mean it this time," Janice insisted.
"Right. If you say it enough it'll happen." I saw that as soon as she said the words, Ntomo regretted them: she was angry, but not at Janice.
My eyes still wouldn't close. "Damn, I'm going to go blind."
"The light's changing," someone muttered.
The alert light changed from amber to green. The Boom Tube welcomed us back. The section started getting to its feet.
The airlock's internal hatch hissed open and Major Bonar stepped in, neat in his pressed officer's dress, sharp and nasty. He held a clipboard in his right hand. He quickly looked around the airlock.
"Where's Lieutenant Peora?" he demanded.
"She's dead." That was Ntomo, and Bonar glared at her. "Dead . . . sir."
The glare turned into a strange expression, a mixture of disbelief and anger. "Lieutenant Peora is dead?"
"Hole in her chest the size of a watermelon," Ntomo told him.
Bonar blinked rapidly. "You took your time getting back."
"We were being trailed," I said. "And we had to burn Peora's body."
"Difficult job in a rainforest," Ntomo said. "Sir."
Janice started laughing, hysteria running just beneath.
"Janice!" Ntomo shouted, then looked at me. "Dom, stop her!"
"Peora's gone, Dom. You're in charge."
"That's right, Sergeant," Bonar said, warning me.
I reached out and touched Janice gently on the shoulder. "Janice, please."
The laughter died away. "Alright, Dom. I'm sorry."
The rest of the section threw each other nervous glances. "It's been a bad patrol . . ." I began explaining to Bonar, then realised I was stating the obvious. For a second I felt like laughing myself.
Bonar brought the clipboard up with a snap, began searching for Peora's name. "Peora - Peora - Peora . . . Peora, Felicitas, Lieutenant . . . dead." He scratched her name off his list. My secret hope, that the patrol had been nothing but a bad dream, was turned off like a light. "A good officer."
"Yes, sir." And how the hell would you know?
I felt suddenly tired. I could close my eyes now.
How long after your return did she leave you?
Why three years, do you think? Why not seven years, or ten, or just one?
"Because it took three years for her to realise she would never get used to the dislocation - to being a stranger in her own home."
But she could share that feeling of dislocation with you.
"No, not really. I was away from Earth for ten years, but I was still active. I was still living from day to day."
Day to day shiptime.
"It's still an existence. That's more than she had."
Interview Series 3.
There was a dream in there somewhere.
I woke to steel grey walls, the smell of stale sweat and urine. I felt nauseous, but not enough to want to throw up. I felt, too, the pressure of the Boom Tube, all around me. I remembered. I was back in the womb.
The same dream - it kept on coming back, night after night.
I needed sleep desperately, but could never get enough to stop me feeling permanently tired. I sat up, threw the sheets back. Somewhere in my head the remnant of the dream was still speaking to me, but I could not really hear the words, and as sleep finally wore off the voice faded away . . .
For a moment I stood there, supporting myself against the bunk, wanting the dream to come back. I was certain that if I could remember it, it would never bother me again.
The nauseous feeling resurfaced with a vengeance, and I just managed to reach the sink before vomiting. I had not eaten for awhile, and the retching seemed to pull my stomach apart. When it was over I washed out the sink and got into the shower.
She said nothing as we flew back from the cold storage warehouse
in the Piraeus. She sat in the passenger seat, staring out over
the sea, shivering still from the effects of ten years cryogenic
sleep. The doctor told us she would feel cold for at least 24
hours, but that the effect would wear off soon after that. She
held my hand so tightly it hurt, reassuring herself I was really
there, I guess.
When we landed at Argos our family was waiting. They were clapping and crying and taking turns hugging us, and I cried and hugged back, but she tried to stand apart. They would not let her. Instead they gathered her in and surrounded her, calling her name. She started to cry then, but more from fear, I think. The family thought "At last, she knows us and she understands", but they were wrong. She did not know them any more, that was what she understood, and it made her afraid.
The Boom Tube is a cylinder a kilometre long and 300 metres wide.
It is a gorged snake that lies deep in enemy territory, dropped
there by a flotilla of battle tugs, and it operates as a base
of operations for two regiments of combat troops and three thousand
auxiliaries. Because it is immobile it is used only in wars against
planets whose inhabitants employ military technology no more advanced
than the bow and arrow.
The Boom Tube is usually the first sign an enemy has that their home is being invaded. It is the job of the combat troops to secure the area within a radius of a thousand kilometres of the Tube, which means subjugating or destroying the native population enclosed by the circle. Once that objective is achieved, reinforcements are sent - usually a full division, together with engineers and civilian construction crews. Normally, the time between the placement of a Boom Tube and the completion of its mission is less than three months, Earth time. On Erech, a planet with land masses covered largely by rainforest and inhabited by intelligent, warlike bipeds, the first stage of conquest had been going on for over 10 months when our section lost Lieutenant Peora.
My wife and I decided we could not stay on Argos. Every day in
the city reminded us we were strangers. Our families belonged
to another time, a time forever lost to us. We thought that if
we left, moved somewhere without any connection to our previous
lives on Earth, then we could pretend there was no gap in our
history, that we were emigrants whose separation from their family
was simply geographic and not temporal.
For a while it seemed to work. We both got good jobs - the Service made sure of that - and slowly built up a circle of new friends. We kept in touch with our families, but the communication was sporadic and easier to handle because of it.
Within a year of moving the first cracks appeared in our marriage, and we became aware that the source of all our problems lay not with our family or our birthplace, but in our own relationship.
For the ten Earth years I had been away she had been locked in a cryogenic sleep, more dead than alive. For her, the time between being frozen and being resuscitated literally had been nothing more than a single blink. For me, biologically speaking, three years had passed - a year spent on a ship accelerating to and decelerating from lightspeed to transport me and my regiment to Erech, a year's tour on Erech itself, and another year spent on a ship returning the regiment to Earth. And that distinction was enough to change everything between us. Our lives were like two continental plates meeting on a fault line: as close as can be, but constantly and irrevocably sliding past each other.
Two weeks after Peora's death and our return to the Boom Tube,
I was confirmed as the section's new lieutenant. We were down
to nine members, but still better off than many other formations;
some sections had lost half their members and had been amalgamated
with other tail-ends or disbanded entirely. Regimental morale,
high when we first arrived on Erech, had plummeted dangerously,
but High Command could not pull us out before the planned end
of our tour of duty, or send us reinforcements, because the effects
of time dilation resulting from ships travelling at lightspeed
made it logistically impossible. Whatever happened, we were stuck
on Erech for the duration.
Our commanding officers, alert and incisive specimens like Major Bonar, decided after 10 months that a change of tactics was called for. All offensive operations were suspended while we were retrained to fight in formations as large as a battalion. This confirmed the suspicion of the combat troops that we were losing the war on Erech, but at the time even we did not realise just how close to defeat we were.
You and your wife attended counselling?
"Of course. Neither of us wanted the marriage to end."
The counselling had no effect?
"Some. It made things easier for a period, but in the end neither of us could escape what we'd become."
And what had you become?
Interview Series 3.
Our section was descending from its night camp on top of the last of a series of basalt plugs that clawed their way through the rainforest canopy to form the local highlands. The vegetation was just beginning to clump, building up the thick, overgrown border that separated the highlands from the rainforest proper.
Visibility was poor because of an early mist. Ntomo had been on point duty for less than ten minutes, the rest of the section strung out behind her in single file for nearly fifty metres, when she raised her arm for us to stop. As Peora moved forward the rest of us knelt and raised our weapons in readiness. I had been second in line, and I watched as Ntomo and Peora exchanged quick hand signals. Peora made a wide sweep with her left arm, then held up two fingers. She wanted the section line abreast on her left, two metres between each of us.
As we moved into position I saw Peora sniffing the air. I followed her example and felt the hairs stand up at the back of my neck. The natives have a strong territorial urge and, when not killing humans, practice avidly on each other. To mark their boundaries they urinate on the base of certain kinds of trees. The urine reacts with the bark to create a very strong, pungent scent. The line of trees twenty metres ahead of us reeked with it.
Peora nodded to me and moved forward at a half crouch. I followed five metres behind, the rest of the section staying in position to cover us. Halfway to the treeline Peora waved me down and continued on alone. She moved very slowly, sniffing every few seconds, studying the ground ahead of her, heading towards a clump of two-metre high bushes that would give her better cover. I was flat on my stomach, my cannon pulled tight into my shoulder, scanning an arc of 80 degrees with Peora at its centre. As Peora moved closer to the bushes I gradually reduced the arc to about 40 degrees.
Peora reached the bushes and started parting their branches. I saw her stiffen, and remember thinking, What has she found?
She appeared to be poised on the balls of her feet, like a small girl peering through a shop window. There was a crack and she slowly turned around. Her eyes were wide, her lips set in a straight line. A broken spear shaft protruded from her chest, and the front of her tunic was soaked with blood. A gurgling sound came from deep inside her and rose to her throat, and a thin red line seeped from the corner of her mouth and flowed down her chin. She toppled forward . . .
. . . and I fired. At the bushes, at Peora, at whatever was hiding there. I kept my finger on the trigger. The clip emptied and there was a hissing sound as the firing chamber tried to reload. The first shells had picked Peora off the ground and thrown her, head first, into the bushes, her blood spraying out like streamers. Janice was suddenly kneeling by my side, and she pulled the cannon from my grasp as Ntomo rushed the bushes, waving her cannon before her. Ntomo stopped when she got to Peora's body, hesitated for a few seconds then came back, white and shaking.
"There were two of them," she said. "Peora was . . . was dead before you fired."
I said nothing, and Janice helped me to my feet, then picked up my cannon and returned it to me. The rest of the section began to gather around me like a pod of dolphins protecting a wounded member.
"I had become a liar."
What do you mean?
"I found it easier to deny events like Peora's death, and like the disintegration of my marriage, than to try to confront them. I have not the kind of courage that allows some people to absorb the truth of their own lives."
And what had your wife become?
Interview Series 3.
"You make love like a priest," she said, rolling me off her.
"What does that mean?"
"Like you are offering the act to God and not to me. I am here too, you know."
I did not know what to say. Her words hurt me, but at the same time I realised she did not mean them to, and that made it worse.
"Before you left you made love to me from passion. Now you do it from duty."
"That isn't true."
"Duty is a habit for you, Diomedes. You can't deny it. For you our marriage is simply another obligation." She sat up and swung her legs off the bed so her back was turned to me. "I have become a widow."
I reached out and touched her back. She shivered and stood up, walked away from the bed to the window. "You died when you were away, yet somehow your body has returned. There are nights when you are asleep and I watch you, to make sure you are human. Sometimes I think you are no longer breathing, your chest does not rise and fall. And then suddenly you start again, as though even in your sleep you can read my mind. Sometimes I pinch your skin to see if is flesh or metal underneath."
She turned and looked at me, her body silhouetted against the moonlight coming in from the window. "And it is always flesh. That makes it harder." Her voice sounded disappointed.
"I don't understand."
"I think you do not have a soul. You died, but your body is here. I pray it is God who took your soul."
"I am Diomedes. I am your husband."
She shook her head. "I am in mourning."
"My wife had become separated."
From you . . .
"From everything. She never rejoined the human race. She once said she felt like she was always looking through a window into a familiar house but, although she recognised the people who lived there, and understood the things they did and what they said, she could not relate any of it to her own existence."
She couldn't relate to you, you mean?
"She thought I had come back from the Underworld."
She thought you were a ghost?
"Kind of. She thought I had returned without my soul."
How did you react to that?
"Oh, in the end I had to agree with her."
Interview Series 3.
About a week before my section was due to move out for a reconnaissance patrol from the Boom Tube I woke up one morning and could remember every detail of the dream.
It started with my return to Earth, and my going to the cold storage facility in Piraeus to get my wife. The technicians made me stand in an aisle formed by row upon row of perspex coffins as they resuscitated her. I watched my breath cloud in the freezing air and wondered how many wives and husbands and children lay asleep around me, and how many of them would never be brought back to life. Some of them had left instructions to be terminated if their loved ones did not return from their tour of duty.
Eventually the technicians fell back and the lid on my wife's chamber swung up. The technicians waved me forward so the first person she saw when her eyes opened would be me. I looked into the chamber, and saw Peora. Only the whites of her eyes showed, and her chest was a bloody hole. Her lips parted and her voice, barely more than a sigh, said my name.
And because I remembered the dream I started to cry.
Someone knocked on my cabin door. At first I ignored it, but the knocking did not stop. I struggled out of my bunk, rubbed my eyes and opened the door.
"You okay?" Ntomo asked, not looking as though she really cared.
"Fine. What's the problem."
"Put some pants on and come with me."
I was in no mind to argue, so I did as she asked. She led the way out of the sleeping quarters and down to the washroom. Three other members of the section were already there.
"What's all this about . . ." I started to ask, when they parted and I saw Janice's body slumped in one of the shower wells. She was still dressed and her clothes were sodden. The skin around her wrists was almost black.
"Where's all the blood?" It was the only question I could think to ask.
"The shower was still running when they found her," Ntomo said. "It's all been washed away, Dom."
"Has anyone else been told?"
"Not yet." Ntomo looked at me sadly. "That's your job now."
My wife told me she had enlisted three days before her shuttle
was due to leave for the transport in orbit around Mars.
"Do you know where you've been posted?" I asked.
"A planet called Thera. We have a small colony on an island there. They thought the natives had been pacified, but apparently there have been some raids."
"How long to get there?"
"It's one of our more remote stations. Four years there, ship-time."
"How long before you come back?"
"If I like the colony I don't know that I'll come back."
"But you might not like it. You might hate it."
"Then how long would it be before you came back?"
"The regiment's listed to return in thirty Earth years."
"I'll have myself frozen."
She shook her head. "If you do, I will not come to resuscitate you, even if I come back."
"I don't want you to leave me."
"We no longer have a choice," she said. "Matters are beyond our control. They have been since you left Earth."
"It is my fault, I know."
"No, Diomedes, it is no one's fault. It is simply the way things are. I wish you could accept that as I have come to accept it."
"But I love you."
For the first time in three years I saw tears in her eyes. "I know."
How long have you been alone?
"Since she left."
You have had no long-term relationship since then?
How long have you been with the cryogenic laboratories?
"Nearly five years."
Do you like the work?
Then why do you stay? The Service could get you a position anywhere you wanted. Or you could live off your pension quite comfortably.
"I don't think you'd understand."
Tell us anyway.
"I'm looking for someone."
Someone frozen? Who?
"I can't remember her name. But I'll know her when I find her."
You're certain you'll find her?
"Oh, yes. There's no question about that. I'll know her when I find her."
Interview Series 3.
It was evening, and nine of us were standing outside of the Boom Tube.
Major Bonar was marking things off his clipboard, going from section member to section member, making sure we all had a smile on our faces, a song in our hearts. When he was finished he disappeared back into the belly of the Boom Tube, not even wishing us good luck.
I cleared my throat to get everyone's attention. "We're going to head north for three hundred metres. From that point on, safeties off. Intelligence tells me there are a few native patrols nearby. Five metres between bodies, eyes open, mouths shut. Ntomo, you lead; the rest follow up by count. Let's go."
As I watched the section move out I could not help thinking about Peora and Janice. I wondered briefly if they had anyone waiting for them back home, frozen in one of the hundreds of cold storage sites all over Earth, and in turn that made me think of my wife, in a sleep so deep no mind could fathom it, and a great weight lifted off my shoulders.
We left the Boom Tube behind as we walked, silent as ghosts, and one by one disappeared into the rainforest.