Still later, on yet another world, the recruit found himself in a ramshackle beach town outside a low building with a salt-faded sign above dirty plate-glass windows that said “Mac’s Pool Hall.” He set the parking brake on his 1952 Chevy DeLuxe, got out and crossed the sidewalk. Inside, the man he had known first as a general in an improbable interstellar army was shooting a solo game of eight ball. At the lunch counter, a grimy individual in a black T-shirt was cooking on the grill. Hamburger and grilled onions; the odor was all-pervading.
“Hi, Michael,” the general said in English. “You’ve got to work harder on that memory of yours. I’m Raymond Kimball, remember? I’ve never been an Army general in my life. I did make buck sergeant in Korea. You know I’ve told you that story a dozen times, how the Chicoms, when they came in on the side of the North Koreans, rolled right over a lot of our units.” He drove the white ball down the table with a fluid motion of the stick. “They left me for dead with the rest of my unit. We never had a chance.”
Michael walked to a wall-mounted rack and carefully selected a heavy 24-ounce cue. He still needed the weight to compensate for his newborn body’s uncoordinated stroke.
“You were asleep when they came,” he recited. “The first thing you heard was the .50-caliber Browning firing. Then they rolled right over the gunner, because they didn’t count the cost, and didn’t stop because of a few hundred casualties. After they wiped out your whole company, you escaped a bayonet by lying perfectly still under your best friend’s body until they were gone. You breathed up your armpit to conceal the condensation of your breath after his guts stopped steaming in the cold.”
“Very good,” Raymond Kimball said. “Go ahead and rack the balls while I get my burger. Want one?”
Michael barely suppressed a shudder. “Indubitably.”
“Excellent word choice.” Kimball walked to the counter. “That English teacher at the high school — what were their names…?”
“Fletcher High. Duncan U. Fletcher, for the senator. Football team named the Senators. High school annual named the same. The teacher is Mr. Wilson.” Michael racked the balls.
“Go ahead and break.”
Michael failed to sink any balls. Kimball bit into his sandwich, wiped his hands on his greasy mechanic’s coveralls, and sank three in quick succession, scratching on the fourth shot.
Michael missed again, and watched Kimball run the table. By then the cook had Michael’s order, and a pair of fountain Cokes, on the counter. “Order up!” he said.
“Let’s sit to eat. I’m starving,” Kimball said.
Michael studied the cook without looking at him.
“Of course he’s synthetic,” Kimball said around another mouthful.
“I thought so. Ever since I’ve been here, I thought so. But Mr. Wilson…”
“Wilson is the genuine article. He actually did teach English at Duncan U. Fletcher, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, in the 1950s. One warm spring evening he left his students’ term papers scattered all over his kitchen table and went for a walk on the beach. Didn’t even take his wallet. He was never seen again. In the due course of events his body was found washed up on the beach. Or what was left of his body after the undercurrents and the fishes got through. The dental work matched his dental records perfectly.”
“Probably more perfectly than Mr. Wilson’s teeth would match those records now?”
“Indubitably.” Kimball smirked.
“Mr. Wilson,” he added, “is in considerably better health here than he ever was on Jacksonville Beach, and will live about four times his normal expectancy.”
“As a prisoner.”
Kimball spread his hands. “Fortunes of war. In any event, if Mr. Wilson were party to this conversation, he undoubtedly would quote one of their poets of an earlier period to the effect that stonewalls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. This Jacksonville Beach is considerably safer, cleaner and less subject to strife than the original.” Kimball smiled. “He can walk on the beach out there in perfect safety from flying saucers, for one thing.”
Michael worked on his burger and fries for a while, and his new body surprised him again with its favorable reaction to the fare. He was more accustomed to it now, but still…
“You have to be completely accustomed to it,” Kimball said. “When I say hamburger, you have to salivate, not cringe. Your new body is a perfect terrestrial body, after all. It’s your stubborn brain we still are working on.”
“I live with my grandparents in Florida,” Michael said. “When I was 18, they gave me a completely reconditioned 1952 Chevrolet DeLuxe two-door that gets about 18 miles to the gallon. Three on the tree — that’s a manual transmission with the shift lever mounted to the right of the steering wheel…”
Kimball held up a forestalling hand. “You are a star pupil. I know you’re impatient.”
“I keep saying the war will probably be over before I graduate. Certainly all that basic combat training was a waste of time.”
“You know how government regulations can be. But don’t worry: there’s not much chance this war will be over before you’re ready.”
“Ready to do what? That’s the question. The only thing my tutor drilled me on en route to this world, besides Earth history and English, was telekinetic exercises. Kindergarten stuff.”
“Only to you. You’re one of our most gifted, which brings me a question of my own, a personal one. If you don’t mind?”
“I’ll decide when I hear it.”
“Okay. You know we researched you pretty thoroughly before a decision to induct you. You have no idea how closely your life parallels that of your subject. I’m curious why you use a console for your tg-gwon decoys” — the word clashed strangely amid the English — ”when you could easily manipulate such old-fashioned circuitry with your mind.”
“I use all the ability I have to manipulate the media I paint in. That’s work. Hunting is recreation. Why?”
“Just learning how your mind works. It’s recommended for top management.”
“If you’re top management, maybe you can explain why we aren’t setting ourselves up for failure by having all our operatives trained in a mock-up of a single small town? Even a primitive computer could find that pattern and wonder at it.”
“The same…” Kimball stopped. “That’s right. I’m shielded again. Have to be, working with my own kind.” He drained his Coke. “Let’s just say don’t worry about it. You won’t run into any fellow Senators — not from this version of Jacksonville Beach, anyway — when you go operational. By the way, computers there don’t ‘wonder’ about anything. Not yet.”
Michael sorted out the implications as they moved back to the pool table. “How many of these illusory home towns…?”
Kimball shook his head. “Classified.”
“And the number of Mr. Wilsons too, I suppose.”
“Let’s just say we take the absolute minimum for operational necessity, with every attempt made to select those with the least to yearn for.”
“I never have figured out how much of this town is a computer-generated illusion,” Michael said, “and how much actual construction, or how far I’d have to travel before I broke through the backdrop.”
“Good. A little more practice, and you’ll just live the part, like an actor. Your advantage is that this set is virtually perfect, and you can’t see the production crew.
“Believe me: you have to live it. Memory of Jacksonville Beach has to be in your new central nervous system as unconsciously as your actual home was in your own. It has to be programmed into this body’s muscle memory. Anything less, and the enemy could sniff you out. Discovery of any one of us would create the inference of all of us. The consequences are unthinkable.”
“Right now,” Michael mused, “we’re deep in our own sphere of influence, but far off any regular shipping lanes. So their scouts probably couldn’t find us, even if they could penetrate this deep. I envision isolated little stage sets, as you put it, scattered over the whole face of the planet. And serious defensive measures in orbit.”
“You’ll have to do something about that imagination, Michael.”
“Why? Don’t tell me I’m not scheduled for some sort of induced memory loss, or you’ll insult what’s left of my intelligence. I’m already having dreams too odd even for the natural nightmares of adjusting to a new body.”
Kimball leaned on his stick. “Well…” he said uneasily.
“Don’t worry. I won’t resist. Not if I can assure myself your functionaries know what they’re doing.”
“Well, I’ve been through it — more than once — and here I am.”
“Here you are, all right, eating hamburgers and actually enjoying them. Are you sure you have your own memories back? Maybe they just needed a general to recruit gullible citizens like me, and created his memories for you.”
Kimball laughed, somewhat weakly. “Well, now, that’s something that’s past knowing for sure. But I don’t think so. You’ll learn what I mean. But I can’t have you anticipating. You have to go in open-minded.”
He patted Michael’s arm with a real show of affection. “Now let it rest. I’m certainly not going to answer your next question.”
“You mean whether acquisition of assets like Mr. Wilson is at the base of their flying saucer myth?
“What a term, huh? Flying saucers.”
“And the dish ran away with the spoon,” Michael said.
Kimball looked puzzled before he filched the context from Michael’s thoughts. Then he laughed.
“Michael! You made a nursery-rhyme joke, and in English, too. Now I’m impressed. That’s so subtle I almost didn’t get it, and I’ve spent — never mind how many — of their years among them. Mr. Wilson is worth his weight in any precious substance you’d care to name, the way you’re coming along. Your progress makes me nostalgic.”
“I was with the first survey teams. It was quite an adventure, sneaking in to grab and examine a few natives here and there just to learn some basic biology and language, so we could begin to study their history and culture. Most of those, we put back with erased memories of the encounter. You know we try not to interfere in alien cultures too drastically. They have literally scores of different languages! And even more cultures. We already suspected the enemy was there. But there was no trace of them. That was a puzzle all its own. Every operation, we lived in fear of stepping into some sort of trap. It was — never mind how long — before we knew enough to begin our own infiltration. Now here you are, using a nursery rhyme that way, and you haven’t even completed training yet.”
“I’m still pretty slow,” Michael said. “It just now occurs to me why I won’t have to worry about running into the owner of the body this one was cloned from. Somebody else is going to go for a walk on the beach pretty soon. But when he comes back, it’ll be me.”
It took Michael two calendar months in the ersatz Jacksonville Beach to recognize his high-school baseball coach as the individual who had examined his surgical status at the training compound. The lean, balding and sarcastic adult who hit endless ground balls to him at third base was tightly shielded now.
What thoughts Michael could discern dealt with memories of near-glory in the minor leagues before injuries forced him into coaching, and irritation that his own son, the center fielder, never was going to be another Mickey Mantle.
“Excellent,” Coach Powell told him as they warmed up along the sidelines, playing catch. “You’re one of our very most gifted. If it took you that long to spot me, having met me before, then I’m almost ready to return to active duty.”
Michael almost missed the return toss. “Active…”
“I’ll act as your on-planet control. We don’t expect Michael to stay in Jacksonville Beach. That’s one of the reasons, in fact, he was selected. But you’ll need support in the field. Someone who can ground you in reality if you feel your identity slipping. To look after you if some accident befalls you. And to stand watch in the real Jacksonville Beach for any surreptitious investigation of your past which would indicate you’re under suspicion.”
“I see.” Michael looped the ball back with more force than he had intended. “Will you also raise young Alan, Jr., and screw his mother?”
“Fortunes of war,” Powell grinned. He blew his whistle. The high school baseball team trotted from the dugout and took up positions as Michael moved to third base.
On the outfield grass, the assistant coach fungoed long fly balls to Alan Jr. and the rest of the outfield. The sun was warm and the air calm. How much actual, how much illusion? Was anything real?
“First base!” shouted Powell, and slapped the ball at Michael smartly. He fielded it with automatic precision and rifled the throw. “Nice peg,” yelled big Earl Cullen at first. Synthetic big Earl Cullen.
“Double play!” barked Powell, and drove the ball down the line. Michael backhanded it two steps into foul ground, pivoted, and bisected the bag at second. Little Tommy Murrow went high, showboating, and threw perfectly to Earl.
And so it went, each synthetic player real as life, including bobbled balls and grunted curses, which the coach corrected in a bawl. Michael was sweating hard by the time the coach began dribbling bunts for each fielder to flick to the catcher as they raced to the plate and then off the field.
“Not you, Michael,” he called. “Boys, hit the showers. Mike’s got a little more infield to do.”
Powell worked him alone on the deserted diamond, trying to get the ball past him in earnest now, extending him further and further to right and left, the throws made toward an old car tire wired to the first-base fence. His first throws were all around the mark until he steadied down and controlled the flight of the ball. Then they centered the fence with metronomic regularity, skipping away to litter the first-base line.
“And fifty,” Powell said, slicing a routine Baltimore chop halfway between third and second. Michael side-armed it across his body and felt his shoulder ping. The ball carried toward right field. He veered it true. The result was a bizarre reverse curve that defied natural laws.
Powell grounded his bat. “Don’t do that on active duty with anyone watching.”
“Sorry. I hurt my shoulder on that throw.”
“Go grab a shower.”
Michael showered alone in the now-familiar reek of a high school gym, and slipped into an Enro button-down shirt, chinos, and Hush Puppies. He left his sodden sweats for the never-seen servos to take care of. Powell was waiting outside.
“Shoulder joint still painful?”
“Burns like fire.”
“It’s a common complaint of baseball players. The clone is developing a physical history for you to store in memory.”
“Dammit, this hurts!”
“Sleep it off. Believe me, you’ll feel better in the morning. In the meantime, you’ve got a real-life memory of a real-life baseball injury engraved in your neurons.”
“I thought this was practice in kinetic control.”
“Everything we do here has as many uses as we can cram in. Now let’s grab my heap and go get something at the Surf Maid.”
“Nothing doing. I’d never be caught dead at the Surf Maid with an adult.”
“Sure you would. Ain’t I the guy with contacts in the big leagues who’s going to try to get you a walk-on at the Pirates’ spring training camp? Let’s go.”
The starter on the big Fury ground furiously before it caught. “I–hear–a–Plymouth,” Michael sing-songed.
Powell looked at him blankly. “Kimball’s doing,” Michael explained. “That’s what mechanics say when they hear a Plymouth starter grind like that. He’s teaching me to be a mechanic in case I don’t make it professionally as a baseball player, which he thinks is about as likely as me growing up to be a cowboy.”
“Kimball is a great patriot,” Powell said admiringly.
Michael burst out laughing. Maybe he was turning into an Earth teenager after all, he mused. As they rolled down Beach Boulevard toward the Surf Maid, he fell asleep.
He dreamed. In the dream he was a disembodied observer of atoms. It seemed peculiar he should be able to observe atomic states unaided, and recognize the enormous power compressed within them, poised in dynamic suspension. It would take so little to destabilize that balance….
“Here,” murmured an invisible instructor. “Touch here, and here.”
He touched — not with his hands.
“And here…” The atomic structure quivered in reaction. He tried to understand what was happening.
“Now here…” Like a silent thunderclap, the targeted atoms flashed into another state. Typhoons of energy blasted through his dream. He stirred uncomfortably.
“You are safe. It cannot harm you…”
The cataclysm grew, annihilating everything. Can you feel ravening heat in a dream? Can you watch unwatchable light, boiling like the heart of a sun? Even in a dream, can you survive the unsurvivable?
Everything went black and blank. He heard himself groan. But he couldn’t awaken.
“Well done,” came the instructor’s accolade. “You destabilized the equivalent of three nuclear reactors to full meltdown. You triggered two multiple warheads in their launch cradles. No recruit has done so much so early in their training…”
He awoke to the drone of the big Fury’s engine. It seemed to be taking a long time to get to the Surf Maid.
“Guess I dozed off,” he said.
“You’ve had a rough day of training. You’re entitled.” He smelled something burning. Powell was smoking a cigarette again; his alien visage picked out redly in the glow when he inhaled.
“Not alien,” Powell corrected gently.
“From whose perspective?” Michael shot back.
“I know all this is difficult, Michael, but we have to be absolutely certain you’re ready.”
“Ready to turn a noncombatant world into a radioactive cinder? That was no dream I just had. Is that what this is all about?”
“Only if there is no other choice. No other choice.”
“The general told you why, the first time we met. Yes, I was your third visitor that day. Surprised you haven’t noticed that yet.”
“It still hasn’t all been explained to me. I seem to remember being told at some point that I would be fully briefed, and have refusal rights.”
“Still true. When you’re ready.”
“And when will that be?”
“Sooner than you think. Too soon for me. Remember, I have to go back, too.” He spun the cigarette butt out the window. “As soon as you’re ready, my R and R is over. This time I’m your erstwhile baseball coach in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, U.S.A.”
“And last time?”
“I don’t remember. I’m not supposed to remember.”
Even through Powell’s shield, Michael sensed the other’s discomfort. “Those two statements don’t mean the same thing.”
“They don’t, do they?”