Authors: Joe Haldeman
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An Ace Book
Published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
Copyright © 2000 by Joe Haldeman.
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may
not be reproduced in any form without permission.
First edition: December 2000
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Haldeman, Joe W.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
This book is for two guys who live a thousand miles apart and have never met: Ricky and Rusty. Both, by coincidence, were marines in the Pacific in World War II.
Ricky is Ottone Riccio, poet and prophet and rascal. Every teacher needs a teacher like him.
Rusty is James Hevelin, who is never called James except by the government. He is the friend every man needs and not many find.
In some world everyone has a Ricky on his left and a Rusty on his right, and it's a good world.
The author gratefully acknowledges the influence of James Gunn's beautiful novel,
, on this book.
Normally her desk was no neater than it had to be, a comfortable random pile of notes, journals, and books. So long as she knew where everything was, who cared? But she had just spent fifteen minutes nervously straightening things up, desk and worktable. It was not quite six in the morning.
There would be reporters.
She looked at the coffee machine in the anteroom. The smell was a magnet. No, not now. Her heart was already racing. Doctor said two cups a day.
She pushed a button on the desk. "Previous," she said, and the diagram on the wallscreen was replaced by a double page of equations and numbers. "Previous," she said again, and got a double page of numbers and words. "Left." The screen reconfigured and gave her a single magnified page of words. She stared at it and shook her head.
It was an old and old-fashioned office, dating from before the turn of the century. It had an antique blackboard that she enjoyed using, the only one left in the physics building, and one whole wall, floor to ceiling, had built-in shelves for books printed on paper. Some of that space had been converted into a large display screen, but she did have rows of paper volumes bound in leather, cloth, and cardboard. The head of the department can be eccentric.
"Music," she said; "random Vivaldi, then random Baroque." An oboe began a familiar figure. "Louder, ten percent."
She sat down for a minute, listening, and then got up and slid a large book from the shelf, one she'd bought on impulse Monday. She leafed through the yellowing pages carefully. It was a book of news photographs from the old
magazine, documenting a war that her great-great-grandfather had fought in. Grainy patriotic pictures and ads with meaningless prices.
Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War.
What on Earth did that mean? Lucky Strike was evidently a tobacco cigarette; maybe green tobacco had some weapons application back then.
At the sound of the elevator, she closed the book and returned it. Her husband came into the outer office. "Coffee any good?"
"Just made it, half-real." He poured a cup. White stubble on his chin, rumpled workclothes. He got up almost as early as she did, but didn't bother to shave and dress till noon.
"I didn't quite understand your message." He sat down on the chair normally reserved for nervous graduate students. "Or quite believe what I heard." She always expected to get the house when she called home. Norman was a cellist and composer, and spent the first hour of his workday warming up, meditating over scales and intervals, and ignored the phone. But the house had told him it sounded important, and so he picked up the message. He'd called back immediately and said he was coming over.
He looked around the neat office. "You have someone in?"
She laughed. "I've been tidying. Waiting for a longer parallax verification."
lax. Sit down, you make me nervous." He gestured at the wallscreen. "This is it?"
She nodded. It was a neat column of words:
repeated sixty times.
"Well … by itself, it doesn't exactly make one—"
"Norman. The signal came from a tenth of a light-year away. In English."
"Oh." He sipped his coffee. "We don't have anyone that far out?"
"Of course not."
"Creatures from outer space."
"Something from outer space." The phone rang and she picked up the wand. "Bell." She leaned forward, elbow on desk, staring blankly at the column of words. "Anytime is okay. Is he the science reporter?" She rolled her eyes. "Please. Can't we wait for a science reporter?" She exhaled slowly. "I understand. You have the address? Right. Bye."
Norman smiled. "Science reporters aren't up at six?"
"They're sending their 'night man.' He's probably used to murders and things."
"They couldn't wait?"
"No, it's out on the nets. I called the Marsden Bureau in Washington as soon as I was sure what it was."
"Oh, you're sure what it is?"
"No, no." She stood up and sat back down. "Just how far away, how fast. You know what the blue shift is?"
"An article of clothing?" She gave him an exasperated look. "I guess it's like the red shift, but blue."
"Right. It tells how fast something is coming toward us, rather than away." She pointed at the column of words, stabbing. "This thing came in a burst of gamma rays. Its source is coming at us with almost the speed of light."
"It's slowing down. If it weren't, I couldn't say anything about the blue shift—I mean, they could just be broadcasting in high-energy gamma rays."
He frowned. "I don't understand."
"It's complicated." She waved the complications away. "Anyhow, I can tell how fast it's slowing down. From that … what it boils down to is that this thing popped into existence going the speed of light, exactly one-tenth of a light-year away, and it's decelerating at such a rate that it will reach Earth in exactly three months. New Year's Day."
"Of course not. They're giving us a creepy message. Those two words, combined with the blue shift and position, say, "We know a lot about you, and we are vastly superior technologically. Ready or not, here we come.'"
He rubbed the stubble on his throat. "Jesus." They both looked up when the elevator door chimed. "The night man cometh."
Dan didn't like the way the old elevator squeaked and shuddered. They were supposed to be fail-safe, but he'd covered a story over in Jax a few years before, where one—newer than this had dropped twenty floors. Broken necks and fractured skulls and only one survivor, her muffled screaming terrible as the Rescue Squad rappelled down to cut open the roof. He pushed on the squealing door to speed it up, then held the door for the cameras to roll out behind him.
He checked his watch: 6:17. The Kampus Kops wouldn't start ticketing until seven. Maybe the press card on his windshield would protect him. The station only paid for two tickets a week, and he'd already had them.
Dr. Bell, 436. He turned to the right and the cameras followed. The small one stopped every couple of meters to take atmosphere: bulletin boards, an empty classroom, the sign that said
DEPARTMENT OF ASTRONOMY AND ASTROPHYSICS
. Dr. Bell was waiting for him in a doorway, a small stocky woman with short black hair streaked with white; a kindly face with an expression difficult to read. Dan introduced himself and they went into the office.
The guy sitting by the desk looked like the janitor, but Dan had a good memory for faces and made the name connection. He held out his hand. "Norman Bell, of course. I went to your concert in the park last spring."
The man shook his hand and looked amused. "You cover music as well as astronomical anomalies?"
"No, sir." Something about the man compelled honesty. "Actually, I'm tone-deaf. It was a date."
He laughed. "She must have been worth pursuing." He stood up. "Well. I'll get out of your way."
"Please stay, Norman." She looked at Dan. "Is that all right?"
He shrugged. "As long as you don't stand or sit together. Confuses the cameras' tiny brains." They would scurry around getting two-shots, long shots, intercuts, reaction shots. Half the footage would be of a scruffy-looking man in gray workclothes, temporarily irrelevant. "I think it would shoot best with you at your desk, Professor. I'll sit over here." He indicated the chair that Norman had just vacated.