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Home Fires
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Home Fires

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Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor, 2011
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Mind Uploading
Military SF
Near-Future
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Synopsis

Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person-while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires.


Excerpt

1

GREETINGS

"It won't be long," she promised.

"Not for you," Skip said. "A thousand years for me." Chelle smiled, and all heaven was in her smile.

* * *

Then he was looking down at his hands, and they were wrinkled and old. He stood before a mirror, but there was a mist between them that veiled his face from its own eyes. He raised his hand to push the mist away, knowing that his hand shook, knowing that horror waited beyond the mist.

He woke, sweating and trembling in his narrow bed, rose and went to the washbasin, poured water from the pitcher there into the bowl. The water smelled a little like sewage, but it felt cool and refreshing.

He soaked the cloth again, scrubbed his sweating face a second time. It was only a dream.

Only a dream.

In his dream he had gotten a yellow autoprint that had said she was back and he had been back too, back to the day she left. They had kissed ...

That had been the dream. What had really happened?

He got a water bottle, filled his mug, and decanted this purer water into his teakettle. His striker lit the gas.

They had contracted. He remembered that, and it was no dream. Just before she had left, they had contracted. Together they had registered the contract. How romantic it had seemed!

"You'll have twenty years to devote to your career..." Chelle was lovely when she smiled. "We'll be rich when I get back, and you'll have a young contracta."

And he was rich, but she would (in all probability) never return to him. Now ...

He looked at himself in the mirror, and saw that he needed to shave and that much of his stubble was white. His hair was gray at the temples, too, and through the doorway--what was that beside the screen?

Yellow paper, of course. He always used yellow for client copies. They were so frightened ... He smiled to himself.

Always so frightened, though they tried (most of them) not to show it. Part of his job was to reassure them, and so there had been yellow paper in the printer.

Something seized him, and he stepped away from the mirror, trembling.

Five hundred. His watch, picked up from its place on the floor beneath his bed, read zero five zero six. His autocall would not come for more than an hour. He could go back to bed, go back to sleep.

He shuddered.

Shave. He would shave instead. Shave, clean up, get dressed, go out and get breakfast.

He went to the window. Magnificent! The view always inspired him. The window would not open, of course. Here, just below the penthouse, the wind would be savage.

Savage and cold.

For the first time it struck him that he could have it replaced with one that would open. He could have a floor-to-ceiling window that would open at the touch of a button. The cost would be trifling and tax-deductible. With a bit of creative accounting ...

Trifling for him.

It would be foolish of course. No one would really want such a thing, and he would never do it. But he could.

Boswash, NAU, was waking. From horizon to horizon, lights sparked into being in the tiny windows of lofty structures that were, for the most part, less lofty than his.

That yellow page. The Weyer murder?

He shook his head.

Shaving occupied the next eight minutes. Preshave, shave, aftershave. Good! He had gotten everything done before the power began to flicker, although his shaver could be plugged into the backup if necessary.

He folded the yellow sheet without looking at it and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Breakfast first, he told himself. Business afterward.

And realized, almost with a start, that he had been lying to himself. He knew what was on the yellow paper.

No. He sipped fragrant tea. That had been the dream. His tea was supposed to smell like tea roses; the knowledge planted a garden in his mind: huge bushes with dark green foliage and cupped pink flowers. Or red. Or white. A fountain in the middle, one in which pure water flowed without letup. The subtropics. There would be places there with gardens like that.

Beyond another window, almost out of sight, wet and heavy snow was falling into the sea.

* * *

The penthouse had a private elevator that stopped for no other floor. He smiled to himself as he waited for wide bronze doors to slide back, remembering what the penthouse rented for. This elevator--his own elevator--served the upper fifty floors, but on this trip it would stop for none of them.

The street was cold and dark, as was to be expected. Filthy, too, like all streets, though the snow had arrived to cover its filth. Despite his firm rule against giving to beggars, he rubbed the hump of a pathetic hunchback and gave him five noras. There were only two others out so early. So early, in cold and falling snow. A flourish of his walking stick sent them scuttling back to their places.

A block and a half brought him to Carrera's. He sat, and waved a waitress over.

"The usual, Mr. Grison?"

He nodded, holding out the yellow paper. "I need a favor, Aleta. Will you read this to me? It's pretty short."

"Sure, Mr. Grison. Forget your glasses?"

"No. I've read it. I need to hear someone else read it." He nearly said, "I need to have it made real," but he did not.

"Okay." The waitress cleared her throat. "It says, 'Greetings. You have contracted with Mastergunner Chelle Sea Blue.' I didn't know you had contracted with anybody, Mr. Grison."

"The rest, please."

" 'In accordance with the law, you are hereby notified by Mustprint that Mastergunner Blue is being returned from outsystem. Mastergunner Blue will receive one year and forty-one days of accumulated leave after processing and debriefing.' Wow! She must have been gone quite a while."

Skip nodded. "By Earth-time she was."

" 'Mastergunner Blue is scheduled to arrive by shuttle at Canam Port day one-eighty.' " The waitress glanced at her watch. "That's this coming Saturday, Mr. Grison."

"Yes. It is. You don't have to read the rest."

"It says she may've been affected by her experiences--"

"I know what it says."

"And you'll have to make allowances for her." The waitress paused. When Skip did not speak, she said, "Would you like to see a menu?"

He was still smiling at her remark as he poured honey on his buckwheat cakes. Yes, he would love to see a menu. Better yet, a psychological profile....

Which might actually be possible.

It was oh seven thirty-five when he left Carrera's, and oh seven forty-seven when he entered the Union Day Building. The offices of Burton, Grison, and Ibarra were still empty and silent, lit by a single dim fixture.

Once seated in his office, he read headlines on his screen: ANOTHER SUICIDE RING UNCOVERED--NEW ENERGY CONTROLS--SHIPS SEIZED AS CHAOS IN NORTHERN SAU WORSENS. The third made him grin; last week, the same news service had called the chaos total.

Still grinning, he posted a message to All: he would be gone for a week, and perhaps longer. If return by day one eighty-eight (or sooner) should prove impossible, he would notify them.

Next an order to Research: "Obtain psych. profile Mastergunner C. S. Blue; call me at once.--S.W.G."

After that, he assigned Mick Tooley to baby-sit the jewelry wholesaler case and the cyborg murder--the cases he had been handling personally. Tooley was to call him when necessary, but only when necessary.

What else?

Susan had tidied up his desk, and he had done little to disturb it. The wall safe yielded five thousand noras--more than sufficient, he decided, for emergencies requiring cash. A thousand for his wallet, and four thousand more for his briefcase.

From the doorway, Susan inquired, "Mr. Grison?"

He closed the safe.

"I just wanted to let you know I'm here if you need me. You beat me in this morning."

"I do. I was about to write you a note. I want a first-class compartment on a Bullet for Canam. Depart before twenty tonight."

"Yes, sir."

"I want a suite, one night, at the best hotel near the port. That's for the day after tomorrow."

"Yes, sir. Hypersuite?"

"If you can get one." He paused. "If you can't get a suite of any kind, then the best room you can get. Call me when you've got both, but not before. I'm leaving now. I want to get out before somebody ambushes me with something. Let Mick handle it, whatever it is."

"If there are several trains...?"

"Nothing before noon--I've got to pack. The first one after that."

He was ready to go, but she whispered, "I'll miss you, Mr. Grison." Already feeling the pangs of treachery, he gave her a quick kiss.

Dianne, his secretary's assistant, greeted him with a bright smile and a cheerful hello as he left his office. Skip reflected that Susan would have work for her. As for him, he would have work for himself.

A doorman touched the bill of his cap. "Lester told me you were out early, Mr. Grison."

If he had made any reply at all, he had forgotten it by the time he reached his apartment.

ANSWERS might or might not be of help. He touched VOICE. "Gifts for returning servicewoman."

"Price?"

"Ten thousand and up."

"Age?"

Chelle's subjective age would have gone up by two years and what? A hundred-day or so. "Twenty-five."

"Designer dresses and suits, jewelry, small red car, total makeover."

Copyright © 2011 by Gene Wolfe


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