Sorting through my published novels and posting samples as a distraction from pernicious health problems interfering with new creative writing.
None have climbed the best-seller lists, not since my first in 1964–65. But my oldest friend from newspaper days back then says these, published by his 21st-century ebook and print-on-demand company, are my “legacy.” I have conveyed all rights into my Living Trust in emulation of Max Brand, whose Westerns I admired and who created Dr. Kildare.
Copyrights begin to run out upon author death, but a trust is essentially immortal. Any late-blooming interest in my works will supposedly have to be negotiated with my successor trustees on behalf of my named beneficiaries. While I’m still here I can offer samples in hopes of generating a sale or two.
He woke to the cheerful racket of mockingbirds in the palm trees outside the screen sleeping porch. Now he could hear the surf on the beach just down the lane. He lay perfectly still, trying to remember where he was. His dreams just before awakening had been harrowing, confusing. The rhythm of the surf was soothing. He had lived all his life by the sea.
Not this sea.
He considered that intrusive idea, let it go. He shouldn’t be thinking like that, even half-asleep. Still unmoving, he went through a methodical process of remembering who he was. Then who he was supposed to be. The process worked, so they still had not succeeded in inducing total memory loss. It was a small rebellion, but it felt like a large victory.
He smelled bacon frying, and then heard his grandmother, at the foot of the stairs.
“You awake up there, Michael?”
“Breakfast will be ready in fifteen minutes. Mr. Kimball will be here soon.”
His grandmother disapproved of his weekend job at Kimball’s auto shop. She thought he should be busy with his painting. Her ambitions for her grandson included his becoming a great painter like Winslow Homer, whom she admired.
He felt a stab of something like guilt. I am a great artist, he longed to tell her. Perhaps greater than Winslow Homer, among my own people. Greater than Van Gogh. Don’t worry, Mama. He had called her Mama since infancy. His high-school friends thought it strange, but he had never known her as anything else.
So easily did his cover story slip back into and supplant his own thoughts.
He jerked out of bed with an angry movement. He wanted to apologize to a synthetic replicant of a little old alien female for inhabiting her beloved grandson’s life. He was beginning to relate to the synthetic grandmother as flesh and blood. Kimball would approve, but Michael felt like an inmate in an institution for the permanently insane.
He hurried through the alien morning rituals that were almost second nature now: toothbrush, shaving cream and razor. Jade East aftershave stung the still-relatively-newborn Dirtling flesh molded around his reshaped skull. He pulled on a pair of worn Levis and a grease-grayed T-shirt that was nevertheless spanking clean and ironed. White socks and battered black Keds completed the costume.
He was just finishing breakfast when Kimball’s pickup rattled to a stop outside. His grandmother was reading the morning Times-Union with absorption. Instinctively, he reached down to plant a quick kiss on her forehead as he gathered up his lunchbox.
“Be careful around all those cars and things,” she said.
The sun was above the horizon now, creating deep shadows between the pastel little beach houses. The streets were completely empty. Michael thought the scene might have tempted Winslow Homer; it was reminiscent of Homer’s Bahamas period.
He had to admit to himself that studying the art history of a wholly unknown planet was almost worth all the aggravation alone. Then a random thought intruded: if this world had to be eliminated as a matter of interstellar logistics, would the high command save any of its art and history of thought for some postwar memorial? Or any of its inhabitants for resettlement?
“You’re in a fine state this morning,” Kimball offered. “Didn’t sleep well?”
“I seem to remember counting nuclear chain reactions half the night, if that’s what you mean.”
Kimball pondered this. “Homesick?”
“I kissed her on the forehead, for Chrissake!”
“Well, she is your grandmother, after all.”
Michael demonstrated his proficient profanity.
After a respectful pause, Kimball said, “Maybe she’s right about garage work coarsening your finer sensibilities.”
“I don’t care,” Michael retorted, “if you’re the entire Supreme Command rolled into one. Don’t make fun of me this morning.”
Kimball brought the truck to a halt right in the middle of the street. Michael was so conditioned to his stage-set existence by now that he flinched, expecting to be rear-ended.
“Nothing about your mission is humorous,” Kimball said. “It’s deadly serious. You are worth any dozen battalions of ordinary citizens. Surely you understand that.”
“What happens to the real-life Michael when I take his place?”
“Then I exercise my right to refuse the assignment.”
“Michael, you are dangerously close to treason.”
“If I’m so valuable, I deserve a little consideration. I will not be responsible for the death of the real-life Michael DeLong.”
“Your sentimental reaction could be the death of literally tens of millions of our kind. I am not exaggerating to say it could mean the loss of the war.”
“Then guarantee his safety.”
“Who ever said he wouldn’t be safe?”
“Safely out of circulation, you mean.”
Kimball sighed heavily and started driving again. “When you complete your tour of duty, you will step out of his life and he will step in again, with as complete a set of memories of the life you lived as him as we can manage. Edited, of course, where your mission is concerned. In the meanwhile he will be completely safe. As safe as your real body is, Michael.”
“And if I crash and burn?”
“You mean if you die in character?” Kimball asked.
“If we can arrange it, we will cover up your death and reinsert the original as planned.”
“You will go to all that effort just to humor my sentimental notions?”
“Sentiment really has nothing to do with it,” Kimball said. “It’s simply good tactics. We leave as few traces as possible, or we trigger the very events we are trying to forestall.”
“Okay, I rescind my refusal. I’ll withhold judgment until final briefing,”
“Great!” He slapped Michael on the knee. “You don’t know what a relief that is. For one thing, I’d sure like you to finish that valve job on Hank Peterson’s Cadillac before you just insist on your right to jump out of spaceships above enemy-held worlds!”
Michael was up to his elbows in grease, totally engrossed in alien mechanical pleasures, when Coach Powell’s Plymouth nosed into the repair bay.
“Don’t tell me I missed a Saturday practice,” Michael said.
“Nope. Get cleaned up. I’ve got to take you to be fitted for your class ring.”
Kimball came out of the office. “Go ahead, Mike. This is important.”
“Would somebody like to let me in on this? This is not part of today’s schedule.”
“You’re right, it’s not,” Kimball answered. “We’re jumping ahead quite a bit, but I’m sure you can handle it.”
“Let’s go, Mike,” Powell said.
They soon were rolling west on Beach Boulevard toward the low arch of the Intracoastal Waterway bridge.
“You might want to shut your eyes for a moment,” Powell said as they started up the span.
“This is about where I always fall asleep on our little rides.”
The light outside shifted suddenly. His eyes teared angrily.
“Okay,” said Powell. “Here we go.”
They were no longer on the bridge, but a level featureless strip of pavement hemmed in by towering plant life that no Floridian had ever seen.
“Or anybody else from our home world either, for that matter,” Powell said.
A shadow flitted overhead in the murky twilight and settled to the road ahead. Powell pulled up beside the ovoid craft’s port thruster and shut his engine off.
The pilot was a combat synthetic. Michael followed Powell up the ladder and settled in behind the pilot. They were hardly in when the canopy glided into place and liftoff occurred.
“Is this it?” Excitement made his pulse race at almost his native heart rate.
“Not quite,” Powell said. “But things are moving. We’ve received word that an ideal insertion point is coming up.”
The shuttle curved among jagged mountains, homed in on a small landing pad halfway up an enormous cliff. When the canopy slid back it admitted a burst of chill air. A combat synthetic guarded a single blank door in the cliff. Michael eyed the power guns on the synthetic’s fists uncomfortably. It was the first time since basic training he had been this close to war materiel. The synthetic ignored them. The door dilated onto a softly lighted lift-tube. They exited deep in the mountain. Powell led the way through another door.
The female within wore combat fatigues and seemed impossibly slender and fragile to Michael’s Earth-accustomed gaze. It hit him all at once how long he had been without feminine companionship. He didn’t count busty Barbara Arnold in Mr. Wilson’s English class.
“You arrrh warmmmh?” she trilled. In her mouth the English seemed crude and blocky.
“We’re fine,” Powell said crisply. “We’re here for fitting.”
She was not a sensitive, unaware how open her surface thoughts were to one of his kind. She made no effort to suppress her casual contempt for the clumsy graceless bipeds. Michael hid a smile. If she knew what this clumsy biped was thinking…
“She thinks all Dirtlings think of nothing else,” Powell said.
“Nothing, dear. Let’s get to it.”
“You go therrrh…”
Powell headed for the indicated door. “Be with you shortly, Mike.”
“Come thisss wawwwh…”
He caught her lingering scent. It was utterly alien to his Dirtling olfactory gear, slightly disgusting. He stopped. The room glowed with cold blue fire from infinite points.
Something besides the two of them was alive in this room. Not precisely alive…She faced him in the blued shadows, infinitely lovely. He sensed a strong rapport, and leaned toward her, then aborted the move before her inner repugnance could surface on that lovely countenance.
“Notttth me — the stonesss.” She gestured.
“Eerie, ain’t it?” Powell came out of the shadows.
“You’re not shielded!”
“Not here. I left my personal stone outside. It’s imprinted on me. The colony’s energy level would confuse it badly.”
“What on earth…”
“Nothing even vaguely resembling Dirt, my boy. These stones are our most closely held military secret. This world is their native habitat. This room of course is our colony of clones, separated from the home hive and cultured carefully to our own ends.”
“Clones. Them too, just like us?”
“You musss choosssh…”
“A communications matrix?” Michael guessed.
“Exactly. Thought is the swiftest form of energy, by which light is dead slow in comparison. The native crystal colony is something outside our experience, and will undoubtedly keep the scientists happy for generations. Does it actually think, doesn’t it, that kind of debate. But war is the laboratory of applied research. We don’t care how they communicate as long as they do. And they do — infallibly. Stop talking now. When your nervous system resonates with one of these — you’ll just know — the good doctor here will take it from there with her instruments. When we’re ready for active duty, you will have a personal stone. Yours of course will be made up as your high school class ring.”
Blue light danced in the room, in cadence to the neural pulse pounding in his brain.
“You musss be quickkkh…or they willlh not cahmmh for daysss…”
She moved sinuously in the shifting blueness. His mouth dried with half-forgotten lust, distracting him.
A cold blue moon winked at him from the far wall. Abruptly, thoughts of home submerged all others: twon calling down the bitter wind beneath the twin satellites of winter solstice; memories of family members long dead, laughing together on solstice feast day…Somehow that one small brilliant orb eclipsed the others.
He plucked it violently from its setting. Energy thrummed through his Dirtling nervous system into his brain. For the first time, the body’s nervous system seemed to meld seamlessly to his personal awareness.
“This one!” he said loudly.
“Arrrh…” She made a sound like lovemaking in her throat.
Michael was staring fixedly at the woman.
“Michael!” It was Powell’s voice. “Let’s get out of here!”
“All right,” he croaked.
By the artificial days of the beach town, several weeks passed after the unnerving trip outside its illusion. Michael continued with his classes, baseball practice, weekend garage work, and his increasingly lucid dreams of thermonuclear destruction. He now seemed as proficient in the latter as in other studies. Certainly, he received continuous positive reinforcement from his trainers.
Increasingly, the only way he could clear his mind was by sketching, at which he was infuriatingly clumsy. This clone body he was heir too did not seem to have any muscle-memory for artistry. Attempting to convert his interior images of this bizarre training camp to paper with a hand that wasn’t truly his was like trying to write poetry in an unknown tongue.
Today, Mr. Wilson was at the blackboard, quoting from the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar. In the casual disarray of classroom desks that the teacher preferred, Barbara Arnold had somehow managed to arrange herself cozily behind Michael. Now, she insinuated an unseen hand on his neck, right where he left off and the cloned body began. His brain and his body’s nervous system began to exchange information with a fluidity new since his visit to the peculiar crystal cave. His body’s physical reaction to her caress was unambiguous in the extreme.
Michael doodled fiercely on the notebook paper in front of him.
She’s synthetic, for God’s sake!
Barbara breathed hotly in his ear. “Isn’t that sensual, Michael?”
He jerked spastically. She giggled quietly.
“Of all the wonders that I yet have seen,” Mr. Wilson intoned, “it seems to me most strange, that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, shall come — when it shall come.”
“When shall it come, Michael?” Barbara cooed.
Somehow her lips had drifted almost against his ear. He was astonished at the force of his integrated physical and emotional reaction, painful in tight Levis. He sketched furiously.
“Tonight,” she breathed, tickling his ear again, “my parents won’t be home. Be there, or be square.”
But when his brain instinctively reached for rapport, there was nothing there. She was synthetic. If he had discerned any pattern to his training, the real Barbara was unimaginable light years from here, making sexual passes at one of the unluckiest young men in the history of her world.
Michael wondered if the real Barbara had relieved the true Michael’s painful virginity, all the while spied upon by terrifying creatures that would have terrified her into catatonia if she had seen them. Creatures that would, of course immediately discern the need to imprint a new indelible memory in the neurons of their pawn, and send the coded details of the seduction flashing across space at multiples of the speed of light.
His Levis were insufferably tight across his distended sexual organs.
“… Michael!” Mr. Wilson’s sharp tone jerked his attention back to the teacher. His ears burned. External ears! He still was having a hard time adjusting to those.
“You seem — shall we say? — distracted,” the English teacher said.
Mr. Wilson minced toward Michael in a creditable imitation of Barbara Arnold’s hip-proud walk. The class laughed approvingly; the meaner among them said Mr. Wilson didn’t have to try all that hard to swish. This overtly sexual prance delighted their juvenile fancy. But none of it was real, none of them were real. Only the aging, crewcut Earthman, forever exiled from his home, acting out a script not even the Bard could have penned.
“Sketching again, Michael? Let us see.”
Mr. Wilson’s thin arm captured the piece of notebook paper. The facetious expression left his face as he studied the pencil strokes. A 1952 Chevrolet, crudely fashioned. A slender, erotic form, undeniably female, but subtly wrong. Michael watched the teacher’s thoughts as he studied the drawing, trying to decide if the figure was depicted as wearing a form-fitting leotard of some sort, or was naked — which would require drastic measures.
The complex androgyny of the sketched figure disturbed Mr. Wilson sexually. He struggled to control the power of his reaction, and finally settled his gaze upon Michael’s background motif of a string of heavily shaded and interlocking mushroom clouds that marched in near-perfect symmetry to the top of the page.
Mr. Wilson handed the paper back silently and took off his glasses. His naked blue eyes seemed strangely vulnerable.
“The way the world ends,” he said quietly. “With a bang, after all.”
Michael was astonished. Had the high command underestimated the paranormal potential of terrestrials? But on another level, he recognized Wilson spoke in the rhythm of a quotation.
“Shakespeare?” he said. “Referring perhaps to dynamite?”
Mr. Wilson looked as if he might cry. “Somehow, I thought you were a better student than that, Michael. Though for the life of me I can’t think why. Mr. Shakespeare’s plays antedated Mr. Nobel’s dynamite by some little number of decades.” He replaced his glasses, and stared at the class as if, at last, he saw them for what they were.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…” he muttered.
“That’s Shakespeare, Mr. Wilson: The Tempest!” Barbara chimed in suddenly and surprisingly. “The cloud capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself. Yea all which it inherit shall dissolve. And like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rock behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”
“And our little life is rounded with a sleep,” Mr. Wilson said quietly. His mind fizzed with incredulity, because the synthetic had broken character badly. The teenage Barbara Arnolds of Mr. Wilson’s world simply didn’t complete obscure quotes.
Then he seemed to shake himself. “Very good, Miss Arnold, but we still are on Julius Caesar, and…”
He was interrupted by the PA system. “Michael DeLong, report to the office. Michael DeLong.”
Michael jumped out of his desk and grabbed up his books.
“Go,” said Mr. Wilson. He looked tired and sad.
Barbara raised her triumphant glance from the bulge in his jeans he tried awkwardly to hide with his schoolbooks, and framed her lips into a silent “Tonight!”
Michael beat a confused retreat.
Coach Powell waited in the office, ignored by the synthetic administrative staff as if he didn’t exist.
“Your grandfather has had another heart attack. He’s at the Beaches Hospital. Come on, I’ll drive you.”
He followed Powell’s long strides to the faculty parking lot. Synthetic heart attacks now, for synthetic grandfathers? Another crucial memory that must be seared into him, in case of hostile probing?
Powell gunned out of the parking lot, and drove south. Traffic was light, and he sped.
“Is this where I ask ‘is it serious’?” Michael said.
“I’m sorry about that Barbara episode, Michael,” the coach said. “It was all Kimball’s idea. He wasn’t with you for the stone selection. I was. I recommended a simple gland suppressor. But this whole camp is his brainchild — that’s classified, by the way — and he just can’t resist new and different twists. He’s like a fiction writer gone berserk.”
“Did Shakespeare really say that about the globe dissolving?
“How do I know? Who cares?
“Right. And my grandfather’s heart attack?”
“One of several experiences that already was on your training program. I admit it was artistic to throw it in at the last moment like that.”
The car sped toward the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge. Powell’s comment about the last moment sank in. “Is this another trip to the crystal room?” he asked. A brief, fevered image of the keeper of the stones flared in his mind.
“No. Here we go — ”
Michael shut his eyes. When the flaring dance of light subsided, the wilderness highway stretched ahead. The Fury surged forward. The speedometer registered past 90.
“We’re going straight to the spaceport,” Powell said. “To answer your forming question, it’s completely automated, so no security risk of unauthorized personnel seeing this heap.”
“My God, this is it, isn’t it?”
“You got it, bub. Active duty coming up.”
“What about my right of refusal?”
“You’re not going to refuse.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready!”
“You’ll never be sure. But don’t worry. You still get your official rights. But not until official briefing. You don’t get that until we’re in space.”
The spaceport was advertised by a solid black wall across the highway. A central port dilated and a single synthetic soldier observed them momentarily before the port widened for them.
Beyond were militarily-ordered structures and a broad field that bristled with a variety of craft. No lights. The synthetics didn’t need them. Powell parked the Fury at a moving slide-walk, an exotic insect among a row of hulking flitter trucks.
“I feel like I should have baggage,” Michael said.
“You’re carrying all the baggage you need between those exotic ears.”
Well out onto the field, a synthetic trooper signaled a dismount from the slide-walk. A lift tube took them into the rounded belly of a vast disk. The boarding corridor obligingly lighted as they came through. The trooper saw them safely into acceleration couches and left them. Moments later, an artificial voice announced imminent departure. No sooner stated than a huge weight settled on him with suffocating force, then went away as the couch took over his well-being. Even his sensitive inner ear told him they were perfectly motionless. The artificial voice announced rendezvous with the mother ship in twenty minutes.