Authors: Simon Hawke
THE IVANHOE GAMBIT
Time Wars: Book One
by Simon Hawke
Lucas Priest, Sergeant Major, United States Army Temporal Corps, was trying to figure out how to stop a charging bull elephant with nothing but a Roman short sword. Scipio had given the order to advance and Lucas wondered if the legion commander really believed that Rome's famed phalanx formations would intimidate a berserker like Hannibal. Sending foot soldiers against his pachyderms was not unlike attempting to stop a Panzer column with tricycles.
Lucas was a bundle of raw nerves. A short while ago, he would have given almost anything for a cigarette. He had managed to smuggle a few back with him, but he was almost caught smoking one by a tribune and it had given him such a bad turn that he had thrown the others away. Somehow, he couldn't see himself explaining to an ancient Roman what he was doing sticking a tubeful of burning leaves into his mouth. Now, as the elephants rapidly approached, he had forgotten all about his nervous urge for a cigarette and was instead wishing for a few pyrogel grenades or an auto-pulser. Unfortunately, all he had was his short sword, a shield and a spear.
He threw the spear and, of course, it didn't help his situation any. He decided that it was lunacy to go up against a herd of elephants with nothing but an oversized dagger, so he threw down his shield and ran.
Not a few centurions came to the same decision and Priest had lots of company in his undignified, albeit prudent, retreat.
"Today's Army has Time for You!"
It was an effective recruiting slogan, but the army never stressed the manner in which that time was measured. A week's enlistment period didn't sound too difficult to take, but it was one
week, measured not by the time spent in the field on the Minus side, but by Plus Time. Present time.
On his first hitch, or assignment in the field, Lucas had clocked out on the fourteenth of September at 0700. He had spent close to a year pillaging and raping with Attila and his Huns. When he clocked back in, it was still the fourteenth of September, 0705. Nine months of sheer hell and only five minutes of Plus Time counted toward the completion of his tour of duty. He remembered thinking that if time flies when you're having fun, it positively
when you're in the Temporal Corps.
He had less cause to complain than most soldiers. He had enlisted voluntarily. There had been much better options available; no one had twisted his arm. He had scored fairly well on his Service Aptitude Tests, a mandatory battery of exams that everyone had to take when they turned seventeen. His score had enabled him to land a position in the labs at Westerly Antiagathics, doing research on how to add yet another hundred years to the human lifespan. The job had paid well, but it had bored him. When the army came around with their dog and pony show, he had fallen for it hook, line and sinker.
The recruiters really laid it on. The presentation took up most of the work day and since the company still paid for the time, the attendance was close to one hundred percent. The army spokesman had been a civilian from the Ministry of Defense. He had been dressed very casually in a mellow color combination, a clingsuit in peach and woodsy brown. He had a terrific tan and a marvelous voice. His official title was Director of Service Administration. That meant he was a salesman. His introductory remarks had been well laced with jokes and homilies and after he spoke, there came the testimonials. People "just like you"
who had worked in "dull and undemanding" jobs came out and spoke about what a wonderful experience the army was for them. They always made sure, Lucas later discovered, that at least one of the speakers was "a former employee at your own place of business."
After the speeches, there was the Parade of Uniforms, a fashion show with something in it for everyone. The soldiers who modeled the garb of World War I doughboys, Apaches, Belt Commandos and Prussian cavalry were all good looking and they gave off a robust glow of health and vitality. The women were all beautiful, but somehow they never got around to explaining just what life was like for women back in "the good old days." Looking back on it, Lucas didn't believe that any of them had ever spent so much as one moment in the field. They had probably gone straight out of Official Social Courtesies directly into the recruiting program.
Following the fashion show, there came the part of the presentation they called Historical Orientation.
It was a brilliant multi-media production complete with stirring music and holographic effects, all about how history had proved that nations always prospered when they were on a wartime economic standard, how war was an inevitable fact of human nature and how the advent of time travel had made it possible to avoid the "inconvenience" of the physical presence of a war in present time. There was a barrage of information about how international disputes were settled by evaluating the performance of soldiers of the present in conflicts of the past, a
tour de force
that looked and sounded very glamorous, even if the information did flash by so quickly that it was impossible to absorb it all. At the end, there had been a short speech about how it was possible to apply to the Referee Corps upon completion of your tour of duty. It was well known that the refs had the highest pay scale in existence and enjoyed a standard of living on a par with heads of state, to whom, as an extra-national arbitrating body, they did not have to answer.
However, the fact of the matter was, as Lucas was later to discover, only those scoring in the top five percent of the S.A.T.s could qualify for the Referee Corps School selection process. Even so, it was still necessary to achieve degrees in Temporal Physics, Trans-historical Adjustment and Maintenance, and Econo-political Management and Arbitration. Supposedly, according to scuttlebutt, there wasn't a single person in the refs under the age of one hundred. There were younger personnel in the Observer Corps, the lower echelon of that vaunted cadre, but few soldiers were able to succeed in rising through the ranks and surviving the selection process, to say nothing of making it through R.C.S., which was, by all accounts, a real horror. Lucas Priest had no illusions about ever being anything more than a simple dog soldier.
Jesse Fain's case was more run-of-the-mill. She had done poorly on her S.A.T.s, as most everybody who could not afford implant education did, and she had been presented with a truly enviable proposition. She had been given a choice between working in the radioactive waste disposal and reclamation system—mining in the asteroid belt—or service in the army. She had joked wryly that it had been a really tough decision.
They had just met and already they knew each other fairly well. Soldiers made friends quickly. They had no other choice. Jesse was a young corporal who had just clocked in from serving a hitch under Alexander Nevsky. It was not uncommon for Russian women of that time to join their men upon the field of battle and Jesse had been out there on the frozen surface of the Neva, swinging a broadsword with the best of them. It had been a welcome change of pace for her, since in ancient times a woman's place was either at home, out front as gun fodder or on the receiving end of a rape. Jesse, accustomed to modern equality between the sexes, hated the army with a passion.
"I can't tell you how
it felt," she said, "being in the thick of battle and splitting
God, I never thought I could be so bloodthirsty, but after all that I'd been through..."
Lucas grinned. "I hope you got it all out of your system."
"Not quite," she said, smiling. "But don't worry, you're safe enough. I'll buy the next round. What do you say we get good and drunk?"
"No time like the present," Lucas said, and they both laughed at the old army in-joke.
For a soldier between hitches, getting drunk was almost a necessity. It was a way of coming down, of slowing down. Even if the drinking was pursued to the point where it was impossible to move, the army was very understanding. Each soldier wore dogtags color coded with the grid designation of their next departure point. Shuttles made periodic checks of all the bars. The M.P.s simply dumped insensible soldiers in the back along with all their gear, delivered them to the appropriate grid, threw them on the chronoplates and clocked them out.
Every soldier knew that there was nothing like a chrono-plate to induce sobriety. Somewhere in the maelstrom of nonspecific time, what the enlisted personnel called the dead zone, there was an awful lot of vomit floating around. Clocking out made most people very sick. Eventually, most soldiers got used to it enough so that they could hang on to their food at least some of the time, but most people still barfed upon transition. It was yet another glamorous aspect of time travel in the army. Occasionally, people would get lost coming through and would become stranded in the limbo of the dead zone. No one ever talked about it. There was at least one good thing that Lucas could say about the army. The booze was cheap and it was excellent. It was possible to order literally anything. He had once been a vodka drinker, but he had developed a preference for mulled ale, a taste he had picked up in the Middle Ages.
Jesse drank unblended scotch.
An army bar was never very noisy. There was an undertone of conversation, but there was never any music and rarely any shouting, no matter how drunk anyone became. Soldiers were never together for very long and chances were that when they separated, to go their different ways, they would never see each other again. Lucas and Jesse sat in their tiny booth, holding hands across the table. There wasn't anything romantic in it. Physical contact of some sort was important to soldiers. When, in the next few minutes, they could be called away to ancient Rome or to the Six Day War in the 20th century, it seemed important to reach out and touch someone, to be reassured of their reality.
"Do you ever wish that you could figure it all out?" said Jesse. She was already slightly drunk. "I mean, I'm getting tired of being just a button for the refs to push. Hell, I've never even seen a ref. Back there in Russia, in the middle of the goddam battle, would you believe it, I started thinking: if I live through this, just how does that affect the point spread? How does it really work? Why am I doing this? I would've thought that just trying to stay alive would have been enough to occupy all my attention."
Lucas had nodded, understanding completely. Jesse was still green and it was all new to her.
"Believe it or not," he told her, "you'll get used to it. There will come a time when you stop thinking about it altogether. It won't make any difference whether or not your part in the action has any effect on the resolution of some trade agreement or international incident a thousand years away. I like to think it makes a difference, that what I'm doing really counts for something, but I don't dwell on it. Sometimes it's best just to go on automatic pilot. Try to stay alive. Nothing else matters very much. It's strange, the sort of things that can go through your mind in the middle of a battle. You can't really control it. The best thing to do is try and put everything out of your mind. Just be empty. Don't think about the outcome.
Otherwise ..." He let it hang.
"Yeah," said Jesse, staring into her drink. "Ours is not to reason why, is that it?"
"Don't try to work it out, Jesse. It'll make you drop your guard."
"Thanks. I'll remember that." She sipped her scotch. "They tell you where you're clocking out to?"
"The Punic Wars."
"Oh. That could be pretty rough."
Lucas shrugged. "I'm about due for it, I guess. Knocking off Custer's 7th Cavalry was a piece of cake. The Sioux had a wild celebration afterward, in honor of Yellowhair's demise. It was an easy hitch.
I figure I'm due for a tough one."
"I hate the waiting," Jesse said.
There wasn't much that he could say to that. It was something that all soldiers felt at one time or another. Not the waiting to clock out, but the waiting for that one unlucky moment that turns out to be your last.
There were soldiers all around them, some in the disposable transit fatigues, others already in uniform as Hessians, Huns, Centurions, Green Berets and Vikings. Nothing about the year 2613 seemed very real. They belonged to it, but it didn't feel like home, more like a part of some alcoholic dream. They spent another five minutes together before Lucas heard his code called over the P.A. They looked at each other, probably for the last time, and he left her sitting there, staring into her scotch and swirling the ice cubes around so that they tinkled against the glass.
Scipio sent his archers forward, regrouped his forces and they struck again. As he had advised Jesse, Lucas went on automatic pilot, phasing out his brain and fighting like an automaton. He was drained of everything. Drained of energy, drained of spirit, drained even of fear. When he finally came out of it, he was astonished to discover that he was still alive. Scipio had won.
When the pickup squad made contact, he was still in a daze. He heard the tone inside his head—as they signaled him via his implant from somewhere close by—and he slipped away at the earliest opportunity. They tracked him and he was picked up by three men in Roman garb. He clocked back to the present, battered, weak and exhausted. He felt empty. He was back in the year 2613 and none of it felt right. The soldiers were sitting around in the departure station, waiting for their codes to be called.